By the time John T. McMurran constructed Melrose around 1845, successful Natchez residents had already established the tradition of building large, stately, well-appointed homes on large parcels of land in or around the town. By the late eighteenth century, when Natchez was the outpost seat of the Spanish regional governor, local houses were renowned for their luxury.
After the region became a US territory in 1797, planters and builders from New England, the southern seaboard, and Great Britain flocked to Natchez. The émigrés brought knowledge of architectural styles and techniques for executing forms inspired by the numerous English and American pattern books that enjoyed great popularity and authority during the early nineteenth century. Natchez elites chose to display their wealth by building extravagant houses in the region’s economic and cultural center. The first significant houses, including Gloucester (1803–7) and Auburn (1812), foreshadowed some characteristics of later Natchez mansions, with skillful brickwork, gracious scale, and polished interior trim work. The iconic Natchez mansion house was a product of the city’s culture between 1812 and 1861, with most houses built during the 1830s and the 1850s—not coincidentally the zenith of the cotton industry.
Arlington and Rosalie, brick mansions with grand Tuscan and Roman Doric porticos, brought Federal-style architecture to Natchez by 1825. These houses established the basic form associated with Natchez mansions of the period: monumental porticoes on two-story houses. In the 1830s, older houses such as Linden were significantly modernized and enlarged in the latest styles, Gloucester and others received their signature porticoes, and Ravenna, Choctaw, and many other new houses were constructed in the newly popular Greek Revival style. The 1850s saw the emergence of houses that blended elements of Italianate architecture such as the cast iron porch with the preexisting formula of a two-story building with a double-height portico and gracious classical columns. A good example is Stanton Hall (ca. 1857).
Melrose differs slightly from most of Natchez’s large antebellum houses. It was constructed in the middle of the 1840s, when the cotton market suffered a depression and little building activity occurred in the town. Melrose is also notable as a pure Greek Revival structure, devoid of elements from the earlier Federal style and without Italianate forms. The house’s most striking element is the pedimented two-story portico, which stretches across three of the house’s five bays. Two pairs of unfluted Doric columns, perfect expressions of monumental and austere Greek Revival architecture, support the pediment. Six large, square Doric pillars march across the back of the house, supporting a double-tiered piazza and creating a colonnaded courtyard in the back of the main house with a flanking support building. Melrose was an urban showplace rather than a working plantation house, a point made clear by the finished back courtyard: on a working plantation, the service area would have been less prominently displayed and less highly articulated.
One of the striking characteristics about Natchez domestic structures is the absence of the typical townhouse—tall, thin domestic structures packed densely on narrow lots in an urban center. The number of mansions built in and directly outside the city center on massive tracts influenced builders of smaller houses, who also tended to situate their houses on sizable parcels. Examples include Green Leaves and the Burn, both constructed in the 1830s. The Natchez mansion houses, particularly Melrose, created and promoted the ideal of the stereotypical antebellum southern plantation house, complete with commodious porches, massive columns, and extensive grounds.
- Randolph Delehanty, Classic Natchez (1996)
- Mills Lane, Architecture of the Old South, Mississippi and Alabama (1989)
- Irene S. Tyree, Natchez Ante-Bellum Homes (1964)