Book Quotes: WPA Guide to the Magnolia State

As I get back on my feet from my French connection, I figured this week would be a good one to dedicate to another in the Book Quotes series. This week, we’ll take the section titled “Architecture” from Mississippi: Guide to the Magnolia State, published in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never actually read the whole book all the way through–a deficiency I plan to address by adding the book to my “To Read” pile, which always grows faster than it sinks. In addition to the section on Architecture, the book also includes descriptions of the larger towns in the state, descriptions of “Negro Folkways” and “White Folkways,” histories of industry and commerce, agriculture, religion, education, and the press, among various other interesting snippets.

The book is not without its flaws–racial and economic stereotypes, and romanticization of the antebellum period and the Lost Cause (W. White may have to cover his ears and take himself to a happy place) are common–and in the section on architecture we see the beginnings of several myths about Mississippi’s architectural development that have grown and flourished and seem impossible to debunk. But it’s worth remembering that this work, along with the first HABS documentation efforts, represent the first systematic attempt to define Mississippi’s architecture, and so sometimes makes assumptions that later research has shown to be incorrect. These should be forgiven in such an early work, struggling to both create and use the new language of architectural history. Its greater value is in its attempt to summarize the architecture of the entire state, taking a bird’s eye view, and in the insights it gives into how the earliest architectural historians in the state saw and interpreted the landscape, informed by personal inspection of many buildings which tragically are no longer standing for those of us in later generations to see for ourselves.

In the Preface to the 1938 edition, the State Director Eri Douglass and the State Editor Gene Holcomb note the difficulties of their mostly primary research and acknowledge “occasional inaccuracies.” They also single out several people for special appreciation, one of whom is Beverly Martin, a young architect from Natchez–readers with a good memory may remember Martin was the associate architect of the Braden Elementary School (1949) with R.W. Naef. Martin’s biographical sketch in the 1962 American Architects Directory states that he “co-authored the Mississippi Guide Book,” and I interpret that to mean he actually wrote the section on architecture.

Where I see that the text contains inaccuracies or makes statements that have since been called into questions, I’ve commented in footnotes.

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Just as transportation lines form the skeleton of the social organism, so architecture reveals its character. In Mississippi’s homes the student may recreate the pattern of the State’s everyday existence; and enough remains of its early architecture to evoke a period of romance that has had few equals. French voyageur, English Tory, Spanish Don, and Southern planter have crossed the great stage of the State, and each has left the color of his drama in his architecture.

"Old French Fort" (HABS, photo 1936)

The French were the first to settle. On the Coast, a locale rich in lore, their impress remains in the thick squat masonry and solid shipshape timbers of the old fort on Krebs Lake at Pascagoula, built by Sieur Joseph de la Point in 1718, before the founding of New Orleans.[1]

Following the French, in 1763 Great Britain took over the empire west of the Alleghanies; in the Natchez region English colonists pushed even while the Atlantic seaboard was cutting its bonds with the mother country. No structure like the Krebs Fort remains as a monument to English settlement. Instead, the English built log cabins and rough-hewn blockhouses indistinguishable in type from those in the eastern half of the Continent.

But if the English left little that was distinctive, the dandified ideas of the Spanish, brought in with the last score years of the eighteenth century, made a profound impression. Swinging up from the Coast as far as the Natchez bluffs, the Dons left as distinct and as civilized an architecture as could be wrung from the wilderness. It is recognizable in the pleasantly-canted roof, the strong concentration of ornament, and the flair for flamboyant, if rare, color of the type known as “Spanish Provincial.”

At the close of the eighteenth century Virginia and Carolina emigrants pushed into the region about and to the south of Natchez. The effect of this mixture of Old World and New was a fusion of significance. The grand staircases, spacious rooms, and haughty colonnades of the newcomers combined admirably with the delicate spindling work and fluid lines of their predecessors to produce homes in the “Grand Manner.”

The Americans who came after the Spanish, settled themselves on the Natchez bluffs and, separated by wooded ravines, built homes of a type close to the Grand Manner yet distinctively rural. They made use of the same motives, but their adaptation of it was rangy, more open. Fronted by long single or double recessed galleries, the roof forming a transverse ridge, the homes were one-story, story-and-a-half, or two-story; and their simple, unflaunted dignity marked them for what their name implies, the “Southern Planter.”

