Historical Society Report

A good crowd, with an average age of, ooooh, let’s just say, above the average age of the rest of Mississippi, showed up to the Old Capitol Friday and Saturday for the annual meeting of the Mississippi Historical Society. For the first time since my old graduate school days, I sat down with a set of notecards and took some notes–I did it all for you, Faithful Readers, just remember that! Here are some excerpts from my notes:

Jack Elliott, Historic Archaeologist, MDAH, gave a talk about B.L.C. Wailes, a man who, whatever else he may have accomplished, already had a leg up on life because of his three initials and one surname. He also had a rockin’ hairdoo, at least in Audobon’s drawing. Wailes described himself as a naturalist, but he was one of the first to take notice of the built history in the world surrounding his home at “Meadvilla” in Washington, north of Natchez. His diaries described Indian mounds and sacred sites and his notes about contemporary buildings have become an invaluable reference for researchers in recent years. Wailes also founded the first Historical Society of Mississippi in 1858, but it went defunct with the Civil War and Wailes’ death in 1862. Elliott concluded by observing that “Wailes calls us back to a time when the world was experienced as a unity, to a reality that includes more than the sum of specialized knowledge.”

War Memorial Building, Jackson (E.L. Malvaney, archt.)--This is one of 800+ buildings MDAH has officially brought under its protection through the Mississippi Antiquities Act. It was only 46 years old when it was designated a Mississippi Landmark.

War Memorial Building, Jackson (E.L. Malvaney, archt.)–This is one of 800+ buildings MDAH has officially brought under its protection through the Mississippi Antiquities Act. It was only 46 years old when it was designated a Mississippi Landmark.

Elbert Hilliard, Director Emeritus, MDAH, talked about the history of the Mississippi Antiquities Act, which he knows very well because he was around when the current version was passed by the Legislature in 1970. Designated properties were known as State Archaeological Landmarks until 1983, showing that the initial intent was focused more on archaeological sites than on buildings. An earlier, not-very-forceful version of the Antiquities Act was passed in 1938, and MDAH director Charlotte Capers liked to tell the story that she was the first to implement the AA, to save Pocahontas Mound from the Highway Dept. (our trusty villain :-) Some of the Mississippi Landmarks preserved over the early years in the 1970s and 80s were the Jackson Landing Site in Hancock County, Byram Swinging Bridge, Lafayette County Courthouse (the supervisors wanted to brick the stucco facade (!), Central High School in Jackson, and the War Memorial Building (which I should note was only 46 years old when it was designated in 1986–only a couple of years older than the Gulfport Library when it was designated). Lots of people complain about the Antiquities Law, but it’s hard to imagine how diminished the state’s historic places would be without it.

Ken P’Pool, Deputy Preservation Officer, MDAH, noted that preservation of the Old Capitol when it was abandoned in 1903 was one of the first missions of the Department when it was founded in 1902 under Dunbar Rowland. Not many people thought that old dump was worth saving back then, and it took MDAH over a decade to convince the state to turn it into a state office building. Controversial preservation battles are nothing new, and as I always like to say, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Say it ain't so, Dunbar!

Say it ain’t so, Dunbar!

Mimi Miller, Director, Historic Natchez Foundation, played a whole series of slides showing all the many important landmarks that Natchez lost before the Natchez Historic Foundation was established in 1972 and the Mississippi Antiquities Act was passed. People think of Natchez as the best-preserved town in MS, but they don’t realize how many wonderful places, including the City Hall and Market (similar to the French Market in New Orleans) were wantonly demolished in the 1940s-1960s.

Hans Rasmussen, of Louisiana State University, put the smack-down on the revered founding director of MDAH, Dunbar Rowland, saying he was a disagreeable and dictatorial fellow, although Patricia Galloway of UT, Austin allowed that he was a pretty good archivist. I believe the word “fractious” was also used–and just to be clear, these are considered bad characteristics?


Across the Great Divide: At Friday’s luncheon at the Old Capitol Inn, which featured the best  conference luncheon food I’ve ever had (seriously good!), the speaker was Ron Miller, longtime director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, who started his career in Mississippi preservation with the Dept. of Archives and History in 1972 (a great year!). [if I use lots of exclamation points at the beginning, maybe you won’t notice what a downer I’ve become by the end.] Elbert Hilliard, director emeritus of MDAH, introduced Miller and gave a very warm introduction in which he told this story: When Miller started working for MDAH, just having graduated from the Winterthur program, MDAH was at the beginning, or in the midst of, the “restoration” project at Jefferson College, north of Natchez. Miller was only one of two architectural historians in the state, and the only one working for MDAH, so Hilliard and Miller took a trip down to Jefferson College to check on the work and get Miller up to speed. What Miller found was not good–Portland cement being used instead of lime mortar, tearing out of original material, etc. He told Hilliard that the work needed to stop so that research could be done and an architect with experience in restoring historic buildings brought on board. Hilliard went to the State Building Commission and other top state officials, and, on the word of a guy fresh out of graduate school, they put the brakes on the project and began following his recommendations.

I had to wonder as I listened to this really engaging story, whether this level of professional respect has been extended to the many other young architectural historians and preservationists who have come to (and often, regretably, gone from) Mississippi  in the last 37 years since this famous incident. Is my initial observation on this post about the relative age of the crowd an indication that, in fact, new historians and preservationists are not being nurtured and encouraged, but often left to fend for themselves while the Founding Generation continues to talk amongst themselves? There are too few preservation-minded people in this world for us to gather into age-defined denominations and operate in semi-detached worlds, suspiciously glancing over at the other crowd. Young preservationists need to respect and learn from the many accomplishments of the older generation (and maybe knock off the gratuitous griping about how the standards of the past were so low). Older preservationists need to recognize the talents and passions of the young, encouraging them to continue fighting the good fight, giving them the tools to understand the long-view in every situation, and most importantly, allowing them to take leadership positions. No organization, no society can be healthy with only one age group, whether it’s skewed toward older folks or toward younger. We need a good balance of all groups; otherwise, I fear that in a few years, the meeting hall will be empty and all our preservation successes will be a hollow memory.

Categories: Historic Preservation, Preservation People/Events

4 replies

  1. EL u r a damn good writer! I already knew about ur wit. This is great stuff.


    • Thanks, Claude, and it’s great to see you around these parts!
      Check around later in the week for a post about your neighborhood. I’ll be interested in what you think.


  2. I just wish I could have been there for the Dunbar smackdown! Thanks for covering the event for your faithful readers who couldn’t be there…and for your thoughtful analysis of the changing of the guard, or sometimes lack thereof. It is certainly a conversation worth having.


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