WPA Guide to the Magnolia State: But the Depression is Great!

Today we come to the conclusion of the WPA Guide to the Magnolia State and its section on Architecture. While Beverly Martin, the young architect we have conjectured is the author, has shown his bias for the antebellum era and against the Victorian period altogether, his analysis of his own time period is a bit more nuanced, covering the rise of the office worker and the concomitant entrance of the skyscraper to Mississippi’s urban scene. He also spends a great deal of time discussing the federal government’s new role in architecture, especially in the planning of housing, but also in new federal buildings built around the state during the 1930s.

His statements about the “Government” and its effects on architecture are uniformly positive, comparing it with the (negative) role of the “merchant-banker.” This is somewhat dubious given that he himself was employed by the “Government” in writing this essay. I suspect his assertion that the Depression proved an “architectural advantage” to Mississippi was not well received by his fellow architects, many of whom lost their once-thriving practices in the early 1930s. Of course, some of those out-of-work architects joined the original Historic American Building Survey (HABS) and gave us beautiful measured drawings and elevations of some of our most historic houses–a documentation effort that I am convinced would not have existed without the severity of the Depression–so maybe Martin’s perspective isn’t completely off-base.

Martin’s paragraph about the rise of two schools of architecture: historicist/classical and Modernist/”utility” is surprisingly fair and unbiased, given his earlier expressions of love for the antebellum period. It seems that he saw both schools as equally valid, but he ends his essay with a note about the confusion of the Mississippi architectural landscape and again yearns for the “dignity” of the old days.

Just in case you’ve missed the first three parts, you may want to check them out before proceeding:

WPA Guide to the Magnolia State
No Such Thing as “Southern Colonial”
Let’s Just Forget 1865-1920

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The World War and its aftermath of inflation brought to an end the merchant-banker era of exaggerated architectural design. Rural people, attracted by urban prosperity, migrated from farm to town, swelling the population and creating demands that the urban centers, with pre-war physical equipment, were not able to meet. A decade of unrest, the 1920′s brought along a fundamental alteration in Mississippi’s urban architecture. A variety of types appeared. French Provincial, Dutch Colonial, and the half-timbered manor house of Elizabethan England, subject, as always, to the contractor’s conception, became the popular types. These houses, the homes of business and professional families, were developed, remote from the business districts, in new residential areas called subdivisions. The Florida version of the Spanish style was adopted by a few builders on the Coast during the boom of 1925-27, but in Mississippi as a whole, this style is too conspicuously incongruous for popularity.[1]

When the business and professional families deserted the residential area traditionally allotted to them, skilled laborers and white-collar workers moved in. Here, between the “best family” section left untouched since pre-war days and the traditional outer fringe of Negro houses, the skilled laborers and middlemen built their bungalows. These bungalows, constituting the majority of urban dwellings in Mississippi today, vary in material–wood, stucco, or brick–but they do not vary essentially in design. They are squat, low-roof houses of from four to six rooms. Sitting close to the earth, half protected by the shade of chinaberry trees, they indicate the workingman’s somewhat raised standard of living; but their low ceilings, thin walls, and lack of basements show no regard either for the Mississippi climate or its traditions.

The greatest architectural change of the 1920′s, however, was the advent of the skyscraper. Prior to the war the demands for office space had been comparatively light. The second and third floors of thick-walled, brick structures with cornices, built for the purpose of housing retail establishments on the ground floor, had been partitioned into a number of offices. But post-war prosperity and the subsequent migration to urban centers increased the need for more modern buildings. Architectural advice was sought–a procedure as new to Mississippi as were the resultant buildings–and for the first time skyscraper methods of construction was employed in commercial buildings.

Lamar Life Building (1924-25), Jackson

At Jackson, the Tower Building (reputedly the tallest reenforced [sic] concrete building in the South: 18 stories high with a penthouse and a two-story tower)[2] and, at Meridian, the Threefoot Building are the state’s best examples of set-back design. C.H. Lindsley was architect for both buildings. Wyatt C. Hedrick, employing the same type of construction in designing the Lamar Life Insurance Building, Jackson, adorned it with Gothic motifs and a decorative treatment of the top. The thin rectangular New Merchants Bank Building, Jackson, [also by Hedrick] emphasizes its 17 stories by a perpendicular treatment.

