Shirley House renovations begin |[6/15/05]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Renovations are under way to restore the historic Shirley House in the Vicksburg National Military Park to its status as a main attraction for visitors.

Efforts to restore the roof, replace brittle windows, straighten the chimney and reinforce the walls inside the nearly 175-year-old structure are in a first phase of repair, with a second phase to involve a new front porch, repairing the floors and ceiling.

Park officials say the goal of the renovation is to eventually open the building that has been maintained as a shell for many years.

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“It’s going to be a hot attraction when it’s all done,” said Jehu Walker of VNMP and project inspector for the renovations.

Shirley House, named Wexford Lodge by its builder, Nicholas Gray, upon its completion in the late 1830s, is the only park structure that was standing when Union and Confederate forces vied for control of the city in 1863. It was turned over to Judge James Shirley in 1851 and was a major landmark through the Civil War, when Union forces used it as a smallpox hospital in 1864.

First restored in 1902 by the federal government and used as a visitor center and park employee residence until the 1960s, it has been vacant since. Exposure to the elements in recent years damaged the support structures of the house.

The roof is at least 30 years old and will be replaced by an exact replica to maintain design.

Some of the materials used to construct Shirley House in the 1830s are being used to refurbish it, such as soft lime-based mortar around the chimney and square-headed nails instead of modern flat nails.

“The square nails don’t tend to split the shingles like the flat ones do,” said Tim Howell of D.R. Construction, in charge of the restoration.

D.R. Construction has handled historic renovations previously, including projects at Cumberland Island National Seashore in St. Mary’s, Ga., and at Dry Tortugas National Park outside Key West, Fla.

Funded primarily through a $300,000 federal appropriation in 2004, the stabilization will need further federal funding to continue repairing up to a reopening date.

While no timetable on funding is definite, the park is looking toward 2010 as a reasonable date when the Shirley House can be opened for touring, Walker said.

The house is near the Illinois Memorial, also a major tour stop in the national park, created by Congress as a sacred preserve to honor combatants in 1899.