JRGordon’s mention of the planned renovations of the Lamar County Courthouse in Monday’s News Roundup gave me the perfect opportunity to jump back into blogging after lounging about while Susassippi and JR took over the last couple of weeks. A few months back I had occasion to drive through Purvis and took pictures of both the old and the new courthouses, and ever since I’ve wondered what to do with them. I hate to say it, because it’s not the building’s fault, but the old Lamar County Courthouse is quite possibly the most abused courthouse in the state, a diminished building even before it was vacated in 2009.
It didn’t start out that way. Designed by Jackson architect Patrick Henry Weathers, it originally resembled his Marion County Courthouse just down the road, also built in 1905. The Lamar Courthouse was built by our old friends the M.T. Lewman Company, contractors for a number of courthouses around Mississippi and the Southeast. The histories of the Marion and Lamar courthouse quickly parted, however, when the Purvis building lost its dome in the tornado of 1908. It suffered a fire in 1935, leading to a major renovation under the direction of Gulfport architect Vinson B. Smith (1891-1964) that added interesting Art Deco elements to the exterior, including two statues above the front portico that remind me of the Moses and Socrates statues on the Hinds County Courthouse (1930). Then in the 1950s, two flat-roofed wings were added to the sides, somewhat concealing the building’s original bold geometry, but maintaining the scale and brick color of the original.
However, all this did not add up to the indignities that have been visited upon the building in the last few decades. Poorly planned maintenance and the incompetent insertion of new utilities have led to the building being treated worse than some house trailers I have seen, with pipes cutting through stone sills on the exterior and wires randomly wandering out windows and along the sides of the building. Top it off with a red metal roof that would make McDonalds blush. How could this have happened to a major public building in a state that actually has a pretty good record of preserving its historic courthouses?
Well, it’s a long and convoluted story, involving parsimonious county supervisors and circuit judges with the patience (and perhaps the intellect) of 2-year-old children. In fact, the Lamar County Courthouse is one of the very few buildings in the state to have been designated once as a Mississippi Landmark, de-designated, and then later re-designated at the request of the owner. Looking through the files at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, I found several newspaper clippings from 1999 when MDAH first designated the building. This designation was opposed by the supervisors, who brought in the big guns: Circuit Judges R.I. Prichard and Michael Eubanks. The judges cited numerous deficiencies in the building (and I don’t deny there were deficiencies given how badly the building had been maintained), but for some reason the article in the Hattiesburg American (Aug 6, 1999) focused on their extended comments about the carpet in the courtroom, hardly a structural deficiency worthy of such angst. They also threw this little temper tantrum, tantamount to a child taking his ball and going home:
With a limited budget and the imperative nature of the renovations needed, rather than comply with the archives it may be better to abandon the current courthouse in favor of building a new facility elsewhere and leaving the ‘Mississippi Landmark’ to deteriorate unprepared and unmaintained in the hands of the department trustees and their budget.
Yes, folks, isn’t our system of elected judges great?
After further delays in the proposed renovations, during which time–rather than try to work through MDAH’s recommendations–the supervisors and judges spent time trying to prove that the Mississippi Antiquities Law was unconstitutional, the Hattiesburg American made a good point in its editorial of September 9, 1999: “Why do Lamar County officials feel such urgency to proceed immediately with renovations to the Lamar County Courthouse? . . . Yes, the building desperately needs to be upgraded. But then, it’s been in this condition for years. Waiting a few more months isn’t too much to ask.” This focus on relatively minor issues, such as carpet (or porch floor boards as at the Ceres Plantation) and the breathless rushing of projects are common techniques with government officials who have already made up their minds about historic buildings and would prefer that everyone else follow the law, except them.
Undeterred, the supervisors and judges moved forward, and apparently, MDAH decided that the work they did–which included installing panelling (yes, panelling, in 1999, not 1979)–damaged the building’s historic character and de-designated it. My interpretation of these events is that MDAH just decided to let Lamar County go its own rebellious way, kind of like when you’re a kid and you say you’re going to run away and your parents say, “Ok, see ya’ later.”
Fast-forward a few years, with a new batch of supervisors who were interested in giving their historic courthouse some of its self-respect back, and in 2006, the supervisors requested that MDAH take another look at the courthouse and re-designate it, which was done in November of that year. The supervisors also made the effort to get enough money through grants and budgeting to do a thorough renovation, in contrast to the piecemeal jobs done in the recent past. The courthouse was vacated for this renovation in 2009, but work was delayed by the recession and hopefully is now about to get underway. I’m crossing my fingers for this project, in hopes that some of the more egregious work of the past can be rectified, including that horrible red metal roof, such a bad substitute for what looks like was originally copper. Meanwhile, I hope the funky Art Deco renovations of the 1930s will stay: they’re the history of the building and they distinguish it from any other courthouse. Until the building is back in useful and happy life again, we can say “Bless its heart” and sympathize with it in all its trials.