Gaineswood Mansion, Demopolis Alabama

Date added: June 14, 2019 Categories:
Northwest (front) elevation. 1936

Gaineswood has been acclaimed by numerous authorities as one of the most impressive homes in America. "We regard Gaineswood as one of the most significant and important houses of its period for the history of American architecture in the entire United States," according to a letter from Denys Peter Myers, acting chief of the Division of Historic Architecture, United States Department of the Interior, to the governor of Alabama on July 9th, 1970.

Gaineswood was begun in 1842 but not completed until 1860, and therein lies the reason for much of its charm. The builder, Nathan Bryan Whitfield served as his own architect, keeping, up with the latest in architectural styles. As he concentrated on completing one remarkable room after another, the stylistic preference in America shifted from Greek to Renaissance Revival or the Italianate. The balustrades and picturesque massing of Gaineswood are to be attributed to this later vogue.

Nathan Bryan Whitfield, born in 1799, was a native of North Carolina. He first came to Marengo County, Alabama in 1833 to visit his uncle and decided to buy a plantation there. His first plantation, called Chatham, was 15 miles from Demopolis.

In 1842, he purchased 1500 acres on the outskirts of Demopolis from his friend George S. Gaines, a Choctaw Indian factor and the man for whom Gaineswood is named. Already on the land was a log cabin, which he razed, and a giant oak tree which still stands. The oak, called Pushmataha Oak, is estimated to be nearly 375 years old and was the site of the signing of the treaty with Chief Pushmataha which provided for the removal west of the Choctaw Nation.

Although Whitfield had distinguished himself as a member of both the North Carolina House of Commons and the North Carolina Senate, any political aspirations he might have had in Alabama were sublimated to his zealous determination to finish Gaineswood--a task which consumed more than a decade and a half of his energy. Other plantation owners were bringing in architects to design their homes, but Whitfield depended entirely on his own abilities. In his extensive library, he studied the various handbooks of architecture which were the main source of inspiration for the Neo-Classic builders. His late grandson, Jesse Whitfield, recorded that Whitfield referred to Vitruvius and to Stuart and Revett for design sources. Clay Lancaster speculates that he must have also used The Beauties of Modern Architecture, "as Lafever's original Corinthian order appears in the mistress' room." Relief decorations were ordered through a catalogue from Charles Frederick Bielefeld of London, inventor and sole manufacturer of an improved type of papier-mache ornament for interior decoration.

The builder of Gaineswood was a practical man. Once knowing the rough plan and the massing of the structure, he set up carpentry and plaster shops and kilns on the premises. He designed and made the lathes and pieces of machinery which were used to fashion the columns and cornices.

Gaineswood was finished Just prior to the Civil War. When General Leonidas Polk's division of troops was camped at Demopolis in 1864, Polk stayed at Gaineswood, having been a classmate of Whitfield's at the University of North Carolina.

Following the Civil War, the Whitficld fortunes declined. Bryan Watkins Whitfield bought the house from his father in 1868 and it was allowed to deteriorate. A mulberry tree grew through the floor of the dining room, and goats roamed the halls. It was bought by Bryan W. Whitfield's sister, Mrs. Charles Dunstan, in 1896 and restored. The house passed through several hands and was again in a neglected condition before it was bought and restored by Dr. and Mrs. J. D. McLeod in 1946.

Bought by the Conservation Department of the State of Alabama in 1966, Gaineswood was transferred to the Alabama Historical Commission by Legislative Act in 1971.