The Baby Doll House Reborn

By admin  |  August 21, 2012  | 

Having survived war, natural disasters and neglect, Bolivar’s County last antebellum home, forever famous as the set of the 1956 film, “Baby Doll,” has alas been beautifully restored, ready for its next act

By Maude Schuyler Clay

In 1857 Bolivar County was almost a complete wilderness and primordial forest:  summertime a wall of living green, towering up into the heavens; autumn displaying all the colors that nature provides to delight the eye of man; and sometimes in winter each bare limb covered with ice and millions of prismatic gems, glistened in the sunlight. Our woods were then filled with every variety of game native to the country: black bear, some of which weighed more than 600 pounds; deer, turkey, otter, beaver; panther; and great timberwolves, some grey and some black, which at times made night hideous with their howling near our premises.

John Crawford Burrus wrote these words in 1923 near the end of his life. He was born in 1847 in the then “wilderness” of Bolivar County, Mississippi, at which time there were no roads and the main sources of all transportation were the steamboats and flatboats traversing the Mississippi River. In 1859, his father Judge John Crawford Burrus, Sr. had built a large house at Egypt Ridge on his Hollywood Plantation. The Greek Revival house was simple—a rectangular two-story box with columns, side galleries, and a separate kitchen. It was only unusual in that its second floor gallery lacked a balcony.

Eustace Winn IV, the currant caretaker, restoration expert, and descendant of J.C. Burrus says the family moved into the house in 1861 and was awaiting the final touch—the second story wrought iron balcony from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Mississippi was drawn into the conflict that became the Civil War, and the balcony never arrived.

It has also been written that the reason the house survived the war is because Judge Burrus had known the invading Federal officer when they both attended the University of Virginia. The house was also used as a hospital during the war. The financial toll of the war affected everyone, including the Burruses. There is a story that John Wilkes Booth spent ten days in the Burrus House after shooting President Lincoln, but some assume it is of the “Washington slept here” variety. John Burrus  did speak of taking in a mysterious “handsome, morose” stranger whose leg was crippled (Booth’s leg was injured when he fell from the stage after shooting Lincoln). In John C. Burrus’s diary, which relates that he would “not take the oath of the Union until many, many years after The War of Northern Aggression ended, when I was elected a member of the Board of Supervisors of Bolivar County, in 1890,” there may be some truth to this rumor. John Burrus, Jr. died in 1928, and was the last Burrus family member to live in the house. After a succession of renters and vandals, lack of funding, a.k.a.“deferred maintenance,” combined with the relentless elements, the house began its descent into a state of almost-irreversible decline.

The moment of possibility for reversing the fate of The Burrus House came in 1956, almost 100 years after the house was built. Richard Sylbert, a well-known and respected set designer in Hollywood, was asked to find a suitable “decadent southern” location for the Elia Kazan film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, “27 Wagon Loads of Cotton.” Sylbert and his location scouts [including Greenville’s Ben Wasson, see Recollections], found the Burrus House. He told Kazan that they would have to spend “ten times as much money” to recreate on a studio set what was already the “perfect” setting he had stumbled upon: the Burrus House near Benoit, Mississippi.

The film was “Baby Doll” and was to star Karl Malden, steamy Carroll Baker (Marilyn Monroe also wanted to play the part), Eli Wallach, the great stage actress Mildred Dunnock, and a young Rip Torn. Sylbert writes that they structurally “restored” the house, mainly by repairing the floors and roof and a few plaster walls, only enough to be able to safely make the film. They wanted to show the condition that the house was really in—Depression-era and falling down—as per Tennessee Williams’ lurid tale of a desperate middle-aged Mississippi Delta cotton farmer (Malden) and his fetching but reluctant-to-consummate-the-marriage teenage bride (Baker). Of course there was a younger, sexy Sicilian “interloper” and rival (Wallach) wooing the bride.

When the movie came out, the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned it, and Time Magazine said that it was “just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.” Because of this, “Baby Doll” was quite a successful movie. But long after the filmmakers had packed up and left Hollywood Plantation, Mississippi, and gone back to Hollywood, California, locals and tourists alike made pilgrimages to “The Baby Doll House” and actually took away pieces of the dilapidated house. The woodwork, the mantels and the banisters eventually disappeared as souvenirs. The final indignity was a tornado, which left the roof with several gaping holes, letting in even more of the ruthless elements.

The home’s  heirs, who were in possession of the house through their relation to J.C. Burrus, Jr., tried to have the house restored in 1974 when they deeded it to the Bolivar County Historical Society. Some restoration work was done, but again, due to the overwhelming cost of repairing the cumulative damage of neglect, vandalism, and weather, the house fell into a state of disrepair. In 2005, with the threat of the house truly being lost to history and the elements, Dr. Eustace H. Winn, Jr. started The Burrus Foundation and donated the house to the Foundation. Only then were the plans for massive renovation and restoration able to be carried out.

To see the house today is a marvel. I had last seen it when I photographed it in 2001 for the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s “Ten Most Endangered Sites.” The Mississippi Heritage Trust was attempting to call attention to and raise the architectural and preservation community’s awareness about the decrepitude of the “last surviving antebellum house in Bolivar County” before the house was completely gone. With the final work on the Burrus House completed around June of 2012, the house is ready be rented for special occasions and events. However, the house is not open to the public, but tours are available by appointment. Eustace H. Winn IV, proprietor of Hollywood Plantation LLC, lives on the property. He and other family members have worked long and hard to bring the house to its present state of restored grandeur. The baseboards, trim, and original hardwood heart pine floors have been preserved, and the vintage mantels and black walnut stairwell, crafted in Canton, and chandeliers are beautifully replicated to the period. All the plaster walls were replaced and the paint colors, Georgian green, Dover White, University Grey, and Odessia Pink, were matched to samples taken from the original plaster; all the trim is alabaster white. One interesting note is that a lot of the original details for replicating the trim,  columns and shutters were meticulously scoured from watching the 1954 “Baby Doll” film. The current set of columns was made of redwood in Washington State.

The back porch was rebuilt, as well as the brick patio. The original kitchen, which was always detached from the main house to avoid fires, was built in the exact spot. Before 1900 the detached kitchen burned down.

Several weddings and parties have already been held there, and Eustace is currently expanding on his website, which provides all the details about the house, the foundation, and the rental opportunities. Eustace seems to share his ancestor J.C. Burrus’s vision of the house that was built on Egypt Ridge before the Civil War, and of John Crawford Burrus, Jr.’s, love of the now-modern Delta as evident in this 1923 passage:

When I reflect on the marvelous changes that have taken place since I was a boy; how our cane trails have been superseded by broad gravel and concrete roads; our primitive conveyances, by Pullman cars and automobiles; our vast cane brakes, by cultivated plantations; our messenger on horseback, by telephone; our candles, by electric lights; in fact the impossible of the past, by the possible of the present; I realize that progress is the eternal law of Nature.

The “progress” in the case of the Burrus House is that it has miraculously been saved, thus preserving a beautiful and important part of the architectural history of Mississippi. The Burrus House itself, for now anyway, could be deemed an “eternal law of nature.” DM

For information on the Burrus House, see hollywoodplantation.com.

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