I’ve thought alot about the King Edward lately, as much about the preservation story of the last 40 years than about the recent grand re-opening. I realize that it’s dangerous to use the King Edward story as a model for preservation because it’s a rare resource in this mostly rural and small-town state. For one thing, while the building might be tiny in a place like New York City, it’s huge for Mississippi, and its largeness is one of the things that kept it from being destroyed. On the other hand, plenty of other large buildings, including the Heidelberg Hotel just down the street, were destroyed in the mania of urban renewal.
The lessons I am trying to learn from the King Edward, and the attributes I think are most helpful for preservation-minded folks of all stripes, are patience, taking the long view, and perseverance in the face of tremendous opposition. In Mississippi, that opposition usually comes in the form of an extreme version of pessimism–almost the exact opposite of the optimism I see in a place like the Gryder House–“we’re too poor to have beautiful places or do great things.”
Along that line, I’ve come across a few opinion pieces from years past that might help us as we consider frustratingly difficult projects like the Threefoot Building in Meridian.
The first piece was published in the Jackson Journal of Business by the publisher himself, Joel Alexander, in the August 1987 issue. I’ll only reprint snippets because it does go on, but you know it’s going to be bad when the headline is “Save the King Edward? Better to Blow it Up . . .”:
The successful and ongoing redevelopment and revitalization of our downtown area is a feather in the caps of local business leaders, developers, and especially the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, who frankly made much of it possible.
And now all eyes are set on the 200 block of West Capitol, the next logical area of rapid redevelopment. But the largest building in that block–the abandoned King Edward Hotel–stands directly in the way. In more ways than one. Not because it hasn’t been renovated. That probability approaches the realm of being hypothetical. . . .
It stands in the way simply because it is still there. In order for that block to become a new mixed use of retail, offices, restaurants, clubs, and residential–with the renovation of the north side and the adjoining train station, the King Edward must come down to make room for necessary parking and frontal access.
. . . .
I can already hear cries of “insensitive” from historic preservationists. To the contrary, in 1980, this writer was directly responsible for nominating the Hotel Vicksburg to the National Register status. My signature is on the application. But that was another time, another place, another tax season.
. . . .
As the dilapidated property wretches through condemnation and eminent domain proceedings, talk of replacement value or returning it to its once grand status should be accompanied by an accounting to this community of “who needs it?” Better yet to blow it up, thus allowing pent-up development demands to take their own course. Meanwhile, healing that old broken Mill Street dogleg.
It’s easy in hindsight to condemn Mr. Alexander, but I’m sure many people thought the same, even if they didn’t put it in writing for the whole world to see 20 years later. I do have to interject that anyone who talks with such relish of blowing up a beautiful building of any age should just not even try to argue he’s a preservationist, especially when he then pretty much admits it’s all about taxes.
The Clarion-Ledger went back and forth on the King Edward, at times advocating for its preservation, other times consigning it to the landfill, as in this March 13, 2001 editorial, ominously titled “King Edward: Options expire, time to raze it”:
Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. is to be commended for wanting to save the old King Edward Hotel in downtown, but the reality of the situation is that it’s doomed.
Those who have labored long in the vineyard of wanting to restore the venerable structure have seen their hopes rise and fall like a roller-coaster over the years.
. . . .
Hoped-for uses have run through just about every conceivable option, from apartments to a casino.
Now it’s time to face reality. Built in 1923, the 12-story, 300-room structure has stood vacant since 1967–dragging down the west end of downtown Jackson with it.
. . . .
Historic preservationists point to the building as being on the National Register of Historic Places and it indeed has earned that honor. But there is just no economically viable way to save it and it presents a health hazard as it is.
The city last week initiated legal proceedings to condemn the building. Although miracles can happen, neither the mayor nor Council members should hold their breath.
Grand hopes have been dashed too many times.
The thing is, everything the C-L says is true: at the time, the economics of the project were not viable, the building had dragged down the west end of Capitol (perhaps that would have happened anyway, just like downtowns with no King Edward-type building suffered all over the country), hopes had come and gone. How can you argue against those things?
Well, leave it to the determined writers of letters to the editor to interject hope and imagination and the grand ideals of preservation that we professional-types sometimes forget: read the letter Mr. William Atkinson of Yazoo City wrote in the January 12, 2006 edition of the Clarion-Ledger:
Recent remarks by Jackson Mayor Frank Melton concerning the fate of the King Edward Hotel building are as transparent as they are ominous (“Melton to start 2006 with focus on hotel, apartments, Dec. 31). They belie the fact that he has never entertained an interest in rescuing the structure.
. . . .
Sorely would Jackson’s architectural store be diminished by this impending loss. The King Edward is one of the few examples of monumental architecture in the city. A grand hotel dating from the 1920s, executed in solid masonry with figurative period detail, it imparts character and urbanity from its impressive vista.
Indeed, it is an urban statement whose scale is not present in other cities of similar size to Jackson. Its Beaux Arts majesty surpasses anything put up in Jackson since 1931.
Where are the architects and preservationists who should be alarmed at the prospect of a valued historic edifice being cavalierly destroyed by a hothead whose administration is clueless when it comes to nuances of aesthetics, culture and historicism?
Every Mississippian has something at stake in the survival of the King Edward and the best of downtown Jackson.
Wow, thank you Mr. Atkinson–that was a treat to re-read!
I’m not sure where I’m going with this except to try to be a better preservationist by learning lessons from past battles. I’m not a naturally patient person. I’m not a naturally optimistic or hopeful person. But my observation of successful preservation stories is that patience and optimism and determination to be “the last man standing” (if I might pull from a Jimmy Buffett song) often go farther and with more success than an ability to describe the style of a building down to its tiniest detail.
I hope the Threefoot project gets off the ground soon, but if it doesn’t, these lessons might help us keep the building standing until it does. There will always be Joel Alexanders, but let’s hope we can be like William Atkinson.