“. . . such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. . . a big house and very peculiar. Always a bit more to discover and no knowing what you’ll find around a corner. . . seems impossible to feel gloomy or depressed in this place. . . time doesn’t seem to pass here; it just is. A remarkable place altogether. . . “ (J.R.R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings)
Stories of history often just seem so out of touch…so excessively long ago…so non-applicable to today. But perhaps we should redefine what is “recent history” – it had only been about 40 years earlier, that our Founders had signed the Declaration of Independence from the crown of Great Britain! Mississippi was accepted into the Union of States in 1817, and the town of Columbus (on a bluff overlooking the Tombigbee River) was incorporated in 1821.
In 1836 William S. Cox left North Carolina with his family and purchased several thousand acres just north of Columbus, with hopes and dreams of becoming a wealthy planter in the richly fertile soil of what was known before 1817 as – the “Mississippi Territory”. The produce of his plantation had good proximity and access to the commercially navigable Tombigbee River (see below; a faint red circle around the mansion to the right/East with the river proximity to the left/West), which flows south to Mobile Bay and thereon to global markets. . . especially for the extremely valuable cotton crops.
But existence and subsistence in the pioneering wilderness of the “Southwest Territory” was difficult and dangerous…it took the family years to become productive and profitable. The Cox family is recorded briefly in the 1840 census, but by 1850 the census description of the estate is extensive, including 640 acres of improved land, and a detailed list of horses, mules, cows, oxen, sheep, swine, corn, oats, peas & beans, Irish & sweet potatoes, cotton, and wool. In fact, the assets had become substantial and the family was able to move from their initial log cabin into a grand Greek Revival home designed (it is believed) by the locally prominent architect, James Lull – circa 1849.
Lull was born in Vermont, trained in Philadelphia, and became the area’s leading designer of residential and commercial buildings in the mid 19th century. According to Mr. Ken P’Pool of Mississippi Dept. of Archives & History, “Lull demonstrated in his work such a skillful understanding of architectural proportion that he could well have been the author of any of Columbus’ finer buildings constructed between 1840 and 1870.”
Life spans were brief for those 19th century brave pioneers, and at the age of 56, the patriarchal Cox had passed away leaving behind an estate valued at $80,000. Shortly thereafter, the Civil War began and at least one of the sons died in the Battle of Atlanta. By 1865 the wealth of most plantation families had dissolved seemingly overnight; and like so many others, the Cox estate was divided among the surviving siblings and finally sold off completely.
After decades of neglect and disrepair, the old house somehow survived multiple tenants and various uses including accommodating a post office for a Dutch community (Uithoven family) circa 1900, and complete abandonment in the mid 20th century. In 1980, my parents Henry & Nettie Ward (Granddaddy & Grandmother to 19) purchased the elderly place with ten (10) unkempt acres and began an extensive restoration/renovation that lasted for the next 15 years under their care.
As an impressionable high school senior, the legends and myths embedded in the 130-year-old walls (now the number sits at 168) lead to my lifelong fascination with history and archaeology, as well as my career as a registered architect. My mother hired an architect in 1980-81 to help with the restoration and that man, Robert Craycroft was also a professor at MSU, encouraged me to come visit and consider the profession of architecture. Not only did Rivendell draw me in (pun intended) at the beginning of my education, the house became the centerpiece of my thesis project 6 years later.
Although its been renamed by the current owners, the house our family still refers to as “Rivendell” will forever be special to us. Originally designed and constructed amidst the wilderness of the Choctaw & Cherokee Indian frontier, the architect created a masterpiece… an academic study of classical architecture, geometry, scale and proportion.
‘Rivendell’ is a name I borrowed from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was one of the first books (The Hobbit) I actually enjoyed reading in high school. The book(s), and the house, gave me the inspiration to enter the School of Architecture at Mississippi State and the motivation to graduate at the top of my design studio class. In fact, the grand ole house also gets the credit for finding my wife (of almost 33 years) within that school at MSU! Just ask my wife, Kimberly, about her first visit to Rivendell. . . quite an experience to remember! Rivendell’s architecture, history, plantation order (geometrically as well as socially) and geographical context has influenced my career ever since.
But perhaps most importantly, the precious hours researching the Cox family and the plantation’s history at the library with my Mother are some of my fondest memories of her, all those years ago! In 1980 the Mississippi Department of Archives & History certified the Cox-Uithoven House had been entered on The National Register of Historic Places. And in 1985 the Mississippi Historical Society (founded 1858) presented Mr. & Mrs. Henry Ward with an Award of Merit for “The exemplary restoration of the Cox-Uithoven House”.
In memory of my mother and father who loving saved this grand home for future generations to enjoy, and who set in motion my career in architecture and history so long ago:
- Nettie Lou (White) Ward: 1929-1999
- Henry Lanier Ward: 1927-2010
“. . . a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or storytelling or singing or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. . . merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness.” (J.R.R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings)
D. Tracy Ward, Architect
Originally prepared 2012. Edited and uploaded March 2018 – DTW’s Blog #0018
Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2018 by D. Tracy Ward and Benchmark Design, PC. God bless America! Treasure Liberty always and pass it on! “Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” (President Harry S. Truman)