Fires Take Their Toll

Yesterday we received the sad news that two adjacent buildings in downtown Biloxi’s small historic district burned down late Tuesday night. Included in the loss was Spanish Trail Books, one of Mississippi’s independent bookstores and a place that I regularly visited on my trips to the Coast. While the exterior of Spanish Trail was interesting and mostly intact, the interior (originally built as a general store) was simply glorious, perfect for its latter-day use as a bookstore, with beadboard walls and a mezzanine level that ran all the way around and was stuffed with books for the browsing public. I can’t believe I never took a picture! In addition, Spanish Trail stocked a large collection of historic postcards, always a little out of my price range, but it was because they were invariably rare or unique–not the ones you see over and over on ebay.

All of this was lost within the space of a few hours, with a fire that started in the building next door, where a bar/grill named Adventures had just re-opened after a previous fire of unknown origin. A third business that lost it all was Upstairs/Downstairs, a bar which I’m told was around 50 years old.

According to the National Register nomination (Inventory #7 and #10), both buildings dated to around 1900. As many of you know, downtown Biloxi was “malled” in the 1970s in an attempt to attract shoppers back downtown from the suburban malls. The formerly two-way street was made into a winding one-way path, and a cover/roof-like structure was built over the street and sidewalk. This didn’t work–just made the place seem more dreary than it might have been–and it was removed in the late 1990s, having effectively killed off downtown. The pictures shown here, taken in 1998 right after the removal, show that the buildings retained the scars from the “mall.” These images are scanned slides, courtesy of the Historic Preservation Division of MDAH.

The remains of both buildings were demolished quickly yesterday. The loss leaves a gaping hole in a district that already had gaps, and which is almost literally surrounded by vast parking lots. A few gems still remain, including two buildings with whimsical round towers on their corners, and of course the grand Saenger Theater.

Spanish Trail Books (c.1895-2011)

I have also recently heard bad news from New Orleans. It seems one of the churches I took pictures of on my recent trip to NOLA and showed on “To New Orleans and Back,” the old Prytania Presbyterian Church (Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church), burned down, along with its fine old manse on the night of January 8. Here’s a WDSU video showing the collapse of the front wall. You can also find much better pictures than mine, including some showing the once grand interior on the Squandered Heritage blog.

According to Richard Cawthon, architectural historian and author of the recent Lost Churches of Mississippi, Prytania Presbyterian was possibly designed by Cincinnati, Ohio architects Crapsey & Lamm, who are known to have designed the similar First Presbyterian Church of Bloomington, Indiana (1900-01) and almost certainly also the Asbury Methodist Church in Portland, Indiana (circa 1900) and the Bradley Methodist Church in Greenfield, Indiana (1902). As discussed in Lost Churches, Crapsey is also possibly associated with the design of the lost First Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi (built 1906-07 and demolished in 1953).

This makes three buildings, by my count, that I’ve taken pictures of in the last year that have been demolished or otherwise destroyed soon thereafter. Am I a jinx?

Categories: Biloxi, Demolition/Abandonment, Gulf Coast

4 replies

  1. As tragic as these losses are, and they are very tragic, the fact that the space formerly occupied by these structures will remain vacant lots, or parking lots, to me only rubs salt in an open wound. In the not too distant past, when buildings burned or were otherwise lost, they were replaced with new, well designed and constructed buildings. But, unfortunately, that is not likely to happen.


  2. I agree that blank slabs of broken concrete are a blight on the urban landscape – does anyone out there have great examples of adaptive reuse of open space in historic areas (I’m thinking of a parking garage inside a downtown block – is that Tupelo or Columbus?)? In Natchez, the parishioners at St. Mary Basilica are developing an inviting green-space public garden on the former First Baptist Church site, and there is a great need for a creative parking solution downtown.


  3. Bad news from all over, it would appear. I wish the city of Biloxi would seriously think about its downtown core as a resource to spur tourism rather than as a backwater to house parking for the casinos. I knew immediately when I saw the piece in the Sun Herald that this wouldn’t have a good ending.

    As for the church in New Orleans, it’s a horrible loss and I hope there won’t be more cases like it. Was the origin of the fire determined?



  1. MissPres News Roundup 1-31-2011 | Preservation in Mississippi

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