Their canvas is Beauvoir, the retirement estate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Their task is to restore painted murals that Hurricane Katrina's flood waters nearly erased.
Ward and Croxson, a husband-and-wife team of painters, always keep a researcher's dossier within reach. Century-old photographs and color charts in the report show them how to painstakingly duplicate the murals as they originally were painted in 1856.
"It's like trying to copy somebody's handwriting," Ward said. "You can do it accurately once. What's hard it doing the same way 10 or 15 times."
Applying a fresh but historically accurate coat of paint to the antebellum home is the final phase of a yearlong, $4 million renovation of Beauvoir, mostly paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The paint job won't be done for at least eight more months, but that wasn't stopping Beauvoir from celebrating its grand reopening June 3, the 200th anniversary of Davis' birth, when visitors were to be allowed inside the beachfront house for the first time since Katrina.
A popular tourist attraction before Katrina, Beauvoir was one of the few historic structures on Mississippi's Gulf Coast to survive the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane - albeit with plenty of bumps and bruises.
Storm surge ripped apart the front porch. Eight inches of water flooded the home's living quarters, leaving mold on the walls and peeling away some of the paint on the murals. All told, roughly 30 percent of the house was gone.
Other structures on the 52-acre property, including a guest cottage and gift shop, were a total loss. The storm also washed away about one-third of Beauvoir's artifacts, including some of Davis' manuscripts and about $250,000 worth of Confederate currency.
"If that storm had lasted another hour, I don't think we would have had anything left," said Richard Forte, Beauvoir's board chairman. "God was looking over this place."
Replacing what Katrina destroyed at the national historic landmark site wasn't an easy endeavor.
Slate for repairing the roof was imported from the same quarry in Wales that supplied some of Beauvoir's original building materials. Heart pine, another original material, was used to replace wooden beams even though it's a rare commodity in the dimensions they needed. Workers used a 19th-century building technique to create interlocking joints for the frame of the house.
Randy McCaffrey, an architect, was in charge of making sure that the project adhered to strict guidelines for preserving Beauvoir's history.
"Our mandate was to maintain as much of the original fabric as possible," McCaffrey said, "and I believe we've achieved that."
Changes are subtle: Crushed limestone replaced oyster shells on the ground underneath the raised house because the latter was prohibitively expensive. Ward and Croxson are painting over layers of oil paint and distemper with water-resistant acrylics. Workers installed stainless steel braces and reinforcing rods to make Beauvoir more durable.
"The house now is probably 400 times stronger than it was before," Forte said.
Beauvoir was built in 1852 and purchased by Davis in 1879, 14 years after the end of the Civil War. After he died in New Orleans in 1889, his widow sold the property to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It was a home for veterans and their widows until 1957.
Before Katrina, tens of thousands of people visited Beauvoir every year to learn about Davis, a West Point graduate who was a U.S. senator and secretary of war before becoming president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The hurricane turned the home into more than just a memorial, said Bertram Hayes-Davis, a Beauvoir board member who is a great-great grandson of Jefferson Davis.
"It's something that portrays the (coast's) recovery from the disaster," he said. "It's one of those icons that has risen back to be better than it was before Katrina."
Hayes-Davis, 59, a banker from Dallas, is one of about two dozen Davis descendants who planned to attend the reopening, which was scheduled to include Civil War re-enactors and bands playing period music.
Some Davis devotees couldn't wait for Beauvoir's official reopening. Martha Stephenson, who worked in Beauvoir's gift shop before Katrina, has been giving impromptu tours of the landmark's exterior to curious visitors.
"Some of them say, 'I drove by here all the time and loved to look at it, but I just never bothered to go in. When you get it open, I'm coming because I'm sorry I missed it before,"' Stephenson said.
If You Go...
BEAUVOIR, THE JEFFERSON DAVIS HOME: 2244 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, Miss.; http://www.beauvoir.org/ or 228-388-4400. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours, $9.