Old Court House becomes a model of proportion

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 11, 2008

For the first time in 150 years, the Old Court House Museum was the new kid on the block Friday.

In model form, the replica of the 1858 hilltop building is just one of several new additions to the Vicksburg Battlefield Museum.

Crafted by Jackson resident Robin Burr, the model was a year in the making. Burr also made the Shirley House model that rests near the heart of the museum’s Vicksburg siege diorama, and has immediate plans to build two more model homes for what owner-curator Lamar Roberts hopes will be a complete scaled version of the city of Vicksburg to fit into place next to the battlefield scene.

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“It’s a hobby, something I just enjoy doing,” Burr said Friday as he and Roberts unveiled the courthouse model along with two new Vicksburg campaign paintings by artist Herb Mott.

Burr said he first visited the Battlefield Museum last year. “The Shirley House in the diorama didn’t look exactly right to me, so I volunteered to build a new one.” He obtained plans from Vicksburg National Military Park historian Terry Winschel and, using model railroad H0 scaling, began the work. The Shirley House required about $200 worth of materials and took 3 months to build, working at a casual pace of an hour or two most days, he said.

Originally from Arlington, Va., Burr said he’d always had an interest in the Civil War. His father was a career serviceman who’d been stationed in Mississippi and had often brought his family to the military park. Burr also developed an interest in model railroads and found that he enjoyed making the scaled-down buildings more than setting up and running the trains themselves.

“The Old Court House is made mostly of plastic backed by wood,” Burr said. “It has 48 windows and 20 columns. The top is actually a padded doorstop, and the very top is the little piece of plastic that the doctor looks in your ears with.”

Many of the materials he used, like windows, half-circle window trim and filigree porch railings, came from a model train parts supply house in California, and the columns are the same as those used on wedding cakes. Materials cost about $350.

Roberts said the replica is authentic to the pre-1900 period. “This is the way the Old Court House looked before 1906 or 1907 or so, when they put the plaster on the outside.”

Roberts opened the Vicksburg Battlefield Museum in 1993 on Clay Street. After operating in two other sites on Washington Street, he moved to his current location on North Frontage Road near the VNMP in 2004. The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of Civil War gunboat models, the only miniature layout of the Vicksburg battlefield — a 250-square-foot diorama with 2,300 tiny Confederate and Union soldiers depicting the siege — and other riverboat models.

Also on display are about 30 of Mott’s paintings, including the two new ones. One depicts Capt. John T. Shirley, designer of the CSS Arkansas, presenting the plans for the ship to Confederacy president Jefferson Davis and Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory at Richmond, Va., late in 1861, Roberts said. The other is a representation of the Arkansas coming down the Yazoo River in the summer of 1862, having to stop to dry out its stock of gunpowder, which had been rendered wet and useless by leaky steam pipes.

Mott, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., has never been to Vicksburg but nevertheless has worked with Roberts for years creating art for the museum. They met nearly 20 years ago at the Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga. Roberts said he tells Mott what he’d like painted, and Mott makes a pencil sketch and sends it back for Roberts to make corrections and return it. “He lives in an assisted living facility now, and they won’t let him use oils so he’s using watercolors now,” Roberts said. “He also does a lot of Western art.”

Roberts said he will be working with Burr and other model makers to complete his planned city diorama. Currently in the works are replicas of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s house and the Martha Vick home. Model makers give freely of their time, but donations for materials are always welcomed, he said.

Roberts is also continuing plans to create a transportation museum at the old Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad Depot at the waterfront.