“Because for instance the Meridian Hotel is much older, we feel it’s best to tear it down”

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.

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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?



Categories: Cool Old Places, Demolition/Abandonment, Hotels, Meridian

17 replies

  1. Just another example to add to the long list of developers making huge promises to the local government that never amount to anything and results in you losing a piece of history.

    Here in Oxford on the northeast side of town a developer promised to build ‘A New Oxford Square’ full of stores and venues, so the city built a new conference center over there and then a movie theater and Wendy’s were built but nothing else was ever built. Years later, the movie theater is vacant and there are empty streets winding through grass fields.

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    • And don’t forget the infamous Ava Hotel on Jackson–announced to great fanfare in 2006 and currently, it’s an empty pit of red dirt and weeds. The developers cut down a 300 year old tree in this case.

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  2. But how about that grass? Nice, huh? :-)

    We should start posting pictures of all these ill-conceived projects. Even when they don’t mean the destruction of a historic building (or several), they weigh on their communities for a long time, financially and emotionally.

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  3. Has madness descended upon Meridian? No one remotely involved with this proposal seems to have a lick of sense, or should ever have had any responsibility to make bad decisions, destroy history, and waste money in the first place.

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  4. I read a great article on the topic of civic leadership and its shift from bankers and business leaders to real estate developers over the last 40 years or so: http://www.urbanophile.com/2010/06/25/replay-the-decline-of-civic-leadership-culture/

    It really helped me get my brain around these types of projects and why they are so prevalent while also being such an unsustainable money pit.

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  5. I have heard that there are private investors interested in buying and restoring the building. May just be a rumor, but you’d think that if these museum folks could sell the building, they could buy one of many other vacant lots in downtown Meridian and build a new museum that suits their purposes while allowing the hotel to be purchased and restored. The building is probably eligible for tax credits if it’s restored.

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  6. I have been inside the building and no, it is not structurally sound. The walls and floors on every floor are rotten and falling in. Also, it was actually built in the late 1800s and remodeled in 1907.

    I am a huge fan of saving old buildings when possible and love history. However, this is not one of those cases where it can be saved.

    I love how people take what they read on the internet as fact without actually “checking the facts”.

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  7. I have never seen this building in person, only from these photos. Couldnt it be gutted, leaving the outside walls, windows, etc. and be rennovated, possibly with only 2 or 3 floors?

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  8. First, let me say that I’m one of the biggest advocates of preservation in Meridian. I want to see the Hotel Meridian, Threefoot, and all our great old buildings saved. That being said, I was allowed in the Hotel last week to take photos in an effort to preserve what’s left of this buildings legacy. Let me tell you, there’s not a lot left to preserve.

    I’ve lived in Meridian all my life and passed by this building almost daily. It’s been empty for as long as I can remember, yet it has always looked great from the outside. Last week was my first experience inside. From the moment I opened the door, the humidity and smell were overwhelming. This is a building that has been open to the elements inside for nearly 30 years. The wood structure inside is rotten on every floor and all floors are sinking on the west end of the building.

    I honestly don’t think anything could be done to save the interior of this building. It would take a gut and rebuild of the inside. I do think the facade is in great shape and could be saved, just as is being done a couple blocks away by MSU with the Newberry building. I also think it’s bad business to demolish a building with no clear plans or funds to do anything but plant a grassy lot.

    What is the draw of an arts and entertainment museum? Since the internet came along, if we want to know something about an artist, we type their name in and can instantly see photos or videos, hear their music, etc. All things that we went to museums to do 20 or 30 years ago. I’m not saying that no one will visit the museum, but they just aren’t the attraction they once were. It is also always better to save history than destroy it. If I were contemplating visiting a museum, I would be much more likely to visit one that was marketed as being located in a 100+ year old building, no matter what the content. Half the fun of the tour would be seeing that old building.

    I think far too many people look on empty and abandoned buildings as eyesores. When a potential project comes along, they are all too eager to tear the eyesore down and start with that fresh, grassy lot. Historic buildings can be treasures and should be treated that way. Look at what the MSU-Riley center or the King Edward has become. This building deserves the chance to shine too. Downtown Meridian is defined by its historic buildings and for 100+ years Hotel Meridian has served as the gateway into downtown Meridian. It will not be the same with a lot there, or even a modern museum.

    You can view my photos of the inside of this building here: http://www.nathanculpepper.com/Mississippi-Places/Meridian-Hotel/

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    • Thanks for taking and sharing those photos, Nathan–they’re beautiful, apart from their documentary value. I’m not necessarily arguing that the interior is in perfect shape or needs to be restored, but on the other hand, from these photos, I’m also not seeing evidence of the supposed structural instability or “rotten walls and floors on every floor rotting and falling in” either.

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  9. Thanks for sharing your photos of the building!

    After seeing first hand some of the amazing restorations to devastated buildings post Katrina I’ve learned no matter how bad a shape a building is in it can always be restored. Having seen the Meridian Hotel earlier this year in person I am confidant in saying it is a contributor to the environment of downtown Meridian and it would be a true tragedy for this building to be squandered away.

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  10. I can’t see any reason that the facade could not be saved. Perhaps the lobby and other significant pieces of the interior could be removed and included in a new building behind the facade of the building. A complete restoration is certainly preferable, but saving the facade may be a possible compromise in this case. I cannot understand the need for a new building when this one could indeed be saved- even partially. A gaping lack of imagination does appear to be at work here. Lost landmarks are seldom replaced with greater landmarks, or even their remote equivalents.

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  11. What I see is an in the raw Hotel Irving in Greenwood MS. What they have done to revitalize the downtown area is phenominal. Why any city would allow this to be torn down, losea much moe than history, it loses its integrity. If they want to see progress, drive to Greenwood, talk to the folks there who have not only saved their downtown, but have attracted more with tourism and grown as a result. Where did they film The Help, among many other movies? Folks go to Greenwood because of the pride folks have in their city. Save The Meridian and you will save Meridian!

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  12. So sad. Looks like we lost this one today, according to the picture posted to the Meridian Star’s Facebook page just a few minutes ago:

    http://on.fb.me/ubYKGx

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