Biglanes restore Under-the-Hill
By Carolyn Vance Smith
Cinderella’s fairy godmother waved her magic wand and instantly transformed ugliness into beauty.
These folks don’t have a magic wand and it’s taken them 15 years, but they have transformed what could be described as a slum into one of Natchez’s foremost attractions.
They’re D.A. Biglane, his daughter Charlotte Nobile and his son James Biglane.
They own the majority of historic Natchez Under-the-Hill, the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River. It was established by French colonists, in the early 1700s and pre-dates Natchez On-Top-of-the-Hill by decades.
Under the Biglane family’s leadership, Natchez Under-the-Hill – dirty, dilapidated and unsavory until the early 1970s – has not been merely restored and preserved.
It has been brought back to life, hustling, bustling and vibrant.
Just how vibrant will be seen Tuesday, when the annual Floozie Day Contest between the Mississippi Queen an d the Delta Queen takes place.
The Biglanes plan to be right there.
“I love Under-the-Hill,” said D.A. Biglane, who came to Natchez in 1939 in the restaurant business.
He soon entered the fledgling oil business, enjoyed oil production from his second piece of property and later became interested in historic preservation, particularly the decaying Natchez Under-the-Hill.
“Since 1969, I have spent about $1 million on Natchez Under-the-Hill,” Biglane said. “Nobody else would buy it. Nobody else could see what could be done.
“The property was chap at the beginning, but it was complicated to buy. It was owned by many different people, and a lot of it was tied up in estates.
“But from living many years in New York City, I knew the most expensive property in the city was on the Hudson River.
“That’s the reason I got interested in river property in Natchez. I felt then and feel now that the Mississippi River has got to come back -- there’s cheap energy there, it’s a means of travel and the river is very important to the state.
“I felt from the first that Natchez Under-the-Hill was a drawing card for Natchez and that we shouldn’t let it decay further and get away from us.”
Biglane’s children love the area as much as their father does.
“I remember Natchez Under-the-Hill in the early 1960s,” said Mrs. Nobile. “It was nothing. Everything was boarded up and closed. There was no interest in the land or the buildings.
“People talked about the ‘good old days in Natchez Under-the-Hill, but nobody went down there except to see the water up close.
”Daddy always talked about Under-the-Hill and how he wanted restore it. He thought it would be such a good investment, historically and financially.
“I agree with him. It’s really looking so much prettier now. And with the influx of tourists, the coming of the big river boats and the thriving businesses there, property values have definitely increased in the last decade.”
Mrs. Nobile, owner and manager of The River Boat, a gift shop in a restored 1840s building on Silver Street, said, “I enjoy the shop, I enjoy the river and I enjoy the people who come to Natchez Under-the-Hill to shop -- Natchez people, tourists, boat passengers, movie people.
“There’s never a dull day. The location is unique, but mainly it’s just plain fun to work there,” she said.
The Biglane family owns Under-the-Hill property together and separately.
James Biglane owns the building housing The River Boat, which his sister leased from him, and together they own the two-story building housing Silver Street Ltd. And Silver Street Inn, as well as the two-story, unrestored “whiskey” building.
“We plan to restore this building soon,” said James Biglane, president of First Natchez Bank.
Since Charlotte and I are already busy working at full-time jobs, we’ll probably restore the building and then lease it to someone else to run a business there, “ he said.
D.A. Biglane owns the building housing The Bowie Knife delicatessen as well as the empty building known as the Blue Cat Club, “which is my next restoration project, “ Biglane said.
Though the Biglane family does not own buildings housing The Natchez Landing restaurant, the Cock of the Walk restaurant, the Under-the Hill Saloon and certain other tracts of land, they do own the entire waterfront, the park area, the turn-around area, several vacant lots and property behind several buildings.
Recently D.A. Biglane gave part of his property in Natchez Under-the-Hill to the City of Natchez as a right of way for Silver Street to exit up the hill to South Canal Street behind the historic mansion Rosalie.
“We hope the City will act on this street project as soon as possible, “ Mrs. Nobile said. “It’s almost dangerous on Silver Street sometimes when large crowds gather.”
The Biglanes’ future plans for Under-the-Hill include not only restoring the “whiskey “ building and the Blue Cat Club but also landscaping the hillside and building more parking facilities.
“We’re going to do a lot of other development there too,” said D.A. Biglane. “I want to tie up a barge permanently, like in Pensacola’s history area, for open-air performances on the river.
“And I want to build a ‘gay 90s’ barroom with dance floor, the old-fashioned way. I have a lot of ideas
“Natchez and Natchez Under-the-Hill together can be the sight-seeing place of America.”
By Carolyn Vance Smith
The Natchez Democrat
Sunday, June 24, 1984