- Southern Splendor: Saving Architectural Treasures of the Old South by Marc R. Matrana, Robin S. Lattimore, and Michael W. Kitchens
Southern Splendor: Saving Architectural Treasures of the Old South surveys an impressive number of plantation museums and venues from nine states and details the various ways that they have been restored. These homes range from famous sites such as Monticello to lesser known homes. Organized by state, the book provides stand-alone narratives that discuss the history of each house and its owners, each site's architectural details, and the methods used to preserve and restore each home. The authors' knowledge of architecture and passion for preservation are evident in these short narratives. Readers looking for these details and lovely photographs will not be disappointed.
The authors' focus, as the title suggests, is solely on the preservation of the homes of the region's elite, and they ably meet their goal to "celebrate restoration and preservation success stories" (p. 368). The book details public and private restorations and provides insight into the talented craftsmen and dedicated individuals at the heart of each initiative. The authors excel in discussing each home's architectural details, the circumstances that have affected each site's physical condition, and the time and expense that has gone into restoring and maintaining these homes.
While the authors' focus is on preservation, their depictions of the antebellum and Civil War era history of each house distract from Southern Splendor's otherwise thoughtful narrative. Though the authors acknowledge that these homes can contribute to "a more balanced view of the region's history," the book does not reflect current scholarship on either the role of enslaved labor in funding, building, and maintaining these homes or the lives of individual enslaved people within these shared spaces (p. 7). When taken as a whole, the historical narratives reflect an earlier vision of an idyllic Old South and an uncritical depiction of slavery. Many of the house narratives, for example, render slavery virtually invisible, only discussing the growing enslaved population as evidence of antebellum wealth. In a section on Homestead House in York County, South Carolina, the authors remark that after the Civil War, "the halcyon days were over" (p. 263). The authors also write that Laura plantation's owner "bought thirty teenage female slaves from New Orleans and brought them to the plantation to have them impregnated. Within a few years, her breeding program resulted in what she called her 'crop of children'" (p. 29). This framing of sexual assault as an example of successful plantation management demonstrates how the narrative would benefit from attention to current slavery studies.
Southern Splendor would better reflect contemporary scholarship and preservation initiatives if the authors had discussed the efforts to restore [End Page 752] enslaved spaces and to interpret enslaved lives alongside those of the elite. Preservationists are scrambling to save the region's remaining slave cabins, which were integral parts of the plantation landscapes at the heart of this book. Many museums also have incorporated discussions of slavery into their interpretations, but, with few exceptions, the authors do not discuss this practice. The discussion of Monticello's architecture, for example, excludes the attached dependencies and the museum's painstaking recreation of Mulberry Row, where enslaved people labored to support the plantation. Discussion of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation's extensive research into and interpretation of the lives of enslaved individuals is also absent.
The authors' expertise in preservation and architecture is evident in this beautifully designed book. But their focus only on elite lives and spaces puts Southern Splendor behind the current scholarship of the era and neglects the work of those who are trying to preserve and interpret a more inclusive history.