With modern designs in commercial building came also for the first time engineering methods for industrial building. The best examples of these are the buildings of the Reliance Manufacturing Company, Columbia,[3] the Pioneer Hosiery Mill, Hattiesburg, and Meridian Garment Factory, Meridian.

In this period higher standards were gained in institutional and religious architecture. The 78 buildings of the Mississippi Insane Hospital are grouped with village-like informality on spreading, landscaped acres. The buildings, not over two stories in height, are designed in the manner of Colonial Williamsburg. The exterior walls are of red brick with white trim, and the roofs of the larger buildings are crowned with white cupolas. N.W Overstreet and A.H. Town were the architects. At Laurel, the Presbyterian Church, designed by Rathbone DeBuys, consists of two buildings joined by a tower. The architecture of the church proper is based upon twelfth century English Gothic precedent; the other building, the church school, is Collegiate Gothic in type.

As indicated, the depression proved an architectural advantage to Mississippi. Prior to the Government’s policy of extending financial aid to builders through housing agencies, a majority of Mississippi’s buildings were constructed without architectural advice or planning. They were not only of indefinite design but ill-fitted to the owner’s needs. But the Government, wielding the power of extended credit more intelligently than the merchant-banker, demanded that engineering principles be applied. Each applicant for a building loan was required to have the plans for his building approved by a competent staff of architects. Fortunately, the architects accepted from the beginning the hitherto ignored fact that, tradition notwithstanding, the urban Mississippian does not live out of doors; he lives and works indoors, and he has need for compactness and modern conveniences. This simple acceptance of fact is the outstanding characteristic of recent building trends.

Supervision of planning and construction brought to the State tangible evidences of two recently developed schools in architecture. The Howle home, Meridian, is typical of the school which follows traditional designs, with stress on Colonial types. The home is smaller than those of classic conception in the past, but the size does not removed the classical stamp. One story in height, with seven rooms, it is carefully detailed with a finely proportioned entrance and well-spaced windows. The exterior is of wood siding, while the interior has wood-paneled wainscoting, with wallpaper above that reproduces nicely an early pattern. The design of the R.F. Reed home, Tupelo, replaces the architectural doctrine of “balanced symmetry” with that of “utility.” Built for comfortable living, it is of a flat-roof design with sun and recreational decks. The exterior walls are white reenforced [sic] concrete with steel frame and metal casement windows.[4]

Meridian Post Office and Courthouse, photo by toml1959 (Flickr)

The Government, in addition to aiding in the building of dwelling houses, has placed a new Federal building, modern in design, in every town of important, and has aided financially in the construction of municipal buildings. The Jones County jail and New Albany city hall, the latter designed as a monolithic concrete structure by E.L. Malvaney, are example of municipal buildings, while the Meridian post office, designed by Frank Fort, is perhaps the State’s outstanding Federal building. Modern in design, with fluted pilasters and no cornices, the post office building is noted for its mass and proportion rather than for its detail.

These modern buildings are both too new and too few to do more than hint that Mississippi is entering upon a new era of building that may equal if not surpass the classic period of ante-bellum days. In the meanwhile, its architecture remains a confused picture of classic mansions, vertical weatherboarded houses, tenant shacks, bungalows, voluminous gingerbread displays, and thick-walled two- and three-story commercial buildings. The integrated character of life in the ante-bellum period, reflected in an architecture of spaciousness and dignity, is lacking.

