I saw this article last week, but since it’s pretty much a done deal and because it’s so depressing, I decided I didn’t want to destroy the beautiful symmetry of my Jane Jacobs’ series to insert it into last week’s posts.
The Vicksburg Post reports that the Speed Street School, built in 1894 and designed by Vicksburg builder/architect William Stanton is going to be demolished by its new private owners. Speed Street School is just one of about four 19th-century public school buildings left in the state. Off-hand I can think of only three others: Meridian’s Witherspoon School, Meridian’s Wechsler School (the oldest public school for African Americans in the state) and Wesson’s Public School. Am I missing one or more? Anyway, it’s a rare treasure, even though the new owners obviously think it’s only treasure is in the salvaged brick and wood they can sell out of it.
Bogalusa, La.-based Will Branch Antique Lumber, will recycle material from the century-old property, including the bricks, wood floors and support beams. The demolition could begin in two weeks, legal counsel for the building’s owners said Monday.
City inspectors condemned the former Speed Street school in September after sewage was found backing up from pipes inside most of the 12 federally subsidized units. Wastewater that had saturated upper floors caved in ceilings on lower units. Additional structural damage discovered clinched the decision by the city to deem the building unfit for human habitation.
While backed up sewage is certainly a major problem that needs to be fixed for human occupation, I don’t think it merits demolishing an otherwise solid building. (Something I learned on the Coast after Katrina is that “Condemned” doesn’t mean “Must be Demolished” just that people can’t live there in its current condition.) The alleged “structural damage” is never defined in this article, and in fact, the word on the street is that Speed Street had a new roof since Katrina and didn’t have a crack evident anywhere. The main damage was that the sheetrock partition walls put up in the 1980s had been trashed, but those weren’t structural in any way.
The Mississippi Regional Housing Authority issued eviction notices for about 30 remaining residents in September when Marshall Street LLC, which purchased the building in February, did not immediately opt for public funds upon its purchase of the building earlier this year. A ground-up renovation was planned by project developers.
The three-story, brick building at 901 Speed St. was built in 1894 and housed Speed Street School until 1940, making it the last remaining 19th century public school building in Vicksburg. Its fall into disrepair can be traced only to recent decades, with its conversion in the late 1960s to rent-assisted living spaces under a number of different owners. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985.
I’m not sure what the article is referring to about a “ground-up renovation” unless that is a euphemism for “demolition.” The people I’ve talked to said the new owners bought the building specifically intending to tear it down because of the many problems with the tenants of the building that included prostitution and a murder in the last few years. I had those same problems in my own neighborhood a few years back, so I sympathize, but the solution isn’t to demolish the building, it’s to clean out the bad apples and maybe even re-develop the building for something else that would be more productive for the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, this is just the latest in a decades-long string of abandonments and demolitions in Vicksburg that have shown a flimsy preservation ethic in that town. While the school building wasn’t protected by a local historic designation, I would think that anyone who cared about history would see its National Register listing and realize that it is an important place in Mississippi’s history that shouldn’t be demolished on a whim. Is it that only antebellum buildings are valued? I thought we had moved beyond that line of thought, but maybe not. Vicksburg used to rival Natchez in its historic architecture, but that was some time ago. If I were a sociologist, it would be an interesting study to figure out just why it was that Natchez developed a preservation ethic while Vicksburg didn’t. Preservation involves making sometimes tough decisions to preserve history, working through short-term obstacles and finding another way besides demolition. The fact of the matter is that Natchez has made those hard choices more often than Vicksburg has.
RIP Speed Street School (1894-2009). I’m sorry we couldn’t save you.