-- Restoration of the outside of a mid-19th-century Arkansas plantation home is nearing an end, making way for work to start inside the Chicot County house before it is opened to tourists.
The former Lakeport Plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River was rotting into history before it was rescued by Arkansas State University with the help of various foundation grants. It is the only remaining riverside antebellum plantation house in Arkansas and -- more than a century and a half after its construction -- is still surrounded by miles of cotton.
A reception at the site Tuesday marked the end of the first phase of the restoration.
In the last year, Little Rock contractor Jim Wood and his crew have replaced the home's crumbling brick foundation and rotted footings, leveled and restored its porches, rebuilt 11 fireplaces, refurbished the home's 32 11-foot-high windows, replaced the roof and returned the exterior to its original ochre color, among other changes.
"It was a very intricate undertaking. It wears you out trying to get every detail because it's not like you can walk down to your local lumber company and get what you need," Wood said recently.
While Wood focused on the building, historians focused on another part of the restoration by tracing the history of the family that built the house back to pre-Revolutionary War Virginia.
Historical preservationist Claudia Shannon said the Johnson family moved to Virginia Colony from England. Descendants later moved to Kentucky and then to Arkansas. Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky served as vice president under Martin Van Buren from 1837 to 1841.
The last Johnsons to live at Lakeport sold the property after the flood of 1927, but family members scattered around the country have returned for reunions at the house for the last several years and helped historians trace the home's history.
Ruth Hawkins, project director for Arkansas State University, said two grants from the Arkansas Natural Resources Council, totaling nearly $2 million, have paid for most of the exterior renovation. The grants also will cover the second phase of the project -- installation of humidity control and fire suppression systems.
The university hopes to open the house to tourists for the inside restoration, which will be the third phase of the project.
"The interior will be an ongoing process for visitors to see," she said.
Throughout the 11-month exterior restoration, workers struggled to find authentic materials, including rare cypress wood, oversize bricks and unusual window sash weights.
"I finally found five of the window weights at a salvage yard in New Orleans after searching for them in Little Rock, St. Louis, Kansas City and Dallas," Wood said.
A grant from the Urban Forestry Commission will go to restore the outside of the property, including a semicircle of overgrown magnolia trees along a drive that once lined the front of the home.
"We've already started pruning those trees and doing other work to restore the tree canopy," he said.
In 2002, archaeologists uncovered an intricate brick walkway that once surrounded the house. Excavated sections have since been covered to avoid damage, but Hawkins said the walkway will be unearthed and restored before the project is finished.
Hawkins said she sees efforts to restore Lakeport and trace its history as finding a forgotten piece of both Arkansas and American history.
"The more we continue to research, the more we are convinced this is a major story about national history," she said.