Under Live Oaks: The Last Great Houses of the Old South

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9780609606995: Under Live Oaks: The Last Great Houses of the Old South
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“Southerners seem to stay close to each other, accumulating ties of kinship in a way that ultimately becomes almost impossible to unravel, and thus the family house remains the center of births, marriages, and deaths through the generations.”
From Under Live Oaks

There is a part of the South that clings to its past, whether that past is an imagined or a real one. Resonant with antebellum elegance and sometimes turbulent history, the houses of Under Live Oaks act as a touchstone for another time, becoming repositories of rich family traditions for their owners.

This tenacity to hold on to their history is beautifully demonstrated in the decor of these houses, filled with antiques and personal treasures, decorated in the style that was fashionable 150 years ago and that has not been tampered with since. More than 200 images from acclaimed photographer Peter Woloszynski fill the pages of Under Live Oaks, giving a provocative view into a world many never see—a world of faded portraits, shelves of dusty porcelain, dolls lined up in an armchair, family letters, lace fans, invitations to the cotillion, old steamer trunks. These houses were the royal palaces of the age, furnished with the finest objects and fabrics—many imported from Europe—that the first half of the nineteenth century had to offer. Under Live Oaks offers a remarkably consistent vision of a period, a period that takes its place in the dark history of America and that casts a permanent shadow over its legacy.

The houses range from an Italianate villa in Columbus, Georgia, to a masterful Greek Revival mansion in Fairvue, Tennessee; from the charming Catalpa in St. Francisville, Louisiana, to the melancholy Winter Place in Montgomery, Alabama. The classic plantation houses of Natchez, Mississippi, compete in beauty with an elegant townhouse in Walterboro, South Carolina, and the historic Sherwood Forest in Charles City, Virginia. All the states of the Deep South are represented. A few of the houses are open to the public; others are unknown and unvisited except by family and friends. Yet all of them stand as witnesses to a bygone era.

Noted author Caroline Seebohm eloquently casts the stories of the land, the houses, and their owners. She vividly evokes the power of the architecture and interior design of these houses, and through her we hear the owners’ pride of place and staunch allegiance to their family history. Under Live Oaks is an intimate tour of the Old South, an experience available to only a few and that in the not-too-distant future will be lost forever.

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About the Author:

Caroline Seebohm was born and brought up in England and graduated from Oxford University. She began her writing career covering interior design for House & Garden in New York. Her books include At Home with Books, At Home with Art, and English Country, as well as Boca Rococo: How Addison Mizner Invented Florida’s Gold Coast, and several other distinguished biographies. Caroline Seebohm lives on the banks of the Delaware River in New Jersey.

Peter Woloszynski left Poland for England when he
was three. After being educated in Surrey, he became an assistant at the Rossetti Studios in London, working with photographers Peter Williams, Barry Lalegan, and Teresa Traegar. Peter continued with studio work until 1984, when he started working for The World of Interiors and House & Garden in London, as well as Vogue while living in Australia. His first books specialized in photographing America, especially around South Carolina. The photography and research for this latest book took two and a half years, his time being split between New Orleans and Bath, England, where his two children live.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Virginia

I can shut my eyes now, after all these years, and summon back the scene as vividly as I saw it when we emerged from the long stretch of twilight. I can still see the blue glimmer of the flowers in the grass; the low house, with deep wings, where the stucco was peeling from the red brick beneath a delicate tracery of Virginia creeper; the seven pyramidal cedars guarding the hooded roof of gray shingles; and the clear afterglow in which the little moon sailed like a ship.

-Ellen Glasgow, "Whispering Leaves"


Sherwood Forest
charles city, virginia

The history of the great Southern plantations is also the history of the great rivers rolling down the Southern map of the United States. From the Mississippi in the west to the James River in the east, these important waterways fed the wealth of the plantation owners with their efficient trading posts and speed of communication from one side of the country to the other. Sherwood Forest is one of the beneficiaries of these alluvial currents. One of the four so-called James River Plantations, it is steeped in early American history, was home to the tenth president of United States, John Tyler, and has been in the same family for more than 150 years. What sets Sherwood Forest apart, however, is its extraordinary contemporary record of life in the house since before the Civil War, presented in the form of letters and documents belonging to the Tyler family, and now preserved in Virginia museums and libraries.

The plantation has its origins in a 1616 land grant. Strategically situated thirty-five miles east of Richmond and eighteen miles west of Williamsburg, both important cities in colonial America, Walnut Grove, as it was then called, was a desirable location not only for its fertile soil but also for those interested in a political career. William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States, inherited a part of the property that would become Sherwood Forest in 1790, but its full flowering came with the purchase of the house in 1842 (along with sixteen hundred acres) by John Tyler, who, as vice president to Harrison, became the tenth-and first unelected-president when Harrison died after only thirty days in office. (Tyler had grown up only a few miles from Harrison's birthplace.)

Although conservative in his preference for living close to home, John Tyler was a controversial president, ever ready to vote against his party, the Whigs, when he found his own high principles at odds with the party line. In fact he renamed his house Sherwood Forest in recognition of his Robin Hood-like reputation as a political outlaw. Not the least of his unconventional acts was his marriage at the age of fifty-four in 1844, while still in office, to a twenty-four-year-old woman called Julia Gardiner (of the Gardiners Island Gardiners). His first wife died in 1842, after bestowing on him eight children, and the speed with which he married the second, let alone her age, raised more than a few eyebrows. If Tyler was regarded as a nonconformist, Julia Gardiner soon showed she was a match for her husband and that her youth was no impediment to her independence of spirit or self-confidence. On June 30, 1844, she wrote to her sister, Juliana, "I have commenced my auspicious reign and am in quiet possession of the Presidential Mansion."

