The J.C. Burrus house, located on the outskirts of Benoit, Mississippi is the last surviving high-style Greek revival home in Bolivar County and it has managed to survive in spite of its harsh treatment by the elements, vandals and neglect. I discovered this house in a somewhat unconventional way a few years back on a late night when I couldn’t sleep and decided to check out what was playing on Turner Classic Movies. They were doing a tribute to Hollywood director Eliah Kazan and were about to feature his cult classic movie, “Baby Doll” and I decided to go along for the ride. It was an interesting film about a middle aged plantation owner (Karl Malden) married to a very young woman (Carol Baker) who is being pursued by a local cotton gin owner (Eli Wallach). Wallach’s character is looking to settle a score with Malden’s character by taking from him the one thing he treasures-his wife. In the movie, Malden’s character may own the “finest plantation in the county” but he is definitely dwelling on the distant past. The majority of the movie is set in a dilapidated, crumbling Greek revival mansion that visibly had seen better times. The moral decay pictured in the movie is echoed by physical decay of this once-grand home and as the movie played out, I studied the architectural details of the house. I was amazed that they had done such a masterful job on set design and it convinced me that it might have been an actual location shoot. A Google search confirmed my theory and I found that it had been an actual house located near the town of Benoit, Mississippi; in fact, many of the characters in the movie who provided background were actual citizens of the town cast as extras.
Since the movie was filmed in the black and white era of the 1950’s, (see photo from the actual movie above) I felt pretty certain that the house was no longer in existence-after all, it was pretty sad looking fifty years ago and unless a miracle had happened, an extra half century could not have improved it at all. Much to my surprise, I found out that it was still standing, somehow, but its condition was deplorable now. Through my research, I learned that pleas in area newsletters, historic preservation groups and other articles for someone-anyone-to save the house had apparently fallen on deaf ears as most people felt the house was too far gone to save and few people had the money to invest in doing it. Beyond that, there really wasn’t much information out there to put a story together on it. I put it on my watch list and every now and then, a trickle of information would come in about it-maybe a blogger who had made a detour out of a trip to find it and see how it was faring. The news was never good though and I expected at any time to see an article that the house had been burned by vandals, bulldozed by landowners wanting to rid themselves of a potential liability or that it had finally just fallen in on its own.
Judge Burrus built his beautiful home just before the outbreak of the Civil War; in fact, it has been speculated on as to whether he ever actually completed the house or not before the war broke out. The house was built in the typical layout of the time, essentially a large rectangular box bisected with a central hallway on both floors running from the front to the rear of the house, with two rooms on side of the hallways; four rooms downstairs, four bedrooms upstairs, with a kitchen connected to the house in a separate building. On the second floor, the central hall has a front door and a rear door that open up to….nothing. This supports the theory of it never having been completely finished because throughout its existence, there have been missing elements from the house that were planned for but never put in place, such as a balcony on the front side and a two story porch on the rear. The upper hall doors would have opened up on these but it appears they were left off, either due to the outbreak of war, lack of materials during the war and probably the lack of financial resources afterwards. The house was used as a hospital during the war, which no doubt took a toll on it and after the war, the Burrus family was no better off than anyone else; poverty was everywhere.
The last of the Burrus family members to live in the house moved out in 1914, after which, a succession of renters moved in and out in the decades that followed. In the 1930’s the house was photographed for the Historic American Buildings Survey. The high resolution black and white photographs show the house in a state of decline even then but it would not have taken a lot to bring it back to pristine condition, which is a testimony to the quality of its construction. The photograph of the rear shows the incompleteness of the house without the back porch that it was meant to have; the front, less so as the upper door is not as prominent due to the massive pediment that spans the width of the house. Ornamental details like dentils on the entablature and pediment were a nice extra touch that speaks to the grandeur of the house, although here there are obvious signs of damage in places. The columns also have noticeable holes in them, which was frequently a problem in the south when the paint wore off and left the bare wood exposed because the woodpeckers would then move in. Still, at this point the house was stable and intact and a few thousand dollars would have made all the difference in the world….the only problem was that now a depression was on and a thousand dollars may as well have been a million.
In the 1950’s, location scouts for “Baby Doll” were on the lookout for a suitable plantation mansion that fit the state of decrepitude that movie called for. The Burrus House by then was considered to be in total disrepair; the house was leaning, some columns had fallen and vandals had done considerable damage to the interior plaster and fittings. Most of the staircase was gone and the attached kitchen wing was facing imminent structural failure. In every way, the house was in far worse condition than the movie company was looking for but the location had advantages as well so the movie company promised the owners of the abandoned house that they would restore it for the film and in many ways they did, but not completely…they restored it “just to the condition called for in the film”. The foundation was lifted and the house was straightened properly and the columns replaced and put back. Inside, plaster and windows were repaired as the movie called for but only to a limited degree and in rooms that were not featured in the film, no repair to plaster walls was made at all. The staircase for the house was completely rebuilt, using parts that were found in the yard to replicate pieces and the roof was patched…and that was about all. In effect, the house did not undergo a renovation or a restoration….it underwent a stabilization and little else. Still, stabilization was better than nothing at all and it cannot be doubted that had it not been stabilized, it would have likely collapsed within a few years.
The tradeoff, however, was that once the highly controversial film aired (it was banned in many towns), fans journeyed to the old home and began to take pieces of the house as souvenirs, further adding to the damage. This deterioration continued on and off. Occasionally, there were a few half-hearted attempted at restoring it which usually just amounted to some repairs and then more neglect. As settling occurred, the house would lose a column or a roof piece here and there and eventually the kitchen wing was allowed to fail and collapse. It began to seem that the house that had withstood so many years, harsh elements and the incursions of people was destined for oblivion….but then, people began to take notice and wonder ….why couldn’t it be saved?
I think the final straw was when a tornado came close by and caused the failure of the portico, which was wrenched off of the house, leaving a gaping hole in the roof. With the attic exposed to the elements, water damage would have finished the job quickly but now people really began to see what was about to be lost. Perhaps it started in small ways, an article here or there, a blurb on the internet, a picture shared and the occasional update…but word got around and finally, a descendent of the original family stepped in, did a serious evaluation and decided to save it. The house was again stabilized; the damaged roof removed and completely covered in tin and the windows sealed shut to protect the house from further damage by the elements. Plans for a renovation began and over time, little by little, it began to look like a proper plantation mansion again. Exterior walls were repaired and properly repainted; trim work was repaired or replicated, the foundation was rebuilt and the massive portico was reproduced in perfect detail, complete with six brand new redwood columns. Interior renovations have been ongoing.
In many ways, the Burrus House, also known as the “Baby Doll House” and “Hollywood Plantation” looks better today than it has ever looked because the new owner has not only worked to restore the house to its original grandeur but has even finished elements that were never completed, such as the massive two story back porch that adds a new scale to the house. Many plantation mansions looked much bigger than they truly were due to the presence of porches, columns and porticos that embellished the houses that they surrounded and the Burrus home is no exception. It is, once again, an architectural jewel that can finally show the world its true beauty. I hope it will become a popular showplace and can generate funds to go towards its upkeep because after 150 years of struggle to make it this far, it deserves a chance to thrive once again.