Newspaper Clippings: Save Downtown Jackson

We haven’t done a newspaper clipping post in a while, and given yesterday’s post about the Naval Reserve Center down by the fairgrounds in downtown Jackson, I thought this one would be appropriate.

First some context: when we walk down the sidewalks of Jackson today, on first glance it retains its historic blocks of commercial buildings, but when you keep walking west you hit a big swath of modern high-rise buildings, standing on the sites of such Jackson landmarks as the Heidelberg Hotel and the old J.C. Penney building. This article was written a few years after these blocks had all been leveled in a big urban renewal project.

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Preservationist: Downtown Jackson losing its identity

Jackson Clarion-Ledger, October 31, 1982

by Linda Sanders, Real Estate Writer

The president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation toured Jackson Monday morning.

And he noticed something Jacksonians, as well as visitors familiar with the capital city, can readily see. Despite a number of interesting building and neighborhoods of character, Jackson, particularly downtown, is in danger of losing its identity.

Jackson could become like Tucson, Ariz., which doesn’t have a remaining local identiy, Michael Ainsley said. The Cincinnati businessman has headed the private, nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based trust since 1980. He is credited with the continued broadening of its work and involvement of private funding into its projects.

During a noon lecture at the Mississippi State University School of Architecture at the Universities Center, he pointed out a significant negative factor for preservation and rehabilitation here:

Jackson doesn’t have an historic Jackson organization.

Jackson doesn’t have one organization for both citizens and paid preservationists to work together to save significant buildings and plan revitalization of neighborhoods in all parts of town. This is a significant deficiency and one that has meant sad consequences for a number of fine old Jackson buildings.

The problem, as Ainsley pointed out, is many people seem to have the idea cities must have antebellum or older structures or whole districts to classify as historically significant. And this is further compounded by the fact the best known preservation groups have remarkable old cities to preserve.

Ainsley cited Historic Savannah and organizations in Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans as among the oldest and most successful of the historical preservation groups. [and with the benefit of 30 years, we can add Natchez to that list.]

Unfortunately, Jackson has little left from its early years before the Civil War as Jackson architect Ralph Maisel said after the lecture. This is in large measure because Union Gen. U.S. Grant burned much of Jackson, hence the nickname Chimneyville. [Call in the Mythbusters–antebellum houses lined State Street until the 1930s and ’40s–our own parents and grandparents tore them down to build office buildings.]

But Jackson does have a number of significant older structures, such as the art deco Peoples Bank Building [now known as the Plaza Building], constructed in the 1920s, the architect said.

What Ainsley emphasized to the Jackson audience is a message he and the National Trust are trying to spread across the United States. A neighborhood, a street, a block or a building doesn’t have to be particularly old or the scene of a famous event to be significant to that city.

Downtown Jackson, for example, has both obviously historic and architecturally significant buildings. Traditionally historic structures are Spengler’s Corner at State and Capitol streets, the Old Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion. But the number of interesting older buildings include two outstanding examples of the art deco architecture of the 1920s–the People’s Bank Building on Congress Street, mentioned by Maisel, and the Standard Life Building on Pearl Street.

While a number of rehabilitation projects have been done on East Capitol Street, much of the west end of the street has been overlooked, Ainsley said.

The old railroad station, taken together with the closed King Edward Hotel and the row of storefronts across the street, could be a major development opportunity [visionary!], he said. Done in the context of preservation and adaptive reuse, this area could compare to anything currently being done in the United States, Ainsley said.

Other assets Jackson has includes the Farish Street neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the residential areas near downtown.

Although there are neighborhood groups within the city, particularly in the Farish Street area, there isn’t an organization for residents interested in the overall city.

Farish Street is a historically significant neighborhood because it is the oldest black business district in the United States. The problem has been in getting residents of all parts of Jackson to see Farish Street in the context of both preservation and overall city development. This is the kind of work city historic groups do.

Some of the saddest consequences of not having a historic Jackson organization has been the virtual destruction of the landmark Queen Anne mansions along State Street, which survived virtually intact into the 1950s and the early 1960s. One more of these old mansions was torn down this year and only a few remain.

The grand old houses have been replaced by assorted developments such as a nondescript hotel, a chain motel, a highrise apartment building, small office buildings and gasoline stations. Likewise, almost all of the old two-story homes on President Street, one block to the west, have been razed and replaced by a garish mix of low-rise office buildings.

These once proud streets may be beyond saving, but fortunately enough of Jackson remains to ensure character to the city. We now need a historic Jackson organization to save and find new uses for what is left.

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As far as I know this was the end of that discussion. We’ve never had a Historic Jackson group dedicated to preservation causes in our capital city. The Mississippi Heritage Trust was organized in the early 1990s, perhaps in hopes that it could play a central role in preservation issues in every town in the state, but it’s understaffed and under-funded, stretched thin over the whole state. It seems to me in this state that talks so much about history that not many people are willing to actually spend money or even advocate to preserve it.



Categories: Historic Preservation, Jackson, National Trust

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