Golden Triangle continued: West Point

Of our three incredibly enjoyable Golden Triangle destinations, it was West Point that knocked our socks off. We just hadn’t expected it to be such a little jewel. We’d passed through town years ago, but we had come in from a different direction and hadn’t seen anything very interesting, so we had just kept driving. Apparently, on that trip we happened upon the only part of town that isn’t impressive and mistook it for the whole town. This time was different.
We began to suspect that we might be in for a surprise as soon as we hit the city limits and began passing by one lovely, well-tended home after another. Hmmm. Then we took a drive around a cove – West Point is known for it’s outdoor activities, primarily those centered around water, although we’re told they have some world-class golf at the Old Waverly Golf Club. We saw neighborhoods built right on the waterways and many houses have their own little docks. Lucky them and Hmmm again. Our thoughts were leaning toward, “This is a really nice place.” Then we headed back toward town on Main Street, turned onto Commerce Street, and gaped open-mouthed at this pretty little town. There is a beautiful park, complete with the requisite Civil War Monument and some stellar landscaping.
Civil War Monument in West Point, MS
City Hall, West Point
Re-purposed Bank of West Point

Interesting...Oldest National Bank in Mississippi is located in West Point.
Just couldn't pass up this picture....Closed but not forgotten.
Remember these? This was on the street outside the bank building.
I had trouble getting far enough away from this Weeping Yaupon to get a picture showing how tall this was! It was all decked out in its Christmas finery in downtown West Point. There were 3 or 4 of these trees -- all standing about 20' tall. A beautiful sight!
How about an antique neon sign on the local hardware store?

Nearby, we found the monument honoring Blues great Howlin’ Wolf, AKA Chester A. Burnett, who was born just north of West Point. The city honors him with a Howlin’ Wolf Blues Festival in conjunction with their annual Prairie Arts Festival on Labor Day weekend. There is also a Howlin’ Wolf Museum (and a transportation museum) but we’ll have to come back for those – we had way too much to see in one day on our Triangle Tour.

We were thrilled to see that West Pointers did two of our very favorite things: They preserved their old downtown theater as well as an old multistory downtown hotel. This is what we love to run across in our travels – towns that had the foresight to save their theaters and hotels. So many small Mississippi towns either didn’t see the value in it or didn’t have the funds to do it.
Not only did someone purchase the fine old Henry Clay Hotel, it’s obviously been restored, refreshed, and refurbished. And, it’s been transformed into a retirement home! Brilliant, positively brilliant. Best use of an old downtown hotel we’ve ever seen. We had a first-floor walk-through and it’s enchanting, as only a fine old hotel can be. They just don’t build buildings with bones like that anymore.
Henry Clay Hotel, West Point, MS
Henry Clay Hotel -- now a retirement home.
Inside hallway of retirement home in the Henry Clay Hotel.
As we proceeded down the block – toward food – we passed a recessed building entry with a ticket booth set into the exterior wall. The theater has been refurbished and is now a restaurant – the Cafe Ritz – with an adjoining meeting space. It’s a nice place for lunch, and an incredible place to go to the bathroom. Seriously, we didn’t expect to just stumble across such luxurious accommodations. Another nice surprise in a surprising little town!
They left the old ticket booth just for eye-candy....
Beautiful restroom at the Cafe Ritz

The Golden Triangle: Columbus

We’ve been touring the Golden Triangle: Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. First stop was Columbus’s Welcome Center, located in the house where Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams was born in 1911. The home was originally the rectory of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Tennessee’s maternal grandfather was pastor. It’s a beautiful Victorian, built in 1875 and recently restored to its original paint colors.
Tennessee Williams' birthplace is the Welcome Center for Columbus, MS.
The foyer of the home -- note the beautiful hardwood floors.
Mrs. Williams' antique pipe organ.

