JRGordon first reported on the city of Biloxi’s blighted property list back in an early November round-up. The list is starting to generate either repairs or demolitions as reported recently by the Sun Herald. While most buildings on the list were not historic and I will not bemoan their loss to greatly, I do think it wasteful that these buildings were not earlier repaired and reused. Many of these buildings are visual landmarks in the center of town and it’s sometimes hard to remember that at one point they were active vibrant places.
Two of the buildings coming down within the next few weeks are right in the middle of downtown: the Buddy Gunn Building and the old Hancock Bank Building. I hate to see both these buildings come down, for two main reasons: first, to most cities, these might just be 1970s buildings, but these two replaced buildings damaged by Hurricane Camille in 1969. As such, their demolition is similar to the 2010 demolition of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Pass Christian’s post-Camille Modernist church that also survived Katrina (with damage) only to be demolished afterward. Second, the Buddy Gunn and the old Hancock Bank were interesting historically-based styles that reacted against the severe Modernism represented by buildings such as St. Paul’s. This historical reaction seemed to be especially popular on the Coast, where much history was washed away in Camille, leaving the population grasping for “new old” landmarks.
The Magnolia Hotel was one of the Camille-damaged buildings and was moved from its original site where the old Hancock bank is now to its present site in 1972. Now Hancock Bank is itself being replaced after being damaged by Katrina. It’s an unfortunate cycle of change for the coast.
Both buildings represent a Neoeclectic style that was emerging in the post-modern phase of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Rejecting the mantra of Modernism, this style aligned with the lead-up to the nation’s bicentennial which created a resurgence of interest in early American history. Looking for an expedient way to build this style of building, architects and builders often unknowingly eliminated many of the key parts of the original design. This often changed the architectural character to such a degree that the resulting structure looks quite different than the structures that influenced the design. The design interest only lay in what the builder interpreted as the look or perception of provincial or colonial buildings rather than faithfully recreating all the neat features that made them livable and unique to their locality.
The Buddy Gunn Building started life as the Pfister Building. The “french provincial” style building was designed by New Orleans architect Thomas J. Gilbert and built in 1974. While the caption says that the building is in the style of the Magnolia Hotel (1847), the Old French House aka Mary Mahoney’s Restaurant (c.1835), the Spanish House (c.1846) and the Old Federal Building (now Biloxi City Hall, 1908), the building more resembles a late 18th-century building (think Destrahan Plantation before the greek-a-fication of the columns), rather than a mid-19th or early 20th century like the buildings the article lists.
The Hancock Bank building was built in a similar rejection of modernist style. The building started life as the Metropolitan National Bank in 1975. The architectural rendering above shows a slightly different design than what was built. The proposed design was more southern/ New Orleans in appearance, with plantation shutters and a combination court yard, drive up teller window. The style chosen for construction had more of a East Coast colonial design (think Wren Building at the College of William and Mary).
Hancock Bank has built a new building up Caillavet street after Katrina. The new building is attractive and it’s probably safer for financial records to be out of a flood zone. I wish the old Hancock Bank building could have been used for an open air dining /market type place on the first floor, with apartments, shops, or offices on the second floor. But since the property is zoned to allow casinos I have an idea what will be going there.
So why do these buildings and their demise matter to preservationists? Should we bother with the recent past when we are having a hard time saving buildings like Corinth Machinery Building from the 1860s, much less the 1960s? The Brookings Institute reports that approximately 70% of the built environment has been constructed since 1950. However, they estimate that by the year 2030, 50% our built environment will have been constructed after the year 2000. Recentpastnation.org states that based upon these estimates a lot of recent past architecture that will be lost in the next two decades due to demolition. At one point, all structures were “recent past” architecture, but if we aren’t paying attention we might lose the most important and well-built structures from the 1960s through the 1980s before we even give them a chance to become “historic.” Surveying structures from that period now will help us get a better understanding of what is landmark-worthy.
I noticed that the “101 Mississippi Places to See Before You Die” list published last week contained only a handful of buildings built since the 1950s. While understandable, this does reflect some amount of blindness to our architectural heritage, as that period was probably the greatest boom period in Mississippi’s history.
We’ve lost these two buildings, along with more modernist buildings on the Coast such as St. Paul’s. But maybe the rest of Mississippi can start to look around and begin to understand your recent past architecture so that in 20 or 30 years, you won’t be missing big chunks of your past.