Back in June’s “Rumblings and Bumblings from Meridian” I noted some rumors about the possible demolition of downtown Meridian’s Meridian Hotel, built in 1910 as one of the first “skyscrapers” in Meridian, and an anchor of the downtown historic district as you enter from the south over the railroad tracks. It took a couple of months, but in the news roundup of August 15th, JRGordon linked to a Meridian Star article that confirmed that the still-not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center Museum has decided, after a year-long “study” with a pre-ordained conclusion, that they just feel the need to demolish the building.
Unfortunately, the historic preservation commission has already given the demolition permit, although sources who attended the meeting note that there was very little discussion or interest in how the existing building might be incorporated into the plans. Some preservation commissions devolve into little more than chambers of commerce, willing to rubber-stamp pie-in-the-sky projects even when they mean demolition of buildings that are unquestionably historic. From a distance at least, that appears to be the case here.
Museum advocates have made vague statements about the bad condition the hotel building is in. MissPreser TomL visited town last weekend and took photos all around the building (you can see the whole set on Flickr), and the resulting images raise questions about this over-used canard that demolishers like to use against historic buildings.
In the pictures, I see a building that has clearly been unmaintained for a while and needs work. I do not see a building even close to being structurally unsound, or even so far gone that it would take a herculean effort–such as was undertaken on Jackson’s King Edward Hotel–to fix up. Admittedly, these pictures don’t show the interior other than the lobby. But I’ve heard from those who have been inside in the last year that it is a surprisingly dry building, and much more solid than the King Ed was before it was renovated and became the cornerstone of downtown Jackson’s renaissance. The exterior walls don’t show any cracks, the windows are actually in very restorable shape (unlike KE’s, which were practically gone), and the architectural details, other than a damaged metal cornice on the west side, are still intact.
As I’ve said before about other demolitions and will no doubt say again, if this building is demolished (and in my mind, it’s not a done deal, no matter how much the backers want to make it seem so), it will not be because of any problem with the building, but because of a lack of imagination on the part of the owners. While the museum board says they explored all options, this quote to WTOK doesn’t fill me with confidence on that point:
Prior to deciding to tear down the buildings, Holladay says the board explored all possible options.
“Due to the quality of the buildings and the function of them, because for instance the Meridian Hotel is much older, we feel it’s best to tear the buildings down,” Holladay said.
Once the buildings are down, construction can start on the center. However, with the design of the center still in the planning stage, Holladay says actually breaking ground for the building will have to wait.
Don’t worry though, “they’ll probably put some grass seed and something out to keep the dirt in check and make sure that we have a good appearance until construction begins.” Grass lots never look junky, right?
Frankly, I don’t really understand the economics of this project, apart from any considerations about the Meridian Hotel. What will this Arts and Entertainment Center do? Is it a museum? If so, what do they plan to have in the museum? Their website is nice to look at, but not very forthcoming with actual information. They are estimating $18 million to build this building. They currently have about $4 million in “state grants.” How long have they been in existence? Long enough to get some private money, presumably. Where is the private money coming from? Does the $18 million include exhibits? Operating costs? How many people do they expect to attract, and for how long? How much city money will be pumped into this project, and for how long?
So, they want to demolish a substantial and historic building, while having no firm plans for what will take its place, and most importantly, having only a fraction of the money necessary to proceed. This at the same time we read about the serious struggles that the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi is enduring, so serious it might have to close only a year after opening unless the City steps in an gives them more public funding. The Ohr Museum is a genuine regional art museum, with a significant collection, located in buildings designed by a world-famous architect and on a beachfront that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. And the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center Museum in Meridian thinks that it can afford to build and maintain an $18 million dollar structure with a vaguely defined collection and in a town that, while historic, is not exactly the tourist attraction that the Coast is?
Have we all become so collectively frenzied for some undefined “growth” that we’re willing to throw away our historic districts on the very slimmest of chances that flimsy projects like this will succeed? That’s a sad, desperate illogic for a once-proud people.
Bottom line, my prediction if the museum board gets its wish? Meridian will have a nice flat empty grassy lot greeting visitors to its downtown for many many many years to come. Grass lots never look bad, am I right?