The house was actually built next door to the church, but it was moved a block or so away to 300 Main Street and refurbished several years ago. Tours of the house are free, it being a Welcome Center, and they’ve done a wonderful job of making Tennessee’s story/history interesting. What a fascinating life! The house is furnished to the period, with many pieces that actually belonged to Tennessee’s mother. And, by the way, he wasn’t Tennessee when he lived in Columbus, he was Thomas Lanier Williams III, Tom to his family.

A bronze bust of Tennessee Williams.
The Poet's Laurel Wreath that lay on Tennessee Williams' casket during visitation at Campbell's Funeral Home in New York City, 1983.

Columbus is a lovely old town, one of the few Mississippi cities that fared well during the Civil War. It was never occupied by the Union army because it was a hospital town; wounded soldiers were brought in from nearby battles. Its status as a hospital town is the reason there are so many Civil War graves in a town where no battles were fought. We can all be grateful the town served the purpose it did, because it resulted in the plethora of gorgeous old homes and buildings standing today. In fact, there are actually three National Register Historic Districts in town, with a jaw-dropping 676 properties.

Just an example of some of the beautiful homes in Columbus.

A drive through these districts is a real treat for the eyes, and Columbus’s annual pilgrimage (which has been going on for over 70 years) is one of the most important in the state – it’s second only to Natchez in the number of antebellum homes. The 2012 pilgrimage will be held March 26-April 7. It’s a fun time to be in town, with locals attending parties and dances in period costumes, and antebellum homes, gardens, and churches open for tours. There are also carriage rides, walking tours – even a 10K run and a picnic. But, for those who visit at other times, there are seven homes open year round (Waverly is open every day, the others only on certain days). Tickets and reservations can be arranged at the Welcome Center. (8:30-5:00 M-Sat, 12:00-5:00 Sunday)

Downtown Columbus store fronts

Next door to the Welcome Center was this beautiful mural depicting Columbus of old.

We plan to go back and make the whole pilgrimage, but this time we just wanted to tour Waverly Plantation. It’s some ten miles outside town on the way to West Point, however, and we had a few things to do before leaving, beginning with a quick stop at a local coffeehouse. We’d hoped to do a little shopping too, but we’d gotten such an early start that even after we toured the birthplace, nothing was open except the coffeehouse. However, Columbus is a friendly town, and the owner of the Fashion Barn saw us and invited us in anyway. So, we shopped amidst the vacuuming and straightening and found some great earrings and an incredible necklace. We really enjoyed looking at their huge selection and talking to the friendly owner, who gave us each a free tee-shirt! Then, rejuvenated by our purchases – and that muffin and coffee from our first stop – we set out to see a few other sites around town.

The little cafe - Cafe Aromas - was colorfully decorated -- this area just caught my eye. The painting shown above the sideboard are for sale. Acrylics by Cynthia Mutch.
This is a head shot of one of Cynthia Mutch's paintings -- acrylic and so life-like -- beautifully done. Many of Cynthia's paintings are for displayed in Cafe Aromas and are for sale -- well priced for original paintings....

The place we most wanted to see was Mississippi University for Women, AKA “The W,” the first (1889) public university for women in the whole country! Our last trip, in August 2009, was a huge disappointment. Apparently, they had recently experienced a tornado or major storm or something because the college was in a pitiful state: stained, seemingly abandoned buildings with blinds drooping haphazardly in dirty windows; a campus in dire need of landscaping. There was a black iron fence I’d never seen before encircling the campus, and it looked like it was there for protection, not decoration. I didn’t recognize the place – which I had always thought was the most beautiful campus in the state. It was depressing.

But – oh, happy day! – it’s beautiful again! Both the campus and the buildings – twenty-three of which are on the National Register of Historic Places – have been cleaned up, fixed up, and spruced up until it is a showplace once more. My old sophomore dorm had workers coming and going like bees from a hive. In fact, there were workers everywhere and the landscaped grounds were immaculately tended. Although the work isn’t complete, it’s far enough along that you can see The W I remember – Mississippi State College for Women – with buildings so enchanting and a campus so gorgeous that it could give the Ivies a run for their money. What a relief. So glad we went back. (Marian -- I was so mesmerized by the changes since our last visit that I forgot to take any photos! Oops!)

