Nathan Bryan Whitfield and his family were emigrants who left North Carolina during the land rush known as “Alabama Fever.” They moved to Marengo County in 1834 when Whitfield purchased several thousand acres of land near Jefferson. In 1843 Whitfield purchased 480 acres outside Demopolis from George Strother Gaines. After finding success in planting cotton in his native North Carolina and in Jefferson, Whitfield began constructing his dream home. Over the next 18 years Whitfield built Gaineswood. What began as a two-room dogtrot cabin would become one of America’s most interesting houses known for its lavish Greek revival interior. Gaineswood became the center of a 1,280-acre cotton plantation. (The Whitfields referred to their original plantation near Jefferson as the “Lower Plantation.”) A 12-acre park surrounded the main house. The park’s folly landscape included a hand-dug lake fed by an artesian well, a gatehouse with ornate iron gates, a winding carriage drive, and attractive plantings.
Whitfield was his own designer. He adopted many ideas from books such as the 1835 architectural handbook The Beauties of American Architecture by Minard LeFever and The American Builder’s Companion by Asher Benjamin. Whitfield’s son, Bryan Watkins Whitfield, helped in the house’s planning and design. He ordered mantels from Philadelphia (where he was in medical school) and he designed and fabricated “The Ring”—the circular observatory on top of the house.
Three familiar classical orders of architecture can be seen at Gaineswood -- Ionic and Corinthian, inside, and Doric, outside. Gaineswood’s elaborate plasterwork is among the finest of any 19th-century residence in America. Other distinguishing features include: marble mantels, wood graining, and marbleized baseboards.
Traveling artisans and skilled African Americans (both enslaved and free) worked on the house. Scottish-born John Gibson crafted the art glass transoms which portray classical scenes. Gibson and his brother George completed a number of commissions for the United States Capitol including the four stained-glass skylights crowning the grand public staircase. By 1860, Whitfield had finished the house’s domed ceilings. With the exterior and landscape complete, he hired artist John Sartain to produce a steel engraving of the mansion’s facade (front of the building) and grounds. The engraving shows the artificial lake and a summerhouse pavilion.
By 1856, Whitfield had named the mansion “Gaineswood” in honor of George Strother Gaines. Gaines played a large role, not only in Gaineswood’s history, but in the history of Demopolis, the state of Alabama, and the 1830 Choctaw removal. It was Gaines who in 1817 encouraged French exiles to establish their Vine and Olive Colony in what was to become Demopolis.
Whitfield died in 1868, after having sold Gaineswood and the surrounding land to his son Bryan Watkins Whitfield. In 1896, Bryan Whitfield's sister Edith Whitfield Dustan purchased the property. In 1923, the house passed out of family hands when the Kirven family purchased it. Over the next few decades the house changed hands several times.
The state acquired Gaineswood in 1967 and transferred it to the Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) in 1971. After extensive restoration, AHC opened Gaineswood to the public in 1975. The house maintains its 1861 appearance thanks to the Whitfield family, who generously donated original antebellum furniture and accessories. Some of the furnishings were designed by Whitfield and constructed by artisans in New York and Philadelphia.
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