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Backstory: Cry over a hue

The restoration of Confederate Gen. T.R.R. Cobb's house - in bright pink - has many in the South seeing red.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 2006



ATHENS, GA.

What most people in Athens remembered about Tom Cobb's old house was its saggy demeanor and chimneys full of pigeons. No one could recall its original color. White, they assumed. Like Tara.

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Once the home of a Confederate philosopher-king - a Renaissance man with an austere streak of Calvinism - T.R.R. Cobb's house had gone down through the decades as a rectory, an apartment building, and even a frat house. Finally, it was shipped off in pieces 50 miles away to Stone Mountain, where it languished under tarps for nearly 20 years, brooded over by Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis, the Confederate triumvirate whose visages are etched there in stone.

Two years ago, the return and looming renovation of the Greek Revival mansion positioned Southern heritage proponents against a neighborhood upset over losing public space to the clapboard legacy of a prominent slavery defender, whose biggest triumph was penning most of the Confederate constitution. But even the staunchest defenders of the house paused when, a few months ago, house painter Pete Dandolos applied the first coats of historically correct paint to the renovated mansion: It turns out this ol' Confederate general loved bubble-gum pink.

The reaction ranged from angry to amused. Some who had fought against the house liked it. "Just horrible," said others. Dixie diehards refused to believe it. A guy in a pickup drove up and threatened to paint over it. According to local heritage experts, one of Cobb's direct descendants, Marion Cannon, sniffed: "T.R.R. Cobb would never paint his house that color."

The controversy over the return of the Cobb House shows that modern Athens still struggles with its philosophical place as the Confederacy's "city on the hill." But the color choice has injected another curious dimension into the debate. It has suggested a softer side to the otherwise irascible general and, in the process, diverted some attention from the political feud over his house, currently scheduled to open as a museum next year. At the same time, it has given insight into how conservators increasingly try to help Americans "see" history - and how deeply memory and myth still mingle in a region bedeviled by an uncomfortable past.

"You've got to meet history on its own terms," says Tad Brown, director of the Watson-Brown Foundation, which is heading up the project. "All of a sudden we find that this paint did exist, and it was a shock to the average Jane and Joe in Athens that this would come back and be this rather flamboyant shade of pink."

Cobb's choice probably wasn't unique. Many mansions of the day - and their architectural details - were lost in the North's destruction of the South. The Industrial Age and subsequent periods brought a new palette of colors to houses, further hiding styles and décors in the broom closet of history. "What most people know of Southern history are images that are not very accurate," says Clyde Wilson, a Civil War historian at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia.

Interest in antebellum décor, however, is growing. The old governor's mansion in Milledgeville, Ga., is now covered in a shade of original pink. Conservation work at the Chief Vann House in northern Georgia shows that Indians loved garish interior colors. The 1808 USC library was recently renovated in original shades, resulting in an interior awash in powerful pastels.

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