What is Antebellum Architecture? Before the War

Is this Architecture worth Saving?

Stanton Hall, Greek Revival style 19th Century antebellum mansion house in Natchez, Mississippi, USA
Stanton Hall, 1859, Natchez, Mississippi. Photo by Tim Graham / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Antebellum architecture refers to the large, elegant mansions—usually plantation homes—built in the American South during the 30 years or so before the American Civil War (1861-1865). Antebellum means "before war" in Latin.

Antebellum is not a particular house style. Rather, it is a time and place in history.

Antebellum Time and Place:

The features we associate with Antebellum architecture were introduced to the American South by Anglo-Americans, outliers who moved into the area after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and during a wave of immigration from Europe.

"Southern" architecture had been characterized by whoever lived on the land—the Spanish, the French, Creole, Native Americans—but this new wave of entrepreneurs began to dominate not only the economy, but also the architecture in the first half of the 19th century.

Great numbers of Europeans seeking economic opportunities emigrated to America after Napolean's defeat and the end of the War of 1812. These immigrants became the merchants and planters of goods to trade, including tobacco, cotton, sugar, and indigo. The great plantations of America's south flourished, largely on the back of a slave labor force. Antebellum architecture is so intertwined with the memory of American slavery that many people believe that these buildings are not worth preserving.

Stanton Hall, for example, was built in 1859 by Frederick Stanton, born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Stanton settled in Natchez, Mississippi to become a wealthy cotton merchant.

The plantation homes of the south, like Stanton Hall built before America's Civil War, expressed wealth and the architectural style of the day.

Typical Characteristics of Antebellum Houses:

Most Antebellum homes are in the Greek Revival or Classical Revival, and sometimes French Colonial and Federal style—grand, symmetrical, and boxy, with center entrances in the front and rear, balconies, and columns or pillars.

This opulent style of architecture was popular throughout the US in the first half of the 19th century. Architectural details include:

  • Hipped or gabled roof
  • Symmetrical façade
  • Evenly-spaced windows
  • Greek pillars and columns
  • Elaborate friezes
  • Balconies
  • Covered porch
  • Central entryway
  • Grand staircase
  • Formal ballroom
  • Cupola

Examples of Antebellum Architecture:

The term "Antebellum" stirs thoughts of Tara, the palatial plantation home featured in in the book and movie Gone with the Wind. From grand, pillared Greek Revival mansions to stately Federal style estates, America's antebellum era architecture reflects the power and idealism of wealthy landowners in the American South, prior to the Civil War. Here are a few examples of Antebellum homes:

This architecture of time and place has served its original purpose, and the question now for these buildings is, "What's next?" Many of these homes were ruined during the Civil War—and later by Hurricane Katrina. After the War, private schools often consumed the properties. Today, many are tourist destinations and some have become part of the hospitality industry.

The question of preservation is every-present for this type of architecture. But, should this part of America's past be saved?

After Katrina: Lost Architecture in Mississippi

New Orleans was not the only area damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm may have made landfall in Louisiana, but its path ripped straight through the length of the state of Mississippi. "Millions of trees were uprooted, snapped or severely damaged," reported the National Weather Service from Jackson. "It was the fallen trees that caused just about all of the structural damage and downed power lines across this region. Hundreds of trees fell onto homes causing minor to major damage."

It's impossible to calculate the full extent of Hurricane Katrina's damages. In addition to the loss of lives, homes, and jobs, towns along America's Gulf Coast lost some of their most valuable cultural resources.

As residents began to clean up the rubble, historians and museum curators began to catalog the destruction.

One example is Beauvoir, a raised cottage built shortly before the Civil War in 1851. It became the final home for Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. The porch and columns were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but the Presidential archives remained safe on the second floor. Other buildings in Mississippi were not so lucky, including these destroyed by the hurricane:

The Robinson-Maloney-Dantzler House (view photo)
Built in Biloxi c. 1849 by English immigrant J.G. Robinson, a wealthy cotton planter, this elegant, columned home had just been refurbished and was about to open as a Mardi Gras Museum.

The Tullis Toledano Manor (view photo)
Constructed in 1856 by cotton broker Christoval Sebastian Toledano, the Biloxi mansion was a stately Greek Revival home with massive brick columns.

Grass Lawn (view photo)
Also known as Milner House, this 1836 Antebellum mansion in Gulfport, Mississippi was the summer home of Dr. Hiram Alexander Roberts, a medical doctor and sugar planter. The home was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, but in 2012 a replica was built on the same footprint. The controversial project is reported well by Jay Pridmore in Rebuilding a Historic Mississippi Plantation.

Preservation of National Historic Sites:

Saving great architecture played second fiddle to saving lives and public safety concerns during and after the Hurricane Katrina. Cleanup efforts began immediately, and often without adhering to the National Historic Preservation Act.  "So much damage was done by Katrina that there was a great need to clean up the debris, but little time to enter into the proper consultation required by the National Historic Preservation Act,” said Ken P’Pool of the Historic Preservation Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. A similar circumstance happened at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, when clean-up and rebuilding was mandated to work within what had become a national historic site.

In 2015, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) completed a database of properties and archaeological sites, reviewed thousands of recovery projects and grant applications, and erected cast aluminum historic markers commemorating 29 of the hundreds of lost properties.

Learn More:

Sources: The Story of Stanton Hall [accessed July 21, 2016]; A Look Back at Hurricane Katrina, National Weather Service Jackson, MS Weather Forecast Office; National Register of Historic Places Continuation Sheet, NPS Form 10-900-a Prepared by William M. Gatlin, Architectural Historian, August 2008 (PDF); FEMA Helps Mississippi Preserve Important Architectural Properties, DR-1604-MS NR 757, August 19, 2015 [accessed August 23, 2015]