A MAGNOLIA STATE OF MIND

Special to The Times

YOU know those annoying people who peek into medicine cabinets or ask you intensely personal (and highly inappropriate) questions? I'm not one of them.

And yet ....

Last spring, I found myself in private parlors, poking my head into china cabinets, sizing up strangers' furnishings, learning about their pasts and their heirlooms.

Thus began my life as a voyeur, although it lasted only as long as the Spring Pilgrimage in Natchez, an annual ritual (March 10 through April 14 this year) during which 27 of this town's fine antebellum mansions throw open their doors and reveal their past.

It's the ultimate interactive history lesson, one that I have reason to learn: After more than three decades in Los Angeles, I have transplanted myself to Natchez in southwestern Mississippi. I had grown tried of L.A.'s congestion, its traffic and fast-paced living, so I cashed out of my modern, glass-filled house and moved into a stately Victorian in historic downtown Natchez.

My friends thought I had lost my mind, and on the surface, perhaps it seemed so. For openers, I'm a native New Yorker and aside from a stint on a ranch in Newhall, I've been an urban dweller all my life. In my college days, at the height of the civil-rights movement, Mississippi was more a news headline than a potential home.

But a trip to Natchez in July 2005 convinced me that there is a New South, where people of different races and backgrounds live and share responsibilities of government and business.

I was captivated by the town's hospitality, history and beauty -- and, of course, those amazing houses, including Victorians and about 600 antebellum structures in town and in surrounding Adams County.

Most are situated on sweeping lawns, dotted with centuries-old live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. Majestic magnolia trees and heritage camellia bushes fill many of the grounds, as well as colorful azalea bushes, usually in full bloom in early spring.

It is the South at its most seductive.

A sumptuous setting

THE beauty of the houses and gardens is reflective of the setting. Natchez, midway between Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, faces the fertile lands of Louisiana directly across the Mississippi River, and its location made it a prime site for settlement. Natchez Indians settled here a millennium ago, but their civilization was destroyed with the arrival of European explorers and settlers -- first French, then Spanish, English and finally Americans who settled in what had been western Florida.

Natchez thrived when cotton was king. "Before the Civil War, Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country," Hugh Howard writes in "Natchez: The Houses and History of the Jewel of the Mississippi." Many of the cotton barons had plantations across the river, but in Natchez and surrounding areas, they built sumptuous mansions and filled them with elaborate furniture and antiques.

Besides doing business in the North, many had families there too. So when the Civil War began, there was some sympathy for the Union, even though Mississippi was the second state to secede.

Because of its location, Natchez was, militarily, an important site. Union forces demanded surrender in 1862, and city leaders quickly complied. Although Union troops occupied Natchez for the rest of the war, the elegant mansions remained largely unscathed. Only a grand estate named Clifton was destroyed, supposedly because a Union officer was offended when he was excluded from a dinner party there.

Natchez's buildings were intact, but its economy was in ruins, and it fell into -- and lingered in -- genteel poverty for decades. The warm, wet and humid climate took its toll too, and some structures decayed or collapsed.

But in 1931, a chance event changed everything. While hosting the annual convention of the Mississippi Federation of Garden Clubs, several of the town's leading ladies opened their antebellum homes to guests. The visitors were astounded by the gleaming sterling silver on priceless tables, Cornelius and Baker chandeliers hanging from elaborate ceiling medallions, lush carpets, draperies and wallpapers that dated to antebellum times.

Katherine Grafton Miller, owner of Hope Farm, part of which dates to 1775, quickly recognized the value of opening these private homes to paying guests. With help from her friends, the Spring Pilgrimage was born in 1932. (There is also now a Fall Pilgrimage, although fewer homes are open.)

In those early years, visitors could stay at the homes on tour. Today, it's still possible at Hope Farm, the Shields Town House, Linden, Elgin, Glenburnie and Monmouth Plantation.

Hospitality was an essential part of pilgrimage. At Montaigne, circa 1855, owner Mary Louise Shields welcomed guests and pinned a camellia fresh from the gardens on each female visitor. She did so until she was 97, when she began sitting on the porch to greet guests and share tales of her family.

