Buried Treasures: Storm's Toll On Culture

Before and after: The Mississippi Heritage Trust says the Dantzler house, above, refurbished and about to open as a Mardi Gras Museum, has been reduced to rubble, right.
Before and after: The Mississippi Heritage Trust says the Dantzler house, above, refurbished and about to open as a Mardi Gras Museum, has been reduced to rubble, right. (Above And Right: By David Preziosi -- Mississippi Heritage Trust)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005

Add to the human toll of Hurricane Katrina a staggering cultural cost. Early reports document capricious and heart-rending losses.

Historic houses were swept away, watercolors swamped. Museums survived, but heat, humidity and lack of security threaten individual works of art and major collections.

"I don't think we've ever in our history had an actual threat to our cultural patrimony of this scope," says Edward Able, president of the American Association of Museums, which is keeping a running online tally of treasures lost.

Biloxi, Miss., paid dearly. Just 18 months ago, Laura Bush named the city one of the most effective in the country at preserving its architectural heritage. This week, David Preziosi, executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, put "before" and "after" pictures on the Web to document how few are left.

The 1848 Biloxi Lighthouse stands tall. But the two-story Dantzler house, refurbished and about to open as a Mardi Gras Museum, was erased. The 1856 Tullis Toledano house, with brick columns and sculpted dormers, is gone. So is the 1895 Breilmaier house with its romantic arched latticework.

Beauvoir, the retirement retreat of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was sheared of porches and columns. Presidential archives were reported safe on the second floor of a 1990s library building.

The storm slammed a casino barge into the shimmering steel facades of the unfinished $30 million Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, which was designed by Frank O. Gehry and due to open next year.

"Devastating," said Brian Zamora, project architect for the Gehry firm, who was waiting for photos to reach the Gehry office in California.

The campus of five buildings was designed to withstand 150 mph winds and a 14-foot storm surge.

"All our buildings are still standing and up, minus the one the barge flew into," Zamora said. "The Grand Casino barge is on the front of the site, lodged up against the African American Gallery. It wiped out the trees on the front half of the site. Everything around the site is gone. The neighborhood is gone."

The ceramics of George Ohr (1857-1918), the "mad potter of Biloxi," had been stored safely elsewhere. Marjie Gowdy, executive director of the museum, wrote by e-mail that the entire collection had been moved to the Mobile Museum of Art. She noted that Ohr's studio and shop had been destroyed by fire in 1894, and he had quickly resumed work.

"He is our inspiration," she said.


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