Marked graves of Civil War soldiers in Friendship Cemetery.

Relieved, we zipped over a few blocks to Friendship Cemetery, with its wonderful ancient monuments and quite a number of Civil War soldiers’ graves. We didn’t go just to see another cemetery, however, as much as we love them. We went there because it was there, on April 26, 1866, that four local war widows gathered to honor the dead on Decoration Day. Not only did these women decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers, but they left flowers on the graves of Union soldiers as well. An admirable gesture indeed, given that the war had ended only the year before. The local newspaper wrote an article about the women’s kindness that inspired Francis Miles Finch to write the poem, “The Blue and the Gray.”

Local legend has it that the women’s kind act was the origin of the modern-day Memorial Day, and maybe so. A number of cities and towns (something like 25!) lay claim to this honor, but in 1966 Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, to be the official “birthplace” of Memorial Day, leaving Columbus and the other towns none too happy, we imagine. It seems that on May 5, 1866, Waterloo formally honored its Civil War veterans by closing local businesses and flying flags at half-staff, and that official observance pushed them to the front of the Memorial Day line. Regardless, local Daughters of the Confederacy periodically stage reenactments of the women’s Decoration Day actions anyway, honoring both Confederate and Federal dead and the women whose actions transcended the bitterness of Reconstruction.

A beautiful crying angel in the Friendship Cemetery, Columbus.

When we left the cemetery, we drove around to admire some of the gorgeous homes – and there are some truly spectacular ones – and then it was on to Waverly. Let us state at the outset that Waverly is technically in West Point. We know that. But, we have chosen to include it in the Columbus write up – it’s actually out in the country between the two towns – simply for convenience since we’re talking about pilgrimages and such and it’s kinda, sorta, almost in Columbus anyway.

The Waverly Mansion

What a grand house it is! Granted, we tend to be enamored of anything old enough to qualify as historical, but Waverly is truly special, outstanding even among exquisite homes. It’s been featured on A&E’s “American Castles.”

The Waverly Mansion's cupola -- 4 stories above the impressive entryway.

The octagonal cupola is impressive from the outside, astounding from the inside. The entry is ballroom-sized. Upon stepping into the house and taking your first look up at the cupola and the swirling, unsupported staircases, your breath catches in your throat.

Built in 1852 by the George Hampton Young family, it was lived in and loved till 1913. Then it sat empty for almost 50 years, until Robert and Donna Snow from Philadelphia, Mississippi, happened upon the downtrodden and overgrown mess sitting in the middle of a field. It was love at first sight for the couple, who bought it, moved in, and set about restoring what was, in effect, a feral house. (And, supposedly, one with a ghost!)

Incredibly, despite the years of abuse and neglect it suffered when it served as a home for wild animals and a party spot for Mississippi State University fraternity boys, there are a lot of original things in the house, including fireplace mantels, heart of pine floors, several gas chandeliers, a couple of mirrors in the entry, even the doors with their porcelain door knobs and swinging porcelain fobs to keep people from peeking through the key holes! Structurally, the house was sound when the Snows bought it, but every inch of it had to be cleaned, mostly by hand. And that’s what the Snow family did. Probably every minute of every day for years on end, because that’s what it takes to restore a magnificent old house that size.

Mrs. Snow passed away twenty years ago, but Mr. Snow is alive and well in his mid-eighties and still lives in the house. Consequently, the home, with its resident three-legged cat, large sweet dog, and flock of peacocks, still radiates an aura of a home well-loved. It’s time for another renovation as far as paint and plaster go but, regardless, we felt about the same way the Snows did when they stumbled upon this place – this is a magnificent home. We can’t wait to see it again in the spring. (9:00-5:00 daily, $10.)

The Tourist Center has a lot of information on various sites, both local and statewide, but there is also a Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau at 318 7th Street North.