NATCHEZ — With its colossal column portico at the front, finely worked wooden moldings, interior and elaborate mantles, anyone in America would have been proud to call Natchez’s Arlington antebellum house home.
One of the earliest of the grand houses of Mississippi, Arlington, built in the early 1800s, is one of few buildings of such quality and age in that area of the country.
So when a fire, the origin of which is alleged to be electrical, consumed almost all the house as well as many original early furnishings from the Natchez area on Sept. 15, the area’s residents were understandably shattered. Equally devastating, perhaps, is the fact that the house was uninsured.
“From an architectural historian’s perspective it’s impossible to put a value on it,” said Ken P’Pool of the loss at Arlington. P’Pool is director of the historic preservation division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “I’ve talked with many people through the years about putting values on historical buildings. The history really is priceless and once it’s gone it’s gone. They literally don’t make them like that anymore, and even if they did it would be a real item.”
P’Pool and others are hoping enough will be left of the house that it can be salvaged and repaired.
“We just don’t know structurally how sound it is or how much would have to be replaced,” P’Pool said.
Arlington was in deteriorating condition a few years ago. But with the help of the Historic Natchez Foundation (HNF), the family had made many repairs on the aging antebellum beauty. This is an especially tragic blow to those who have worked so hard on restoring the house to its original condition, said P’Pool.
Mimi Miller, HNF executive director, said, “When you have a house with the significance of Arlington, although not legally, the house really belongs to everyone in the community. The town really grieves about it and is trying to do what it can.”
Miller believes Arlington can be rebuilt, but considering it was not insured, the rebuilding would be a slow and tedious, not to mention expensive, process.
Stephens & Hobdy Insurance, one of several local Natchez insurance agencies specializing in insuring historical properties, said that is just the reason that historical properties should be insured.
“The cost to restore historic property here or anywhere else is significant,” said Braxton Hobdy, the agency’s president.
But the process of insuring such properties can be difficult. Many companies even avoid insuring historical properties altogether.
“They’re really fine art,” Hobdy said. “They’re very valuable. The problem in establishing a restoration cost is you have an owner, who if they wanted to sell a house, could get $1 million but to restore that same house after a major fire could cost $2 million. The market cost and the insurance cost are different. Most companies avoid insuring historical properties because they don’t know how to get that restoration cost.”
The condition of the historical properties also creates a problem for insuring them.
“Many were built before we had utilities,” Hobdy said.
That means, in many cases, that the houses don’t have modern heating and air conditioning systems.
And that’s a concern for many insurance companies because of older electrical wiring and plumbing in some homes.
Insurance companies must be convinced that these historical properties are treasures to the owners, said Hobdy. Many of the houses, like Arlington, have been in families for generations.
“We have to convince insurance markets that the standard of care for historical properties is far beyond normal situations,” he said.
Of course, homeowners must also be convinced of the importance of insuring their properties. Gulfport physician Tom Vaughn, the owner of Arlington, did not have his home insured because of the expense that would have been involved in doing so, Miller guessed.
“The insurance cost would have been prohibitive, and he didn’t live there full time,” Miller said.
That doesn’t mean Vaughn, who could not be reached for comment, didn’t love the house; on the contrary, Miller explained. Arlington had been in Vaughn’s family more than 80 years and wasn’t just a house he owned. He grew up there.
Hobdy said insuring historical properties for companies is an educational process. He works with just four companies that are willing to insure homes, bed and breakfasts and other properties with historical significance.
“There may be other companies out there,” Hobdy said. “I’m always looking for markets.”
But it’s difficult, Hobdy admitted, and it’s not getting any easier right now. In the short-term future there will be major price increases on insurance premiums across the board, and market restrictions as well. And, he added, most companies are placing more restrictions on coverage.
“Antebellum homes and historic properties will face the same problems as everyone in the insurance industry,” Hobdy said. “My concern is that there are so few markets, it could become a real problem in the future. And I don’t know how long this market will last.”
Miller, who along with many others has been helping with the cleanup effort at Arlington, said it’s sad that the community and the state has lost something so valuable.
“We have great people down here helping,” Miller said. “It’s a team effort. We’re trying to save what’s left.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at email@example.com or (601) 364-1042.