By: Connie Raley
The Charnley-Norwood House in Ocean Springs boasts construction that marks a turning point in modern American architecture and design. Initially built in 1890, the house was designed by Louis Sullivan, often referred to as the father of the skyscraper, and his draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of modern residential design. The house has stood the test of time and weather, from fire to flood, and we are fortunate to still have this piece of history.
In 1889 after completing an extensive project in his hometown of Chicago, Louis Sullivan escaped to New Orleans, Louisiana, for some rest and recuperation. While there, he ran into other Chicagoans and friends, James and Helen Charnley. The Charnleys suggested Sullivan venture with them on a trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. There, Sullivan fell in love with the picturesque views and serene landscape of the coast, finding charm and tranquility in the quiet town of Ocean Springs.
After spending about two weeks in the area, Sullivan and the Charnleys each decided they would like to have a vacation cottage to escape the harsh winters of Chicago. They bought adjoining pieces of property, and in exchange for some land, Sullivan agreed to design a home for the Charnleys. The resulting plans called for a pair of similar horizontal cottages for the friends.
Though Sullivan and Wright were highly influential architects, they were not trying to impress others with an opulent design, but rather create private retreats. During an era of grand, vertical, Victorian architecture, the t-shaped horizontal layout of these vacation cottages brought a sense of functionality and evolution in design. It was a dramatic standout from typical homes at that time.
Sullivan’s affection for the natural beauty in Ocean Springs was evident in his design to bring the outdoors inside. Simple moldings and woodwork seem to complement the connection with nature rather than compete against it. Large windows allowed enormous amounts of light in, as well as views of the foliage and ocean. An impressive number of exterior doors opened onto over a 1000 sq ft of porches.
In 1896, the Charnleys sold their gulfside retreat to another Chicago couple, Fredrick and Elizabeth Norwood. Unfortunately for the Norwoods soon after their purchase, the house burned completely to the ground. Sullivan was still living next door, but he and Wright were no longer partners; they had a falling out years earlier. Sullivan redesigned the home for the Norwoods using the original construction and design while incorporating improvements such as bay windows and exotic wooden interiors.
Frederick Norwood owned a lumber mill near Brookhaven, Mississippi and had access to a variant of local longleaf southern pine known as curly pine. The curly pine is altered by a fungus that grows in the seed of the tree itself. This fungus creates a unique pattern to the wood. Only when the wood is cut with the grain is the curly design revealed. This particular wood was used after the fire allowing the addition of the natural material to be the home’s decoration.
The Charnley-Norwood House is simple and unassuming from the outside, but the unique, creative architecture style is both beautiful and peaceful. The CNH is possibly the first of its kind in the United States and an important example of early horizontal, open design. The collaboration between Sullivan and Wright helped shape residential American architecture.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought with her a 30-foot tidal surge onto the shores of Ocean Springs. Sadly, Louis Sullivan’s home was completely destroyed. The Charnley-Norwood home was lifted off of its foundation and scattered over an acre. Remarkably, however, large pieces of the home were left intact though the exterior chimneys collapsed, and portions of the roofline were buried in the dirt.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) staff and volunteers salvaged thousands of pieces of debris, storing them and stabilizing the building until a full restoration of the Charnley-Norwood House could take place. The long-time owners at the time, Edsel & Mary Ruddiman both died shortly after the storm and after their passing, the house was set to be demolished. MDAH, along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy, and the Mississippi Heritage Trust all came together to find an alternative to demolition. Prior to the restoration, a historic structure report, a finishes analyses and a landscape history were created to thoroughly document the house’s original design and construction. In 2011 the property was acquired by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the MDAH began restoration. The home’s restoration work was completed in 2014, returning the home to its original beauty circa 1900 using physical evidence and photos.
Most recently, the beautiful, fragrant rose garden that inspired the home’s name, Bon Silene, has also been restored. The Charnley-Norwood House remains under the care of The Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area and is used for educational purposes celebrating and sharing the early works of modern architecture. Tours are given by appointment only. The Charnley-Norwood House "survives as an invaluable asset to America’s architectural heritage and example of the power of preservation partnerships.”- MDAH