——————————–

Back to post 1 This is too broad a generalization, and is particularly surprising given the many fine examples of the Spanish or Mediterranean style in Jackson’s own growing suburban neighborhoods, especially in Belhaven and along West Capitol Street.
Back to post 2 Not sure this is accurate, but not sure that it’s inaccurate–I suspect it is not, but I don’t know the context of the rest of the South enough to be definite.
Back to post 3 Sadly, this large brick structure, listed on the National Register as part of the Downtown Columbia Historic District and important not only for is massive presence but also for its connection with Gov. Hugh White’s Balance Agriculture with Industry (BAWI) program, was demolished for its brick, without a whimper of protest, at least that I heard, in 2007. I was shocked to drive through and see it reduced to neatly stacked piles of bricks, with just a wall or two still being taken down, in May of that year.
Back to post 4 I don’t know for sure, but I think the “Reed House” referred to here may be a vaguely International style house on Jackson Street, just a stone’s throw from the Art Moderne landmark Church Street School. Maybe someone from the Tupelo area can verify or even send a picture.


Categories: Architectural Research, Churches, Columbia, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Jails, Laurel, Meridian, New Albany, Post Offices, Tupelo

4 replies

  1. There’s definitely a sense of modern, regionalist thinking emerging here. Yet, the “incongruous” nature of Spanish Colonial Revival for Mississippi seems odd after all his waxing about the Spaniards in earlier times. Maybe Martin contributed the former spin, and Vardaman the latter? (See below.)

    Maybe he’s differentiating Palm Beach variants from Southern California types of Span. Colonial Rev./Mediterranean? I don’t know much at all about MS, but beyond your comment about Jackson, I know I have seen Spanish/Mediterranean houses in online photos for Hattiesburg and Greenville (on real estate sites, preservation sites, etc.)–so the style, broadly construed, must have been in a number of cities all over the state. While it was not as popular as more Anglo/French sorts of historicist styles in MS, it did exist. (Same thing in Arkansas and Texas–in the latter, as you might expect, styles like Tudor Revival were far more popular in East Texas, while Spanish/Mediterranean was more popular in South and Southwest Texas [although in the oil town of Midland in West TX it's hard to find the latter at all; Tudor is almost monolithic as a 1930s house-style choice; same thing in the East TX oil town of Kilgore].)

    The tone of these excerpts still sounds more like a Vardaman type of person than that of a young 1930s architect to me. V. may have involved Martin because he knew he wouldn’t be qualified or objective enough to write this last part about modern developments? Knowing that the work was being funded by the Feds, maybe he thought someone with a more “modern” perspective would help tone-wise; didn’t want to bite the modern/Federal hand that was feeding him, etc.? In WPA guides for other states that I’m familiar with, I believe I’ve read that there was a lot of collaboration among writers on these projects (true for artists as well).

  2. I had the same thought about the contradiction between the wonderful colonial Spanish in the first section and the incongruous Spanish in this one. And after I posted this, I thought about the Gov. Hugh White House in Columbia, and as you mention, the many fine Spanish houses in Hattiesburg and several large Delta towns, including Greenville. So, I just have to chalk this one up to not enough field trips to see what was out there.

    As for Vardaman, of course, he had gone to meet his great reward, whatever it was, in 1930, and I think it’s perhaps stereotyping to think that all young architects of the 1930s were progressive racially or politically. It’s not beyond reason to think that there were some who were traditionalists in every sense of the word and Martin (at least in his later career) certainly doesn’t seem like a person who ever embraced Modernism, architecturally or otherwise.

    His comments about the Government also seem to confirm that he saw the public as in need of direction, forced direction if necessary, in order to build homes for themselves, which is a pretty old-line conservative/aristocratic way of thinking.

    I certainly am open to proof that others were involved, including non-architects, but since he was noted in the introduction and since he claimed to be “co-author” I just have to stick with what’s in front of me unless proved wrong.

    And it’s been my pleasure to be able to make this more widely available to interested readers. It’s an interesting glimpse into where we used to be, for good and for ill.

    • By the 1930s, Bilbo was the resident, rabid racist in Mississippi. I doubt he had anything to do with the WPA Guide as he was not quite the writer Vardaman was. Vardaman’s legacy was not only in his populist oratory but that he wrote prolifically, spreading his ideas like the plague. Although Vardaman was long gone when Martin wrote this, the influence remained.

      As for a co-author, who were some of Martin’s colleagues at this time and who in Mississippi knew enough about the state’s architecture to collaborate (or perhaps direct) Martin?

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