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

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.

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.

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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.

"We have found some outlandish, wonderful colors," says Frank White, a director of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation in Atlanta.

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Still, pink, at least in its modern connotation, is not what most people would associate with Cobb. Strict as a schoolmarm, Cobb was in many ways the South's answer to Ben Franklin - a man of many talents, a prolific writer, and the author of Cobb's Code, a Calvinistic treatise on how to live properly. When the war came, Cobb rallied 5,000 Georgians and headed north. Despite his lack of military training, CSA Gen. James Longstreet called Cobb "one of our most promising officers and statesmen" after the Battle of Fredericksburg.

"It is important to remember who Cobb really was: He was a dynamic man who, when he could no longer defend a slave society with his pen, laid it down for the sword," says Mr. Dandolos, a painter-turned-history buff who has had to fend off criticism from friends for even working on the Cobb House. Dandolos believes history needs to be confronted, no matter how sympathetic or unsympathetic the character.

The $3 million restoration has experienced its share of heartbreak. After a long period of neglect, the Cobb mansion lost its spot on the National Register of Historic Places. As it sat, the politics of the South changed, too. In the 1990s, Confederate flags were taken down from the top of state buildings. The idea of restoring the Cobb house, another reminder of the controversial past, brought resignations from trustee boards and splits among heritage groups.

Yet Mr. Brown, the man overseeing the project, held his ground. At one point, frustrated by all the politics, he told friends he'd gladly paint it "pink with purple polka dots" if that's what paint analysis revealed, even if it enraged his critics. A few weeks later, Frank Welsh, the color conservator on the project, came back with a verdict on the original hue of the house that would fulfill half of that prophecy. "It shakes you up, makes you look at things in a different way, but people have still given [Brown] a lot of gas for painting it pink," says Gene Surber, the project architect who also did the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta.

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For some, the paint job poses a question more intriguing than its historical correctness. "The real mystery is: Why did this nasty, mean, Confederate general paint his house pink?" says Jill Morton, author of "Color Voodoo," about how colors affect human psychology.

Since pink can be a calming color, perhaps it was designed to soothe the nerves of an overworked secessionist, speculates Ms. Morton. And the choice may not have been that unusual anyway. Pink, after all, hasn't always been considered feminine. As late as 1921, the Women's Institute for Domestic Sciences endorsed pink for boys as well as girls. Cobb could have been shaped as well by European influences, which were sweeping through fashionable Charleston at the time.

Still, if Cobb wanted to project power and authority, as is indicated by his addition of huge octagonal wings that turned a humble farm house into a muscular mansion, "pink is about the least authoritative color there is," Morton says.

Brown, for one, isn't having any of the Sherwin-Williams psychoanalysis. "This could have been Marion's deal," he says, referring to Cobb's wife. "Drawing inference from the color and trying to project something from that onto Cobb's sensibilities is risky." Still, he concedes, "it is kind of fun."

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