At the height of the South’s pre-Civil War prosperity, the Arkansas Delta was teeming with plantation homes. Today, Lakeport Plantation is Arkansas’ only plantation house on the Mississippi River.
A number of factors have made Lakeport Plantation immune to a similar fate, according to Hawkins.
“In fact, that’s one of the reasons it’s so significant: Not the fact that it’s the last one in Arkansas, but that it remains pretty much the way it was built in 1859.”
The 8,000-square-foot Greek Revival-style house is characterized by accents such as monumental columns and big pediments. It also boasts striking proportions; many of the doors stand 11 feet tall.
According to Hawkins, Joel Johnson was the patriarch of one of Kentucky’s most prominent families and was related to a U.S. congressman, a federal judge, the Confederate governor of Kentucky and Martin Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson. In 1831, Johnson moved his family to Chicot County and, with the help of 23 slaves, cleared his swampy, forested land to make way for a cotton plantation. Johnson also proved instrumental in Arkansas’ passage into statehood, and he and his kinsmen became known throughout Arkansas as “The Family.”
In 1859, Joel Johnson’s son, Lycurgus, and his wife, Lydia, built Lakeport Plantation house. Their youngest son, Victor, and his family were living in the house in 1914, when Victor Johnson decided to move across the river to Greenville, Miss., where his children could receive better schooling. More than 10 years later, the Johnsons sold Lakeport Plantation to Sam Epstein.
For the next 45 years, the Epsteins never lived on the farm, choosing to have a farm manager live in the house and oversee the plantation, which has been in constant cotton production since Joel Johnson arrived in 1831. In 1972, the Epsteins’ farm manager moved into his own place, a move that set Lakeport Plantation on a slow but steady decline into disrepair.
Hawkins says that by the early ’80s, right around the time that architect Witsell made his trek to Lakeport Plantation, the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program had become “very concerned” about the house. They fixed the roof and made other relatively minor repairs in an attempt to halt further deterioration, but the house continued to “go downhill,” she says.
By 2001, Lakeport Plantation had been vacant for almost 30 years. The Epstein-Angel family donated the plantation house to ASU, and the university immediately started making plans to save it.
The university soon secured grant money from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Save America’s Treasures program through the National Park Service, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Witsell says the restoration team decided on a multi-phase “long-range master plan” for the house.
The first step, he says, involved archeological research to prevent damaging walkways, drainage systems and cisterns during construction, as well as repairing and replacing structural elements and exterior surfaces such as the foundation, siding and wood-shingle roof.
Plumbing and wiring came next. Witsell says installing a fire sprinkler system was a top priority since many plantation homes had been lost to fire. Facilities manager Ronnie Walker devised a plan to hide electrical sockets in floorboards and baseboards, where they could be found only with a magnet. Hawkins says proper humidity and temperature control are important to any old house, but the team was wary of “modern intrusions.”
“We didn’t want vents, and we didn’t want it to be noisy,” she says.
The team’s solution proved to be one of the greatest triumphs of the restoration process — and one that Hawkins says will be used as a model for preservationists across the country.
The team rebuilt a smokehouse that they knew once stood in the backyard and used it to house the heating, cooling, humidity, security and sprinkler systems.
“The neat thing is if you’re walking over to the smokehouse, it doesn’t look like a modern mechanical room,” Witsell says. “But you open the door, and suddenly, it’s the 20th century.”
To preserve the house’s mid-19th century appearance, the team tunneled the systems from the smokehouse to the main house. Visitors looking for air-conditioning vents won’t be able to find them; the ductwork is located in the chimneys’ fire boxes and can be seen only if one kneels on the floor.
Becky Witsell, Charles Witsell’s wife, became interested in historic painting in the 1970s when the couple purchased a historic home in Little Rock. It had faux wood grain and marble finishes that needed to be restored. With the help of a painter living in Little Rock, Becky Witsell learned how to restore the finishes herself. Now, with more than 30 years’ experience in the field, she is able to contribute her expertise to the Lakeport Plantation house project.
One of Becky Witsell’s earliest responsibilities was determining the original paint colors of the house’s interior and exterior surfaces. Using a scalpel, she carefully collected small, thumbnail-sized samples of original paint and, after a preliminary examination of each one, sent them to specialist Frank Welsh in Brenmar, Penn., for microscopic analysis.
Becky Witsell says that with color-corrected light and a high magnification microscope, Welsh was able to identify and recreate the paint color originally used on every surface of the house.
Becky Witsell and her historic painting team also spent countless hours restoring and, in some cases, recreating the faux marble and wood grain on the original mantles and doors. One of the most exciting accomplishments, however, was the discovery and restoration of the floor cloth originally located in the main entryway.
“Even though it had been painted over and had many layers of varnish on top of it and looked to be completely black, it was still in tact and on the floor,” Becky Witsell says. “There are very few even small samples of floor cloths from that period.”
A year ago in September, Lakeport Plantation reopened to the public to much fanfare. But that doesn’t mean that the restoration is over. Charles Witsell says the restoration team hopes eventually to recreate some of the outbuildings, which included slaves’ quarters and a barn.
The team also hopes Lakeport Plantation house will serve as more than just an example of pristine antebellum architecture. Hawkins says students in ASU’s Heritage Studies program are gathering oral histories, photographs and letters from descendants of Lakeport Plantation owners, slaves and sharecroppers, and will use the house as a museum to present their findings to the public.
“Many of [Lakeport Plantation’s] enslaved laborers remained after the Civil War as tenant farmers, and many of their descendants are in the region today,” Hawkins says. “We think this gives us a wonderful opportunity to give the whole revolution of the African American agricultural heritage of the region. It’s a way to focus on the lives of the people who lived and worked on that plantation.”
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