Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away I wrote a post about the layers of history we can see in our architecture by looking at the backs and sides of buildings. That post ”Where History Meets Architecture” was about the old covered stairway on the back facade of the old Paramount Theater in Clarksdale, originally the segregated entrance for Clarksdale’s African American movie-goers.
Sometimes the backs and sides of buildings are areas that owners, with good intentions, want to see prettied up and turned into courtyards for after-work get-togethers or the like. But if we don’t watch carefully, we’ll miss the deeper meanings to be found in these “unpretty” places and we can easily clean them up so well that we remove one or more layers that add depth to our history.
I found something similar to that back stair, but even less obvious, a while back in Tylertown, down in Walthall County. A friend of mine–a Tylertown native–and I were looking at this building, which my friend informed me was an old movie theater:
Well, since I’m a sucker for Roman brick (that long narrow brick you see here) and I liked the Modernism of the building and the sunlight on the facade, I took a picture. As we walked up closer, my friend pointed out that on the side of the building, right near the front, was this area that looked like an old doorway, now patched with a lighter shade of brick:
My friend, who is black, explained to me that that’s where Tylertown’s African American residents entered the theater, turned right and went up the stairs to the balcony. Ever since then, I’ve tried to remember to peek around the corner of theaters, and last week in Hattiesburg, I saw another almost identical feature on the Saenger Theater (which made the cut on our 101 List).
I suspect that this brick patch represents a similar side stair that took black patrons up to the balcony. The fact that it’s on a “secondary” facade doesn’t make it less important than the wonderful Art Deco “primary” facade–in fact, that’s the whole point. Both the great facade and the patch on the side should be preserved as they each teach us something valuable. That’s one more reason I love looking at old buildings–just when you think you’ve got them all figured out, you take another look and see something you hadn’t noticed before!
I think and hope that we’ve reached a time in our history where all Mississippians can recognize the value of these layers of history–not to beat ourselves up over, but to have a deeper understanding of ourselves and the history we share. The layers can also tangibly demonstrate to us that things that made perfect sense to a large proportion of one generation may make no sense at all to us, and perhaps that realization will give us a bit of humility in our own assumptions today, recognizing that the next generation may find us similarly ridiculous.
Are theaters the only building types we would find this remnant of segregation, or will there be patched doorways in other kinds of buildings, like department stores, depots, hospitals? Courthouses? City Halls? Robert Weyeneth of the University of South Carolina wrote an interesting article titled “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past” in the Fall 2005 of the Public Historian journal, but much more work needs to be done to tweak out all the ways Jim Crow was carried out in our built environment. Let’s get out there and look closer, shall we? What we find may or may not surprise us, but it will definitely be interesting!