Time and Tide: Restoration of the Charnley-Norwood House

This post is part of an ongoing series, “Time and Tide: Ten Years after Katrina.” Special thanks to Ken P’Pool, Historic Preservation Division, for writing this post.

One of the largest and most important projects undertaken by MDAH through the Hurricane Relief Grant Program for Historic Preservation was the restoration of the Charnley-Norwood House (also known as Bon Silene) in Ocean Springs.  Designed by two of America’s most important architects, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, it is one of the most significant and influential houses in American architectural history.

Seeking needed rest after completing his Chicago Auditorium Building in 1890, architect Louis Sullivan, “father of the skyscraper,” discovered and fell in love with Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Captivated by the Coast’s natural beauty, he designed adjacent gulf-side retreats for himself and his friend James Charnley, a wealthy Chicago lumber merchant. Constructed of local yellow pine, both houses were early design collaborations of Sullivan and his young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Charnleys, satisfied with their Gulf retreat, soon commissioned Sullivan to design their Chicago home (Charnley-Persky House), which owes much of its modern design to Sullivan and Wright’s innovations in Ocean Springs. In 1896 Charnley sold his Gulf retreat to another Chicago lumberman, Fredrick Norwood. The Norwoods named the estate Bon Silene for the beautiful and fragrant French roses that dominated their extensive gardens.

What makes the Charnley-Norwood House (CNH) significant architecturally is its place at the forefront of Modern Architecture. Compared to its contemporaries, it exhibits a degree of functionality and austerity not witnessed before in residential architecture. In an era filled with eclectic houses, neoclassical mansions, and vernacular cottages, CNH offered a clear purpose, aesthetic, and functional layout that is not subsumed under a classicist or Victorian façade. Here, the verticality, complex floor plans and florid details of Victorian architecture are supplanted by horizontality, continuous spatial flow, simple natural materials, and expanses of glass that erase the barriers between inside and out — all building forms that would become hallmarks of modern architecture. The design of CNH embodies the nexus of ideas that would powerfully reshape not only American but international residential architecture in the 20th century. The house is quite likely the first Modernist house ever.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina destroyed Sullivan’s house and badly damaged the Charnley-Norwood House.  A 30-foot tidal surge moved CNH off its foundations, collapsing the east wing walls and roof.  MDAH staff and volunteers salvaged thousands of pieces of debris strewn across the site, carefully identifying and storing them for reuse in the restoration. The property’s elderly owners died soon after Katrina; their daughter intended to have the house demolished. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, and the Mississippi Heritage Trust aided MDAH in a valiant effort to halt the demolition.

After emergency stabilization in 2009, MDAH staff and John G. Waite Associates Architects of Albany, New York, prepared a historic structure report and landscape history, while architectural conservator George Fore conducted detailed analysis of the historic finishes. These reports thoroughly document the house’s original design and construction. Although CNH was known as a Sullivan/Wright design prior to Katrina, this in-depth research revealed the house’s pivotal role in the evolution of Sullivan and Wright’s work. Moreover, despite many changes of ownership and damage by Katrina, the house was remarkably intact. In 2011 the property was acquired by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, and MDAH initiated restoration. Work was completed in 2014 to the highest standard of conservation practices, restoring the house to its c.1900 appearance, as documented by physical evidence and early photos.

Because of the heroic preservation struggle and painstaking restoration, this early residential design by Sullivan and Wright—perhaps the premiere physical testimony to their design ideas that transformed American residential architecture—can still be experienced and studied by architects, students, and historians. It survives as an invaluable asset to America’s architectural heritage and example of the power of preservation partnerships.

Contact Rhonda Price at the Department of Marine Resources (228-523-4150) for tour information.