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The first phase of major restoration of house begins and is completed in 2016.

Mississippi’s oldest structure rises from ruins on coast

1890: Earliest known photo of the house.

1890: Earliest known photo of the house.

By LISA MONTI

The restoration of the La Pointe-Krebs House in Pascagoula, the oldest confirmed building in the Mississippi Valley, got underway in 2015 and crews completed the major task of stabilizing the historic structure early this month.

The French Colonial vintage house, built in 1757 and known previously as the Old Spanish Fort, is on land originally owned by Joseph Simon de La Pointe who passed it along to his daughter Marie and her husband, Hugo Ernestus Krebs.

The house has been repaired over the years but not on the scale of the current renovation project. Hurricane Katrina left the building with roof and water damage and then termites added to its decline.

Maria Katsimanis performs preliminary archaeological work on the LaPointe-Krebs House in 2015.

Maria Katsimanis performs preliminary archaeological work on the LaPointe-Krebs House in 2015.

Marks Wixon, executive director of the foundation that maintains and operates the Jackson County-owned site, said the homestead is important to the Coast’s history and added that it is “a national treasure.”

Working with the foundation and its board are Albert & Associates Architects of Hattiesburg, architectural conservator George Fore, and timber conservator Bryan Blundell.

The majority of support comes from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The city and Jackson County also provide funding as well as some private donations.

Earlier this year experts studied the tree rings of the essential timbers in the house and discovered the structure was constructed of trees felled in the fall of 1757. That makes it the oldest scientifically confirmed building between the Appalachians and the Rockies, Wixon said.

Wixon, a Pascagoula native who has a master’s degree in art administration, called the discovery exciting and described the restoration as an architectural challenge. “We are taking the stand that the original materials are sacred and we are doing what we can to keep them in place even if they are not functional.”

Instead of stripping out all the old material, for example, a system was devised to use treated wood to bear some of the weight. Such an effort requires the involvement of  everyone working on the project. “We get everybody on the same program and all agree on how to move forward,” he said.

Besides the historically significant house, the property it sits on is considered archaeologically rich. Pascagoula Indians used to camp on the grounds for months, eating oysters from what is now called Krebs Lake, an oxbow of the Pascagoula River. After thousands of years, the oyster shells are a few feet deep in the soil.

The oyster shells were used by European settlers as building materials. The shells were dehydrated, rehydrated and made into a kind of slurry that was poured into forms and hardened like concrete. The intense process, called tabby, was used in other coastal locations along the East Coast, he said.

Studies done in the 1930s and 1940s revealed that a second room was added five years after the tabby house was built and in 1820 a third room was built using a completely different technique of mixing clay, mud and Spanish moss – the latter of which acted like rebar. The mixture also acted as an evaporative cooling system for the room.

After the house is completely stabilized, the second and hopefully final stage will restore flooring, walls, shutters, doors, hardware and roofing to complete the project.

All the details are designed to “make sure it’s going to last,” Wixon said. He expects the restoration to be complete within the next three years, ideally.

A special feature is the series of wooden posts for the gallery that was handcrafted by Brad Lawson of J.O. Collins.

The house is closed to the public for liability reasons as work continues. An adjacent building that serves as the museum and interpretive center for the site opened to the public July 1.

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