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.


Time and Tide: Bright Spots of the Recovery

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.

Katrina’s destructive path was enormous. So many architectural “jewels” were lost and the homes of so many friends were destroyed that the mammoth task of recovery frequently seemed overwhelming for MDAH staff members and homeowners alike.

One of the true bright spots of the entire recovery effort, however, was the encouraging spirit of so many owners of historic buildings. Most were longtime Gulf Coast residents who loved their communities, their neighborhoods, and their ancestral homes and were determined not to surrender their history to a storm. However the challenges seemed insurmountable. Many homeowners felt that their “backs were to the wall.” Not only were their homes unoccupiable, but many had lost their jobs, and insurance companies were denying their claims. While they desperately wanted to save their historic homes, given the then-current financial uncertainties, they were not in a position to make a final decision. The only certain assistance that was being offered to them at that time was from FEMA— to demolish and remove their damaged buildings, even if the buildings could be repaired. If homeowners missed FEMA’s deadlines for submission of a right-of-entry for debris removal and if their insurance failed to pay, then the costs of clean-up would be on the owners’ shoulders—and that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Many people made heart-rending tearful appeals to us for help in securing more time to make a reasoned decision. Fortunately, in many instances, preservationists were able to help them secure that time.

In 2006, Congress appropriated moneys from the Historic Preservation Fund administered by the National Park Service, which permitted the states of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to establish programs to assist owners of historic buildings damaged by Katrina. The $27.5 million received by MDAH permitted creation of the Mississippi Hurricane Relief Grant Program for Historic Preservation that provided restoration assistance for approximately 300 historic buildings. Ranging from shotgun houses, to craftsman bungalows, to vernacular Creole and Victorian cottages, most of the grant projects were modest owner-occupied houses that constitute the majority of the Gulf Coast’s historic districts. Although not monumental or magnificent in scale, these historic houses speak poignantly to the Gulf Coast’s diverse ethnic and architectural history.

As difficult and trying as the recovery process often was, being able to help families get back into their historic homes and to save a part of their history was most rewarding. Hearing someone say (as they frequently did), “Thanks, we never could have saved our home without this grant assistance,” made all the work worthwhile.


Time and Tide: The Hurricane Relief Grant Program

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.

Katrina created the nation’s largest natural and cultural disaster, damaging or destroying thousands of historic buildings in south Mississippi. As described in earlier posts, MDAH worked closely with our preservation partners from across the state and nation to assess the damage to hundreds of buildings, prepare building stabilization plans for owners, assist in property clean-up, inform citizens of demolition alternatives, and marshal financial resources to aid preservation.

This coalition (particularly the Mississippi Heritage Trust, Mississippi Main Street Association, National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, and National Trust for Historic Preservation) also actively sought and secured grant funding to assist owners of National Register–listed buildings restore their properties, rather than demolish them. We secured state grants of $5.5 million from the Community Heritage Preservation Grant Program and federal grants of $27.5 million from the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund. The latter program received strong support from Mississippi’s congressional delegation and represented the first time that Congress had authorized historic preservation funds for use in restoring privately owned historic properties damaged by a catastrophic storm.


The Mississippi Hurricane Relief Grant Program for Historic Preservation, which was created with these funds, assisted citizens, local governments, and non-profit organizations to preserve approximately 300 hurricane-damaged historic buildings significant in defining the unique architectural character and heritage of their communities. More than 4,000 construction jobs were generated in the process. While some of the grants assisted in restoring magnificent 19th- and early-20th-century mansions, such as the Schaeffer House in Pass Christian and the Swetman House in Biloxi, most of the grant funds were utilized to rehabilitate small cottages and modest owner-occupied houses listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, such as those in Gulfport’s Turkey Creek Historic District and in Bay St. Louis’s historic districts.

However, the program also assisted in preserving and restoring a number of public and institutional landmarks that are icons of the region’s rich history. The grant funds were often used to match or leverage moneys from FEMA, CDBG, and other private and public funding sources to restore important historic landmarks, such as:

  • Beauvoir in Biloxi
  • Bond-Grant House (Biloxi Main Street Program Headquarters)
  • Old Biloxi Library
  • Historic Carnegie Library in Gulfport
  • Gulfport City Hall
  • Gulf-Ship Island RR Depot in Gulfport
  • Rectitude Masonic Lodge in Gulfport
  • Soria City Masonic Lodge in Gulfport
  • Randolph School in Pass Christian
  • Hancock County Courthouse
  • Bay St. Louis Little Theatre (the historic Scafide Building)
  • 100 Men Association Building in Bay St. Louis
  • Magnolia State Supply Co. Building in Bay St. Louis
  • Waveland Civic Center (the Old Waveland School)
  • Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center, Ocean Springs
  • Walter Anderson Mural at the Ocean Springs Community Center
  • Charnley-Norwood House (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), Ocean Springs
  • La Pointe-Krebs House (Old Spanish Fort), Pascagoula
  • Forrest County Courthouse
  • Old Hattiesburg High School
  • Bay Springs Rosenwald School, Forrest County

Time and Tide: Learning from the Storm

This post is part of an ongoing series, “Time and Tide: Ten Years after Katrina.” Special thanks to Preston Everett, Archives and Records Services, for writing this post.

Department assessment teams worked after the storm to help libraries, museums, local governments, and other institutions stabilize their records, books, and artifacts. In the midst of this work, another recovery project was being developed to help people recover their family treasures and assist cultural institutions in conserving and repairing damaged artifacts in their collections.

Art conservation specialist Debbie Hess Norris of the University of Delaware spearheaded the Recovering Collections & Artifacts workshops, which brought conservation experts to Mississippi for a series of free workshops across the state from May through November 2006.

Teams of conservators and conservation graduate students from the Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation led the series. They demonstrated how to assess, stabilize, dry, and clean damaged items ranging from photographs to textiles to furniture.

The workshops were sponsored by the Winterthur Museum and the University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, MDAH, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


Time and Tide: Coastal Records Recovery

This post is part of an ongoing series, “Time and Tide: Ten Years after Katrina.” Special thanks to Preston Everett, Archives and Records Services, for writing this post.

MDAH staff was able to recover some record books and other materials for freezing.  Freezing records stops the growth of mold and mildew, and gives staff time to find the proper conservator.  A freezer truck was rented in Gulfport and arrangements made for a storage freezer in Jackson to hold records from Bay St. Louis City Hall, Waveland City Hall, Secretary of State’s Office, Pass Christian City Hall, Pass Christian Historical Society and the O’hr-Okeefe Museum.  Once the records were stabilized they were sent to a conservator for cleaning and preservation.

Above:  September 15, 2005 Archives and Records Services division assessment teams and other Department employees’ recovered approximately 52 volumes of Bay St. Louis Mayor’s Council Minute Books.

Above:  Ann Frellsen and Bill Hanna clean minute books with a 50/50 alcohol and water solution before placing them in the archives van for transport.