Next month, the now-100-year-old Shields will take up her accustomed place. She invites her guests into the formal gardens full of hundreds of enormous camellia bushes. It is a stroll into a sumptuous past.

Family stories

AT Green Leaves, in the same family since 1849, history and the attendant drama came alive for me.

Directing our attention to the glass transom above the front door, Ruth Coy, our costumed guide, pointed out the bullet hole, a relic of the turbulent Reconstruction era. George Washington Koontz, Coy's great-great-grandfather, narrowly escaped death when a carpetbagger shot at him as he stood on his front porch.

Coy, niece of current resident Virginia Lee Beltzhoover Morrison, has been dressing in period clothes and greeting guests during Pilgrimage for most of her life. She was raised in Green Leaves and lives in Bontura, circa 1851, also on the tour.

"Growing up in a historic house, dressing up and greeting tourists was so much fun," she said. "We told our family stories and just took it all for granted."

When she receives guests, she wears a navy blue silk taffeta hoop skirt replicating one that an ancestor, Mary Rowan Beltzhoover Koontz, wore in a family portrait that hangs in the enormous reception hall.

Every room on the public tour of Green Leaves is filled with antiques and heirlooms, some extremely rare, including a set of French china hand-painted by John James Audubon. The ornithologist and naturalist visited Natchez in the early 1820s, painting and sketching the region's colorful birds, and tutoring genteel young women.

More treasures fill an immense display cabinet containing thousands of dolls and antique toys, dating from the 1860s. They represent six generations of family who have lived at Green Leaves.

Monmouth Plantation, built in 1818, can't claim continuous family ownership, but it can claim a Los Angeles connection.

As I toured it, it was hard to believe that it once was in disrepair. In the 1970s, Ron and Lani Riches of Los Angeles saw it and realized its potential.

Today, the gleaming white Greek Revival mansion has been restored and redecorated to the period. What began as a five-room bed-and-breakfast has expanded to a 30-room luxury inn with 26 acres of woodlands, strolling gardens and ponds.

As I admired intricately carved mahogany and rosewood furniture set in spacious rooms, I felt immersed in the essence of gracious Southern living. I also toured several vacant guest rooms, where rates begin at $195.

One of the most authentic houses on tour is Lansdowne, built in 1853 and functioning as a cotton plantation until after the Civil War. It's still owned by the direct descendants of the builder, George M. Marshall.

The front parlor contains original French Zuber wallpaper, and although it shows the ravages of time, it's an example of the family's commitment to preserving design history. My favorite aspect of this tour was in the dining room, where gleaming sterling silver tea sets, huge serving pieces and ornately detailed cutlery are on display. Old Paris china fills the antique cabinets and adorns the enormous dining table.

I delighted in hearing family members share stories, including how Great-Grandmother directed servants to hide the silver before the Yankees came.

Vistas and carriage rides

THERE'S more to experience in Natchez than historic houses. One of my favorite pastimes is strolling the bluff along the mighty Mississippi, with its spacious vista across the river to the low country of Louisiana.

I've also played tourist on a one-hour horse-drawn carriage tour that winds through residential and business sections, including town houses and period two- and three-story commercial buildings. They are being rescued from decay and contain assorted stores, including antiques and reproductions. As the horse clip-clops along, the guides spin fascinating tales, some more tall than true.

Visitors also can drive the Natchez Trace, an ancient Indian trail and now a 444-mile parkway connecting Natchez to central Tennessee. Surrounded by woods, accented by historical markers, the Trace is like entering a time tunnel where trucks are prohibited and motorists driving above the posted 50 mph limit are ticketed.

There's a bitter side to the history of this region too, and it's also depicted. Before the Civil War, Natchez was home to one of the South's largest and busiest slave markets, the Forks of the Road. Today, a commemorative sign marks the site, where Liberty Road, St. Catherine Street and D'evereux Drive intersect. Several evenings during Spring Pilgrimage, members of the Holy Family Gospel Choir present "Southern Road to Freedom," a musical tribute to African Americans from the Colonial period to today.

