An Architectural Primer for Mississippi

Two articles have gone up on the Mississippi History Now site that will help give a good basic view of architecture in the Magnolia State. For those unfamiliar with it, History Now is the online publication of the Mississippi Historical Society, and is geared toward elementary and secondary history teachers. A lesson plan supplements each article.

The two articles of interest to the MissPres universe (or could I just call it the “MissPresVerse”?) form a two-part primer on the history of architecture in Mississippi from pre-historic times up until the 1950s or so: “Architecture in Mississippi: From Prehistoric to 1900” and “Architecture in Mississippi during the 20th Century.” Written by Todd Sanders, an architectural historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the articles divide our architecture into stylistic categories and vernacular building forms, effectively tying our local landmarks to the larger forces at work in nationally. Sanders, as you may recall, is also the author of Jackson’s North State Street, published last year by Arcadia Press.

Obviously, these articles are meant to be a basic exploration of Mississippi’s architectural history, not full-scale studies. They join the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s recently published Preservation Curriculum as useful resources to help teachers and students understand and appreciate architecture.

Amazingly, Mississippi still awaits a real in-depth statewide architectural study. The first attempt, a classic and a great basis on which to build, is Mary Wallace Crocker’s Historic Architecture of Mississippi, published in 1973 when I was just an innocent babe, or well, maybe not so innocent, but just a babe nonetheless. As might be expected, the focus of that book was on nineteenth-century architecture, and on the grand landmarks from that period. Inexplicably, when the Mississippi Historical Society and MDAH embarked on their joint Heritage of Mississippi series, whose stated purpose is to span the history of the state, focusing on important subjects or eras, the editorial board decided to include the state’s architectural history as just one interwoven topic within the larger (and beautifully done) Art in Mississippi by Patti Carr Black, published in 1998. It’s significant that in the summary of the book on the MDAH website, the emphasis is completely on the state’s visual artists, no mention at all of its architects or architecture. Architecture obviously is one of the arts, but it fits only partially and somewhat fitfully within that topic, as it is also a craft, a functional object, and an industry; a good study should also investigate urban and economic development, engineering advances, and cultural geography.

I am told, however, that there are murmurings of a Mississippi book to be included soon in the Society of Architectural Historians’ Buildings of the United States series, recently revived through the University of Virginia Press. Louisiana already has such a study, designed to be not only an overview of the state’s architectural history but also a geographical guide to the buildings, so it should be a point of pride for Mississippi to try to finish its book before Alabama or Arkansas.

Categories: Architectural Research, Books

6 replies

  1. While Alabama does not have a Buildings of the United State volume out, there has been a book on the architectural history of Alabama out for over twenty years. Robert Gamble’s “Alabama Catalog” was published in 1987 by the University of Alabama Press and won the Antoinette Forrester Downing Book Award from the Society of Architectural Historians in 1988. From personal experience, I can say that the “Alabama Catalog” definitely deserved that award as it is a great architectural history detailing every style from vernacular styles to Greek Revival to Tudor. While the original edition is out of print, an abridged version (Historic Architecture in Alabama: A Guide to Styles and Types, 1810-1930) was released in 2001. If you have not read either book, you might want to and the “Alabama Catalog” is not a boring read. Robert Gamble is my favorite architectural writer due to the readibility of his prose; the “Alabama Catalog” is one architectural book that cannot be substituted for NyQuil.

    I would like to suggest that a locally produced Mississippi architectural history should be created. I have seen the Buildings of the United States books on Virginia and Louisiana. They both pale in comparison to what has already been printed on both those states. Mills Lane’s “Architecture of the Old South: Virginia” and “Architecture of the Old South: Louisiana,” as well as Jessie Poesch and Barbara Sorelle Bacot’s “Louisiana Buildings, 1720-1940: The Historic American Buildings Survey” are all much better than the Buildings of the United States books. Mississippi does have the University Press of Mississippi, which is a good publishing house, so it is possible to create a great architectural history of the state.

    Perhaps you could help me by telling me whether there are any books on the architectural history of Arkansas. I have come across almost none in my quest to create a great architectural library. I think you may be right that there are no architectural books that have been published about that state.


  2. I loved Alabama Catalog, and it made a big impression on me when I found it in graduate school. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that Alabama didn’t have an architectural history, just that they don’t have a BUS volume yet, although I’ve heard that Gamble might be writing that too if and when it gets funded.

