The all-volunteer foundation that has been working for a decade to preserve Ward Hall, one of America’s finest antebellum mansions, has been frustrated by its inability to acquire any of the house’s original contents. Until now.
This month’s Christmas Candlelight Tours include the first showing of monogrammed Tiffany silver and French china that Junius R. Ward bought in 1857 to furnish his lavish 12,000-square-foot summer home.
A New Orleans auction house advertised the items this summer, a year and a half after Ward’s great-great granddaughter died in Mississippi. David Stuart, chairman of the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation, quickly raised money from supporters.
“The bidding was brisk; all the phone lines were tied up,” he said. “There was interest from all over the world.”
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With a winning bid of $22,500, the foundation acquired the collection: 34 pieces of coin silver flatware and serving pieces in Henry Hebbard’s 1855 Oriental pattern; four coin silver goblets by Grosjean & Woodward; an elaborate John C. Moore & Son coin silver sugar bowl; a silver-plated serving tray; a sterling cake basket; and seven hand-painted dinner plates made by Edward Honore of Paris.
“It cost us an enormous sum to acquire these pieces, but we thought it was absolutely essential to have things that were associated with the original owner,” Stuart said.
No donations made for Ward Hall’s badly needed restoration were used, he said.
The foundation is still seeking donations to help cover the purchase, as well as to be ready if other items turn up. Stuart thinks that could happen, in part because of the recent discovery of long-lost court records detailing Ward Hall’s contents and the collapse of its builder’s business empire.
Junius Richard Ward (1802-1883) was born in Georgetown to a prominent family. His uncle, Richard M. Johnson, was vice president under Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841. Ward married Matilda Viley, daughter of the pioneer Thoroughbred breeder George Viley, in 1824. Through her family, Ward was for a time part-owner of the great race horse Lexington.
After the Choctaw Nation gave up most of its land in the new state of Mississippi in 1820, Ward moved there with his father, William, who was appointed the federal government’s Chocktaw Indian Agent.
Junius Ward became a major planter and a pillar of Mississippi’s slavocracy. At Ward’s Kentucky Bend plantation, slaves raised cotton and hemp, which along with his shipping and mercantile interests, made him fabulously wealthy.
To escape the Mississippi Delta’s stifling heat, Ward built Ward Hall as a summer home on 550 acres outside Georgetown. No expense was spared on the Greek Revival mansion or its furnishings, which he purchased at New York’s fanciest stores.
When the Civil War abolished slavery, Ward was financially ruined. He was sued in Georgetown over an unpaid debt in 1867, and other creditors piled on. The court ordered Ward Hall and its contents sold at public auction.
A family member bought Ward Hall’s silverware for $500 — a substantial sum at the time. Lysander Moore, a Southern foundry owner, bought the house and much of the contents. But as the house changed hands three more times by the turn of the century, the contents vanished.
The bidding was brisk. There was interest from all over the world.
David Stuart, Ward Hall Preservation Foundation
The Ward Hall Preservation Foundation’s focus has been on preserving the mansion as a state landmark to tell the story of antebellum plantation life, warts and all.
Remarkably, the 13 owners of Ward Hall since Ward made few changes, so most of the house’s historic fabric remains. They didn’t even update basement kitchen and work rooms, which now provide a unique opportunity to show how the grand mansion’s existence depended on the work of enslaved black people, Stuart said.
A $100,000 restoration of exterior windows and doors will begin in the spring, thanks to a state transportation mitigation grant. Private funds and grants are being sought for the rest of an $850,000 project to restore and weatherproof the exterior.
But Stuart continues to be intrigued by the fate of Ward Hall’s original furnishings.
“Every Southern town that had a great house, you generally find house after house in town that claim they have a piece of furniture from there,” he said. “But there’s no known piece anywhere in Georgetown that came out of that 1867 auction.”
The lone exception was a John Henry Belter sofa, later lost when the house it was moved to burned in 1940.
Some Ward Hall furniture was said to have been displayed in the Kentucky Building during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, but Stuart has been unable to find any pictures of it.
After a long search, records of the Scott County court case that led to Ward’s bankruptcy were found two years ago in state archives. They included a room-by-room inventory from the dispersal sale. That has helped the foundation approximate the original furnishings with loans and gifts of similar antiques.
“The inventory was in a jute-tied stack of paper that apparently had not been touched since the case was closed in 1868,” Stuart said. “It was a treasure trove of information. We're still going through and analyzing all of that paperwork.”
Ward Hall Christmas Candlelight Tours
Where: 1782 Frankfort Road (US 460 West), Georgetown
When: 6 p.m. - 9 p.m. Dec. 13, 19, 20, 21, 22. Other times by appointment
Cost: $7 adults, $3 children older than 12.
More info: 859-396-4257, Wardhall.net