Experience Mississippi! Report

Friday (4-24), I attended Experience Mississippi!, this year’s preservation conference sponsored jointly by the Mississippi Heritage Trust and the Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History. We met in the Old Capitol’s House of Representatives chamber. The theme of the conference was MHT’s 10 Most Endangered List, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. Many speakers were on hand to talk about their efforts to save the various buildings that have been listed on the six 10 Most lists since 1999. It was nice to see these committed people spending so much personal time and energy on the historic buildings in their communities.

As with my notes on the Mississippi Historical Society’s meeting in February, I’ve jotted down some random thoughts on the day:

White House Hotel, Biloxi

Lolly Barnes, outgoing president of MHT, talked about her efforts to find a developer for the old White House hotel in Biloxi. The hotel, which sits right on Beach Boulevard near the entrance to Keesler AFB, has been vacant for many years, but Jim Love, a local businessman acquired it in the 1990s with the dream of restoring it to its true glory. A primary goal in his dream was to retain the hotel’s public spaces for the public–not make it all a private condo development. Of course, condos are what seem to inspire most deep-pocketed developers nowadays. A whole variety of obstacles intervened in the last ten years, including the collapse of the tourist market after Sept. 11, and then of course, Katrina in 2005. Jim Love died last month, and his dream is still in limbo. The City of Biloxi has taken the hotel property to court as a blight, and it is certainly a possibility, especially in Biloxi, which seems to crave even more vacant beachfront for future condo and casino development. I appreciated this presentation because it showed that preservation is a struggle that sometimes doesn’t succeed despite our best and most passionate efforts. Maybe I’m just a pessimist? But sometimes it seems that preservation organizations don’t want to tell these kinds of stories for fear of “airing dirty laundry” or “being a downer.” Thanks to Lolly for telling this and helping us understand the many obstacles encountered and the perseverance shown over the last 10 years.

Architectural Historians: Hippest of the Hip

Greg Free, an architectural historian who is studying the many lives of the Lowry House (which is next door to the Manship House and is now owned by MHT) stole the whole show with his lunchtime talk. He made architectural history seem completely cool and hip–I mean when was the last time people were hanging on every word someone had to say about molding profiles (the bolection molding is original and may be antebellum??), saw marks, wallpapers, or flooring (three layers of flooring in this house!). Greg Free, I salute you!

King Edward Hotel, Jackson

In the afternoon, the man known to readers of the Jackson Free Press as Kamikaze–I’m not going to tell his real name because I prefer Kamikaze (stick with it, man!) gave an update on the various projects of the Watkins development group, which is the lead developer for the King Edward, Standard Life, and Farish street projects. Good news: the King Edward is on track to open in November of this year–wow, what a transformation that will be after 40 years of complete abandonment! In addition, while the hotel occupying the 8 lower floors will be a Hilton Garden Inn, Watkins fought for having the hotel retain the name “King Edward,” and won. Some will bemoan the fact that “King Edward” is actually a name that attached to the hotel in the 1950s when it underwent a transformation into more of a downtowner motel. For most of its life it was known as the Edwards Hotel, after the family that established and ran the hotel for many decades, beginning before the Civil War. However, the King Edward sign on top of the building has become such a part of the cityscape that everyone today knows the building as the King Edward, and that’s ok with me. So, congrats on keeping the name as an ongoing part of Jackson–preserving names is part of preserving places. Plans also include a farmers market in the area under the railroad overpass, but this seems perhaps not completely thought through when you realize that the already established farmers’ market at the fairgrounds is not full of vendors even on Saturdays much less on Tuesdays and Thursdays–where are all the vendors for this new farmer’s market supposed to come from? 

Farish Street, Jackson

Regarding the Farish Street “entertainment district” project, much-maligned and much-postponed over the past decade, Kamikaze said that work is about to really kick into high gear and the first block is expected to open this coming fall. Headliners on the street will be B.B. King’s blues house and a new Subway Lounge, a Jackson blues landmark that unfortunately pretty much fell down and then was demolished a few years ago. There was also a dubious plan to use Town Creek, which runs between Farish Street and the railroad, as a waterfront, assuming the Two Lakes project (a very long story that basically boils down to putting in another dam on the Pearl River, creating several developable islands near the downtown area, ostensibly for flood control) goes through–the damming of the Pearl would back up Town Creek, thus apparently creating a San Antonio-like downtown riverfront. A boutique hotel (another hotel?) and lots of urban apartments/condos would round out the mix, and Kamikaze included the assurance that this will in no way gentrify Farish Street. Which reminds me of something my momma often said, “Malvaney?” she would say, nodding significantly, “you know what I always say about ‘too good to be true?'” And I would bob my head in sage agreement, even though she never completed the thought and left me wondering what was it that I should know about “too good to be true”?

Where Have All the People Gone?

Since I mentioned the attendees at the Miss. Historical Society meeting in February, it’s only fair that I touch on the Experience Mississippi crowd. While the average age was, in my non-scientific estimation, a couple of decades less than the MHS meeting (which is good), I was disappointed by what I consider the low number of attendees–maybe 50 tops? I know of many local preservation leaders who would have benefited from attending this one-day, low-priced ($60, including lunch) event, so why weren’t they there? The speakers were all great, sharing in-depth their experiences saving historic properties, and yet only a small number of people were there to hear them. I realize that preservation is always local, but as Lolly Barnes said at the lunch, these types of events allow us a venue to “not have to explain ourselves,” where preservation is an already assumed value that we can build on and learn new things from other preservationists around the state. What needs to happen to grow the attendance at this annual conference? Is it a question of marketing? Or is it a deeper problem of lack of interest even in our preservation leaders? Are we losing our grassroots? I don’t know the answer to these questions–does anyone have any ideas?

Categories: Biloxi, Historic Preservation, Hotels, Jackson, Preservation People/Events

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