Shirley House work coming along

Published 12:00 pm Monday, December 6, 2010

Rededication of the Vicksburg National Military Park’s lone surviving structure that dates to the Civil War is on pace for the spring, while a long-range plan to re-create some of the park’s 1860s landscape is under way and awaits funding.

Shirley House renovations begun earlier this year to spruce up the nearly 180-year-old structure are on schedule, with new flooring, staircases and interior painting wrapping up in January, “unless something unforeseen comes up,” park superintendent Mike Madell said.

A formal event is planned in March or early April, Madell said.

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The house has been closed for nearly 40 years.

Once it reopens, plans call for visitors to see period-specific furniture and exhibits, though additional funding could be needed to fill its two main floors with viewing pieces. The stately house was built in the 1830s and was named Wexford Lodge by its builder, Nicholas Gray. It was turned over to Judge James Shirley in 1851 and was headquarters to the 45th Illinois Infantry, all the while referred to as “the white house” by Union troops. Union forces also used the home as a smallpox hospital in 1864. It was restored in 1902 and was used as a visitor center and park employee residence until vacated in the 1960s.

A $1.9 million slice of federal stimulus funds awarded to the park in 2009 jump-started efforts to restore the house for visitors. Fordice Construction is the general contractor on the $1.7 million renovation. PBS&J, an international architectural consultant firm, has assisted in the renovation. An additional $2.3 million in stimulus money is financing the stabilization of Mint Springs bluff, at the south end of Vicksburg National Cemetery inside the park, also set to finish in the spring.

The apparent middle ground between environmental and cultural resource preservation is now in place to shape how the park will look in coming decades.

Of four alternatives presented in public hearings in 2008 as part of a Cultural Landscape Report, an option to clear about 90 acres of trees and brush at key military engagements and approach points was chosen in the park’s 2009 Cultural Landscape Report, VNMP natural resources program manager Virginia DuBowy said.

“Alternative C is what was chosen,” DuBowy said, adding areas around Graveyard Road, Pemberton Avenue and Smith Loop between Railroad Redoubt and Fort Garrott will be cleared “in phases” depending on funding. Three other alternatives would have either left the park’s 1,300 acres of forest as is, preserved certain natural aspects and taken out only non-native plant species or stripped 350 acres of green space not in the park during the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg.

With the C choice, DuBowy said, vantage points from the park’s most substantial structures — the Shirley House and the neighboring Illinois Monument — to key areas of battle strategy, like Logan’s Approach, will be preserved.

“People will have a sense of what the soldiers saw on the battlefield,” DuBowy said.

The park’s Long-Range Interpretive Plan suggested installing “a significant amount of new interpretive media” to address “inadequate” staffing levels at park-operated attractions.

Another noted point proposed using “interpretive roves” during cooler months of the year when visitors are likelier to view monuments and markers outside the confines of an air-conditioned vehicle.

In 2009, the 1,800-acre park updated its video presentation of the siege shown inside the visitors center. This year, an educational assistant was hired to step up the park’s historic and cultural curriculum with area teachers and schools.