Quiet she may have been in Washington, but her brilliant marriage to Tyler almost entirely shaped the ultimate history of Sherwood Forest. It seems Tyler bought the house with the idea of retiring there after his stormy presidency came to an end in 1845. From 1842 on, he began making renovations, and when Julia first saw the house on her honeymoon in 1844, she wasted no time in bringing her own considerable talents to the project. The house was originally a simple frame house, dating from 1730 (the central three-story section still reflects its age). It is only one room deep, like a very long railroad car. Tyler, evidently energized by his new marriage, added one-story wings to each side of the house, including a covered walkway to connect the kitchen and laundry to the east end and a west wing that became, like that in the White House, his office. He put in a new staircase in the hall. He also installed, no doubt at the instigation of his new and lively dancing partner, a sixty-eight-foot-long ballroom (just the right length for a Virginia reel), which Julia, when she first saw it, decided would be greatly improved by a vaulted ceiling, to make the music sound better. And so it did. Thus the house, with the added ballroom and wings, was elongated to three hundred feet, the longest frame house in America.

One of the most wonderful aspects of Sherwood Forest is the extensive documentation preserved through the years covering John and Julia Tyler's life together. Julia and her family wrote more than forty thousand letters to each other while she lived on the plantation, all of which survive, revealing a fascinating day-by-day description of her life. She was no shrinking violet when it came to claiming credit for the work on the house. "The head carpenter was amazed at my science and the president acknowledged I understood more about carpentry and architecture than he did and he would leave all arrangements that were to be made entirely to my taste." Julia had some reservations about renovating an old house as opposed to building a new one, but she declared firmly, "It will be the handsomest place in the County and I assure you there are some very fine ones in it."

Julia made sure that all the best furniture and furnishings were brought in from the United States and abroad. She was a keen shopper, and on her European travels before her marriage she purchased items such as the Italian landscape painting that now hangs in the drawing room. When in the White House, she had asked for an appropriation with which to buy furniture. The Congress offered her a paltry sum, so she went out and bought objects herself, and when President Tyler left office, she took her purchases with her. Some of them can still be seen in the rooms of Sherwood Forest.

It was not only the house she focused on. Julia was a highly educated, cultivated young woman and was as interested in gardens and landscape design as in the decorative arts. "The grove will be made into a park (twenty-five acres) and stocked with deer," she wrote to her sister in 1844. A year later: "The hyacinths, tulips, violets, cowslips and various other flowers are blooming in our beds, and the peach trees are in full bloom." Julia's mother took a great interest in her daughters' horticultural efforts and promised to send her Andrew Jackson Downing's treatise on landscape design, the most popular book of the time on the subject. John Tyler shared his wife 's interest, asking for two female statues to "preside over the garden" from the south piazza. Land clearing, planting lists, and pruning were frequently mentioned.

It is clear from their correspondence that John and Julia Tyler enjoyed a blissfully harmonious marriage, despite the age discrepancy. "She is all that I could wish her to be," he wrote, "the most beautiful woman of the age and at the same time the most accomplished." She was equally adoring. "It seemed as if I had stepped into paradise," she said of her honeymoon. Ten years later she observed, "The President is in good health, and cheerful, which is essential to good health. He fiddles away every evening for the little children black and white to dance to on the Piazza and seems to enjoy it as much as the children. I never saw a happier temperament than he possesses." Meanwhile, amid all the redecorating and Virginia reels, she produced for him seven children, bringing his total to fifteen.

However, as with all such elite families in the South, these happy times were not to last. "The prospects now are that we shall have a war, and a trying one," Tyler wrote to his wife on April 16, 1861. "These are dark times, dearest, and I think only of you and our little ones. . . . I shall vote secession." A year later, he died at the age of seventy-one. Soon there was a lot of fighting along the James River, a critical supply route, and in 1864 Julia, now a young widow with seven children, decided to escape the continuing danger and take the family to New York. Shortly after she left, Sherwood Forest was raided. The Union soldiers were well aware of the wealth hoarded along the banks of the river. A surviving letter, poorly spelled and punctuated, records their bitter feelings. "This whole country is owned by heavy land holders owning from one to twenty thousand acres a poor man cant own any land." This same soldier reported entering President Tyler's house and "took and destroyed lots of stuff. They say he has the nicest kind of a mansion the house furnished in the best of style. They [took] some very nice furniture such as sofas, looking glasses, stands, carpeting, etc, of the very costliest kind and destroyed the pyana [sic] & large looking glasses . . ."

The house itself remained relatively unscathed. A burn mark on the floor of the hall is one of the few signs of the vandalism that took place.

Julia Tyler returned with her children to Sherwood Forest in 1867 and over the years continued to visit the plantation while also spending time in New York and Washington. She finally moved to Richmond in 1882, and died there in 1889. John and Julia Tyler's grandson, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, lives here today with his wife and family. This means that the direct genealogical link connecting President Tyler, born in 1790, to his grandson Harrison Tyler, born in 1928, extends nearly three hundred years.

Harrison Tyler and his wife, Payne, who came from another old Southern family, the Bettises, started restoring the house in the mid-1970s, after it had suffered a certain amount of neglect. Like Julia, her indomitable antecedent, Payne Tyler has made a great contribution to the inte...

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