    As for Mills Lane, I’m still annoyed that he decided neither Alabama nor Mississippi deserved a book of its own, so he combined us into one. Definitely love Louisiana Buildings too–such a treasure trove! Unfortunately, Mississippi has only a few buildings given the full HABS treatment, with measured drawings, etc. The HABS documentation we do have is almost primarily photographs, which are great of course, but the drawings really do add a whole different level of documentation to draw upon.

    You’re right that the BUS volumes aren’t technically “architectural histories” in that they are meant to be guide books while summarizing the history for each region of the state. But I used the Buildings of Washington DC when I spent a few months there a couple years ago, and it was great for the purpose–I walked all over the city with it, while also learning lots about the architectural history of the place and gaining new insights into styles and construction methods along the way.

    I know that a good architectural history of Columbus was in the works in the late 1980s through MDAH and University Press, but something went wrong and it never got published, which is a shame–Columbus deserves its own book at the same level as Natchez has, in my opinion.

    The only book I own about Arkansas is One-Room Schoolhouses of Arkansas as Seen Through a Pinhole–a fascinating book, but not exactly an architectural history of the state.

    Have you read Architects and Builders of North Carolina? Wow, that book has really made me look at the history of architects, builders, and the trades in general in a whole new light, and has really informed my outlook on our own architectural profession in Mississippi.


  3. I have not read “Architects and Builders of North Carolina”, but I have read “North Carolina Architecture” by Catherine Bishir (the same author as “Architects and Builders”). I like the “North Carolina Architecture” book as I can use it whenever I need an extra table; my original hardcover edition is enormous.

    I am familiar with “One-Room Schoolhouses of Arkansas…” as well as one other book: “Ozark Vernacular Houses: A Study of Rural Homeplaces in the Arkansas Ozarks.” The only other Arkansas Architecture books I am aware of are monographs on Fay Jones and Marlon Blackwell and various magazine articles I have discovered.

    It is unfortunate to hear that the Columbus architectural history was nixed for some reason. I guess that means the only architectural book on Columbus is “Reflections: Homes and History of Columbus, Mississippi,” which is merely a look at the antebellum houses that make money for the city. Perhaps a little cynical view, I am glad that those antebellum houses are still there and people from Columbus (Columbusians?) are not as bad about their antebellum houses as Natchezians. I wish that they would learn to appreciate the other forms of architecture that are around them. “Reflections” is a good book in that it is better than nothing.

    I agree that it is unfortunate that there is a combined Mississippi/Alabama volume from Mills Lane. I wonder if it pertains to the relatively lesser period of settlement for the two states. Of the states featured in the Architecture of the Old South series, only Tennessee, Kentucky, and Louisiana (and of course Mississippi and Alabama) became states after the Revolutionary War. The other states had been settled since the 1600s, except for Georgia, a newcomer settled in the 1730s. Louisiana still has buildings remaining from French settlement, which commenced in earnest in the 1710s. Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi, due to their frontier nature, saw the arrival of “high styles” of architecture later than the other states Lane profiled. Unfortunately, Mills Lane will not get the chance to publish anymore volumes in the series, something we are all a little poorer for.

    While HABS did not cover Mississippi as extensively as in other neighboring states, didn’t MDAH undertake studies of the old plantations and buildings during the 1930s? If MDAH did, then Mississippi has a leg up on Alabama. The Alabama Department of Archives and History did not do any similar study, most of the architectural history of Alabama is in the HABS archives, which is why it is lucky for architectural historians that Alabama is one of the most extensively covered states in the nation in those archives.

    Finally, I am glad that Gamble is likely the one to write Alabama’s entry in the “Buildings of the United States” series. With all due respect to Alice Bowsher, John Schnorrenberg, Michael Fazio, and the other authors working in the Alabama architectural history field, Robert Gamble is the dean of Alabama architectural history. I first read the “Alabama Catalog” cover-to-cover when I was seven; I still re-read it about every two years.


  4. That response was too long, my apologies.


  5. Don’t worry about too long–as you can see, I never do :-)

    I’ve never heard that about MDAH and the old plantations in the 1930s. What HABS drawings we do have are from the 1930s, overseen by A. Hayes Town, and they’re beauties. And then there’s a pretty good photograph collection apparently from the WPA and related agencies–really invaluable pictures in that. And I do believe MDAH got into archaeology in the 1930s and that’s where alot of the initial survey of the mounds, etc. started.

    Yes, you’re right, as far as I know, the only Columbus book is “Reflections” and yes, it’s pretty light on the analysis.

    How about Columbusiers?

    Wow, cover-to-cover when you were seven!?? Man, the bug hit you early! No wonder you know so much!


  6. I have my mom to thank/blame.


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