MissPres News Roundup 5-17-2010

It’s been a couple weeks since our last news roundup, so I thought I’d stick one in on Monday instead of Friday/Saturday. I hope this temporary change in schedule doesn’t blow everybody’s minds. Some crazy stuff has been happening around our fair state, so let’s get to it, shall we?

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Church Street under the live oaks, Port Gibson

Most of y’all are familiar with the Church Street/Highway 61 controversy in Port Gibson. If not, you should read the backstory before proceeding. I had heard rumblings from Port Gibson back in March indicating that the city board of aldermen had brought the route of the highway expansion, which has been a subject of heated debate for about 20 years, back up for discussion. As you recall, the county board of supervisors and the board of aldermen have somewhat flip-flopped on whether they want the highway expanded on its current route through the heart of one of the most beautiful and historic districts in the state, or want it moved to some by-pass route. Most currently, if I recall correctly, the city board of aldermen had said that they would prefer the bypass, but that was after they said they would prefer to stick to Church Street. The Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) *cue Darth Vader music* has also been somewhat split on the matter, with central district commissioner Dick Hall favoring a bypass, and the other two favoring their guy MDOT director Butch Brown’s plan to plow on through regardless. Thus Dick Hall’s exile to the little portable office out in the boonies of Rankin County.

Are you having flashbacks to junior high school yet?

Anyway, after these rumblings, I never saw anything in the papers to indicate that anything official had occurred, but last week the Clarion-Ledger ran a long story “U.S. 61 expansion endorsed by officials” on a letter that local “officials” had sent to MDOT expressing their newfound devotion to sticking to the Church Street route and damn the trees and historic buildings:

Seven city and county elected officials and appointees met with Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Butch Brown recently to voice support for leaving the highway’s path as is – through the town, said Mayor Fred Reeves.

A letter to Brown, dated Thursday and signed by Reeves and Claiborne County Administrator James Johnston, supports four-laning some portions not already four-laned on approaches to the tree-lined strip. The strip itself, about a mile long, is already four-laned. The letter asks that the impact to trees and lighting along Church Street be minimal.

Why yes, of course the impact will be minimal, y’all! We’ll promise whatever your heart desires (knowing you can’t hold us to it down the road). Oh, by the way, don’t you worry your pretty little heads about those oil rigs down in the Gulf of Mexico–nothing could be safer! And if anything goes wrong, rest assured we have a plan in place to make the impact minimal. Trust us!!!

Oh, so getting back to the article, where I see this interesting tidbit:

A resolution passed in separate meetings of each governing board in February and March presents city and county support for expanding the existing roadway as unified and unshakable.

However, no record of the vote appears on the resolution, and Reeves said aldermen Leslie Case and Marvin Ratliff held out the longest against a route through town.

This is not the clearest piece of writing in the world, so I’m not sure whether it’s raising questions about the resolution being unanimous or not. I’m sure everything was done decently and in order and that the public was given some notice that this discussion was going to take place before the resolution was drafted? We would expect nothing less from our fine upstanding public officials.

Well, let me cool down here with what I hope will be a story with a happy ending, the sale of the old Mary Holmes College campus outside of West Point, which has stood vacant for several years since the college went defunct. According to the Daily Times Leader article, the property, which includes 6 or 7 buildings listed on the National Register as part of the Mary Holmes College Historic District, has been sold to a private organization that works with disabled people:

Community Counseling Services has purchased the 184-acre site that has been closed since the college fell on hard times several years ago.

Although renovation plans are not finalized, Community Counseling plans to develop the site to enhance its ability to provide community-based services for the mentally challenged and developmentally disabled.

The agency plans to integrate its development of the property with the needs of the community including housing development, educational services,  recreational activities, and community gardens. Community Counseling is also committed to preserving the cultural heritage of Mary Holmes College and has incorporated plans for an historical museum and meeting place for annual alumni reunions.

. . . .

The renovation of the Mary Holmes property will provide work for a number of people in the building trades over then next five years. In addition, the relocation of some of the administrative services of Community Counseling will bring much needed jobs to the community. According to Jackie Edwards, Executive Director, “The agency has been in business for over 35 years and we are committed to the seven counties we serve. We use local tradesmen and buy locally whenever possible. This project will be a tremendous asset to the West Point community and will further assist the Growth Alliance, the County, and the City in attracting new businesses to West Point.”