It is a poignant reminder that history is never far away in this remarkable Mississippi town.

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Hoop-skirt hospitality

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service to Jackson, Miss., about 95 miles from Natchez, is offered on American, Continental, Delta and Southwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $164.

WHERE TO STAY:

Monmouth Plantation, 36 Melrose Ave.; (800) 828-4531, www.monmouthplantation.com, offers the most luxurious accommodations in Natchez. The AAA-rated Four Diamond inn has 30 rooms and suites furnished with period antiques, some obtained from the original owners. Grounds include 26 acres of gardens, water features and woodlands. Full plantation breakfast is included in the room rate, which begins at $195.

Historic Natchez Inn, 201 N. Pearl St.; (601) 442-8848, www.natchezhistoricinn.com. The luxury inn, in the historic section of downtown Natchez, was built in 1844 as a town house. Its history is as colorful as its interior furnishings. Sixteen rooms and an owner's suite feature lofty ceilings and antique and reproduction period furnishings. Bathrooms are in the style of the 1930s. Although small, they are stocked with amenities. Doubles begin at $160 and include full breakfast and afternoon coffee or tea with homemade cake.

Natchez Eola Hotel, 110 N. Pearl St.; (866) 445-3652, www.natchezeola.com. Comfy rooms, 19th century charm and reasonable rates make this hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, a popular stay. It's within easy walking distance of the Mississippi River, and antiques stores and other shops are nearby. Several restaurants on the premises serve breakfast, buffet lunch and dinner daily. Doubles from $80.

Hope Farm, 147 Homochitto St., (601) 445-4848. Once the home of Katherine Grafton Miller, founder of Spring Pilgrimage, and now a luxury bed-and-breakfast and private residence open for the pilgrimage. Four guest bedrooms are furnished with four-poster beds with draped testers. Full breakfast is served on the same antique dining table used by Miller. Doubles from $135.

Bluff Top, 205 Clifton Ave.; (601) 304-1002; www.blufftopnatchez.com. An 1894 Queen Ann-style B&B; with second-floor bedrooms, each with private bath, TV and phone. Full Southern breakfast is included. Doubles from $90.

WHERE TO EAT:

Carriage House Restaurant, 401 High St., (601) 445-5151. Miller and her friend Helen Jenkins transformed a carriage house on the grounds of Stanton Hall into a comfortable restaurant. Popular with locals and visitors for Southern fare, including fried chicken, catfish and mint juleps. Open for lunch only, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Main dishes $8.95-$14.95.

Castle Restaurant, on the grounds of historic Dunleith, 84 Homochitto St.; (601) 446-8500. Upscale Continental and Southern fare for lunch and dinner. Specialties include steak, seafood castle-let, fish and lamb. Traditional Southern breakfast served daily. Main dishes $18-$34.

Monmouth Plantation (see above). Multi-course candlelight dinners with choice of entree are served nightly in the elegant dining room at a communal table. Individual tables are also available. Prix-fixe five-course dinner is $48 and includes hors d'oeuvres in the cocktail lounge. Reservations recommended.

Magnolia Grill, 49 Silver St., (601) 446-7670, www.magnoliagrill.com. Informal decor includes paper tablecloths and spectacular views of the Mississippi at this popular restaurant on the banks of the river in the section of the city known as Natchez Under-the-Hill. Grilled shrimp or chef's salad are among lunch favorites. Dinner choices include catfish, shrimp, steaks and seafood. Main dishes $12.95-$28.95.

TO LEARN MORE:

Natchez Convention & Visitors Bureau, 640 S. Canal St., Box C, Natchez, MS 39120; (601) 446-6345 or (800) 647-6724, www.visitnatchez.com.

For details about tickets, tours and accommodations, contact Natchez Pilgrimage Tours; (800) 647-6742, www.natchezpilgrimage.com. Three-home ticket is $24 (the minibus tour is $34); four homes are $32.

-- Karen Dardick

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