At a later date the Mississippi “hill-billy” made his home north and east of the Natchez country. One to every ridge, the houses were of logs (later clapboarded) with a wide wind-swept hall, known as the “dog-trot,” running through the center, and with the cook house in the rear. As the people became wealthier and more prosperous, they closed in the center hall, often decoratively, and added long front porches. The dog-trot houses were so natural and traditional to these pioneers who had migrated from Tennessee, the Piedmont of Georgia, and the Carolinas, they constitute a contribution to American architectural types. A log cabin was an indivisible unit; in order to expand, another had to be built. That the hilly-billy should lay his two cabins parallel and roof the open space between to make a hallway was natural. To keep the cook shack separate was dictated by fire hazard and the desire to keep the heat from the living room–time and saving steps for his wife were no part of the frontiersman’s consideration. To sheathe the logs with clapboards was the first evidence of the end of the frontier. To wall in the dog-trot and add a porch was the last.[2]

North of the hill-billy country, in the Central Hills and especially in the Black Prairie region during the “flush times” of the 1830’s, a Greek Revival type of home was introduced, known locally as the “Black Belt” from the geographic region that produced it. The Black Belt home, contrasted with the house of the Grand Manner type, placed emphasis on sheer refinement of ornament and attenuation of proportions–a trait apparently common to all architectural cycles toward their wane. The Shields home at Macon best expresses the characteristics of this form, though many examples may be found between Macon and Aberdeen, and, less concentrated, in the Northern Hills. The Georgia emigrants who built this type were evidently remembering their native models.

A number of ante-bellum homes were “imported,” a term derived from having either the builder or the architect from England, France, Scotland, or Germany. Lochinvar at Pontotoc is typical, but the best examples are in Madison County, around Canton. The Delta, too, has many imported homes in this sense of the term, distinguishable by rubbed brick forms and asymmetrical planning, considered a sin in earlier times. The Delta, last settled, was peopled by luxury-loving Kentuckians and Carolinians who built from designs more often seen in the Ohio Valley.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Natchez (HABS photo, 1936)

The character, tastes, and economy of early Mississippians left their effect also upon church architecture. Along the Coast, in the Natchez district, and, following the flush times of the 1830’s, in Holly Springs, Oxford, and Columbus, the wealthy planter and professional class built many churches with slave labor. Constructed usually of home-burned brick, the churches were, as a rule, Gothic Revival in design, with tall spires and stained glass windows. St. Mary’s Cathedral, Natchez, completed in 1851, the Christian Church, Columbus, and the Episcopal Church, Holly Springs, built in 1858, are examples. The windows often were imported and unmatched. Interiors expressed good taste and a touch of luxury in open beams, delicate hand-carved decorations, and solid comfortable pews. More often than not a gallery extended across the front of the auditorium for the use of slaves who were prevented by law from having a church of their own.

But as the dog-trot type of house in the Piney Woods and Central Hills differed from the planter’s mansions so did the plain and straight-forward churches of these sections differ from those of the older and wealthier districts. These churches were, and to a large extent are, of a type colloquially called “shotgun.” Comparatively small, oblong or box-like shells, they had frame side walls and V-shaped, split-shingle roofs. Without porches or an approach of any kind other than simple wood steps, they had single entrance front and rear. Windows were of plain unstained glass. The interiors offered the plainness of open rafters, unpainted walls and floors, and pine pews–the latter as stern and temperate as the people who worshiped in them. Hundreds of these churches dot the rural sections today, but the Toxish Baptist Church [Pontotoc County] is a good example of their simple box-like construction.
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Back to post 1 This date is not as certain as it is stated here. Opinions of experts who have spent more time with the building than I have range from 1718 through the 1770s–either way, it’s the oldest building in the state of Mississippi.
Back to post 2 Not all dogtrots–in fact very few that I’ve examined–went through this step-by-step evolution. Many were built as two-room houses with an open hall between them and an original undercut front (and usually rear) porch. Also, many center-hall houses were built with an already-enclosed center hall, and thus were never truly “dog-trots.”

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This post is third in a four-part series on the Architecture section of the WPA Guide to the Magnolia State, published in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Want to read the rest of the series?



Categories: Architectural Research, Churches

2 replies

  1. I agree that this essay should be read with care. I did not know that the settlers in the Delta were “luxury-loving”, interesting as the Delta was mostly a swamp. I wonder if “luxury-loving” means lazy and freeloading. Also, I had no idea the Spanish brought “dandified ideas” to Natchez, which I find amusing.

    On an architectural note, I have never heard of the term “shotgun” churches. Also, is the Shields House in Macon still extant? I don’t think I have heard of this house.

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  2. Yes, as I said, a few romanticized notions make their way through this article. I haven’t heard of a “shotgun” church either and I suppose it’s a term that Mr. Martin coined that never quite caught on. I looked in vain for any reference to the “Shields House” in Macon, since I hoped to include a picture of it. None of the HABS-documented houses are named that, even in their secondary names, so . . . I’m unsure whether it still exists, and the description is vague enough to include a number of houses. Maybe somebody else out there who knows more about the owners of Macon’s houses in the 1930s could help?

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