I wish I had some pictures of the campus to post here, but I haven’t spent much time up that way since I went digital and started taking pictures obsessively. There’s a succinct history of the college at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities website:

Mary Holmes College is a two-year, church-related, coed, liberal arts college. It was founded in 1892 by the Board of Freedmen of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The school’s original name was Mary Holmes Seminary, named for a woman who dedicated her life to helping former slaves. The school’s original purpose was to provide a Christian education and “to instruct black girls in the domestic sciences.” The school moved from Jackson to West Point in 1897 after a fire destroyed the building in Jackson. In 1932, Mary Holmes College became coeducational, created its first college department, and changed its mission to training teachers. The school became a two-year college in 1959.

Speaking of re-use of abandoned older buildings, the Webster Progress-Times (see W. White, I can keep up with the small-town papers too!) ran an informative article “Maben site deemed ideal for EMCC branch” about plans in the works to turn the old O.L. Wicks Elementary School building into a branch campus of the East Mississippi Community College, based in Scooba. The Wicks School was originally the school for African American students in Maben, with the oldest building dating to 1951 and designed by Meridian architect L.L. Brasfield. The article notes that the building has been registered with the National Register of Historic Places, but I don’t see anything to that effect on the NPS website. Regarding their plans for the building, the article notes:

The committee has been in contact with Walthall Mayor Belinda Stewart, who has experience in restoring old buildings and is an architect, asking for help with what needs to be done to bring the Wicks building back to a usable state.

Belinda, it’s nice to see you characterized as mayor first and architect second because I personally think of you as an architect who happens to be a mayor :-)

If you’ve been around Jackson the last couple of years, you’ve noted the behemoth building going up right in front of, and blocking the view of, the main post office downtown. This building will replace the functions of the Eastland Federal Building on Capitol Street, an Art Deco delight designed by the Jackson firm of Hull & Malvaney in 1933. Questions have been swirling ever since this move was announced about what would happen to the Eastland building once the feds moved out. Well, according to the Jackson Free Press (“Major University for Arts proposed for Jackson“), David Watkins, local developer leading the King Edward, Standard Life, and Farish Street projects, has an idea that the building should become the home of a new arts university, sort of a Julliard of the South.

The transformation could prove an easy conversion. The first floor, currently housing a post office, could serve as retail space for shops, art galleries and some office space. The second floor, which presently houses the federal building’s court rooms, could convert to art galleries, art studios, and performance halls. The third and fourth floors, currently serving as judicial chambers, would serve a new function as classrooms and offices. Watkins said developers would not have to tear out many rooms at all, and could preserve the antiquity and beauty of the 1930’s-era building. The U-shape of the facility also provides potential for additional rooms in the back.

I admit when I first read this article I thought, “hmmmm” but the more I’ve thought about the more I like the vision it shows–I’m always complaining about the lack of imagination in our public officials, so at least we have that in abundance here. We’ll stay tuned to see if the rest of the money and political interests get behind it. I’ll just be glad to finally be able to see inside the building, since apparently the only people who are allowed in are criminals and lawyers. Oh, was that redundant?



Categories: Historic Preservation, Jackson, Maben, News Roundups, Port Gibson, Post Offices, Schools, West Point

4 replies

  1. There’s a reason Joe Hill used to say “Don’t mourn for me; organize.” I recall the time back in my former life when the city planed to demolish a building that the community had built with its own hands under block development grant funds–for the benefit of a private enterprise. It was the only community resource for the poor and working class folks who lived there and counted on it. All reasoning efforts were met with, “it’s a done deal.” One night at 10 P.M., the city started to tear it down in the dark of night. Within 20 minutes, thanks to organizing, we had 200 families–elders, babies, moms and dads–in that building refusing to leave. It was a Kodak moment–and we won. The building still stands.

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  2. Actually, which would make more sense when you look at a map, it is the East Mississippi Community College (EMCC), out of Scooba with a large satellite campus in the Golden Triangle, which serves the Webster County area that is exploring the idea of reusing this building; rather than East Central Community College which serves Newton, Neshoba, Scott, Leake, and Winston Counties, if my memory serves correctly.

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    • Whoops, you’re right, my mistake. Of course the title of the newspaper article says it right there, and as I was typing I thought, “Decatur is a ways away to be having a branch up here.” But then the thought fled and I moved on. Now that I’m 38, the mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be :-)

      I’ll make the change up in the text.

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  3. As Daniel Burnham once said, “make no small plans…” the idea of converting the old court house and post office into an arts school is nothing short of brilliant. As for Church Street in Port Gibson, I hope that some avenue remains for its preservation. Port Gibson’s historic district need not be eviscerated for the convenience of more automobiles.

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