Three years and one day ago after a full day of painting on my house renovation project, I sat down at my computer and started a blog. I had never started a blog before. I thought it would be an interesting exercise, but I had no long-term vision for where it would go. To be honest, I’m not sure I expected to be able to keep it up for one month, much less one year or three. Not being particularly inventive with names, I gave the blog the fairly bland but straight-forward name Preservation in Mississippi. It didn’t take me long to wish I had the imagination to come up with a name as funky as Suzassippi’s Lottabusha County Chronicles or as gracious as A Southerly Flow or even as in-your-face as that blog I mentioned in last weekend’s post but won’t mention again here since it’s based on a scatological reference. In another instance of lack of planning, I chose a pen name without realizing that there’s still a real-live E.L. Malvaney in Mississippi (see the December 2011 issue of Portico magazine).
Anyway, the first post on MissPres was about the Old Capitol, specifically the re-opening of the building after the damage from Katrina and the major renovation following. This was one tradition I’ve enjoyed keeping, as each anniversary means a post about the Old Capitol, using it as our touchstone as we jump off into a new year of looking at Mississippi’s historic places and the preservation decisions that affect them. In 2010, the anniversary post, incorrectly posted on February 9 instead of February 8, was “Goodbye Old Capitol,” a look back at one of the speeches on the day in June 1903 when the legislature finally moved into the New Capitol and left its old haunts behind. Last year, I stuck with February 9, but I did a photographic essay (which is a lot easier to write than a real essay) with “Reflecting on the Old Capitol.”
This year, we’ll take a little peak into an era when the Old Capitol was mostly abandoned and endangered, teetering between a future as a beloved landmark and one in which no Old Capitol existed at all. After the Old Capitol was vacated for the New in 1903, it was used mostly for storage and for the annual state fair, and photos of the time show a sad building with broken-out windows and a forlorn air.
The question was what to do about it–since just like today, no one apparently had given it much thought before the abandonment. I like this rather lengthy discussion, published in the Vicksburg Evening Post on December 27, 1909, because it conveys that period of uncertainty, not just in the multiple question marks in the title, but also by detailing the numerous and varied opinions about what should be done with the building. Now that the question has long been settled, it’s easy for us to be astonished at the casual references to demolition and re-development on the site, but look a little closer and the arguments aren’t all that different from today’s, are they? Economic development, efficient city planning, the poor repair of the building, the cost of renovation, the supposed cash bonanza from the sale of the vacant land–all these are brought up today in preservation battles as if all should bow before them.
Another interesting argument is that “sentiment” shouldn’t have a part in the discussion. I’ve heard this same argument today, but the word people use now is “nostalgia,” usually said with a curl of the lip as if it’s embarrassing. Well, whatever you call it, the Old Capitol is still standing today mostly because enough people had it and stubbornly kept the old girl from being demolished long enough for a renovation plan to go through in the mid-1910s. Maybe we don’t agree with all their motivations, but the tangible result is that we have this beautiful amazing building standing at the top of Capitol Street.
Who knows how many buildings hanging in the balance today will be beloved landmarks tomorrow because of your sentiment, your passion, your dedication to preserving Mississippi’s historic places? Wear the badge of sentiment proudly and passionately, Mississippi Preservationists! It’s a strength, not a weakness.
??What To Do With Capitol??
Jackson, Miss., Dec. 27–There is little likelihood that anything will be done with the old capitol building which has stood for years at the head of Capitol street, during the session of the Legislature which convenes here next week, notwithstanding it has been idle for several years, and there is a clamor from all sections of the State for an early settlements of the question as to its ultimate disposal.
One reason why no settlement of the question is in sight is that very few people are agreed upon any one of the several plans suggested and everybody is so fixed in his idea as to what should be done with the property that all are well-nigh unchangeable.
Governor Noel is one of the few prominent public men who has no fixed idea about it. For this reason he will not, of his own motion, make any suggestions to the lawmaking body on that subject.
The Governor does think, however, that the property ought to be make serve some practical purpose. He would have no objection to an advantageous sale of the property, not would he oppose a donation of it to the Confederate organizations, as has been suggested in one form or another provided they could make some practical, benevolent use of it. In this he is not at all sentimental, an he would oppose any action looking to a transfer of it for any purely sentimental purpose. He has no [unintelligible] plan of his own, and sees little chance just now of converting the property into cash, owing to the great amount of sentiment which would be met upon such a suggestion.
Chief Justice A.H. Whitfield, of the Mississippi Supreme Court, agrees fully with Mr. James Dinkins, a former Mississippian now living in New Orleans, who recently published an open letter urging the Legislature to donate the old building to the Confederacy for a hall of history and fame.
Crowder’s Fine Suggestions
Mayor A.C. Crowder offers one of the most practical ideas in this connection that has yet been advanced, both for the State and for the city. He would have the old structure removed, Capitol street opened through the grounds and the property sold off in lots, so that the business section of the city might be extended several blocks and that in course of a few years at least two railroads might have their passenger station and yards on the ground where now is located the baseball park and the exposition buildings. Streets running north and south would then be enabled to cross there and a very valuable extension of the business section would be opened up.
Mayor Crowder believes the State could realize more money on this property in this way than by selling it in a body, and he feels certain that eventually at least two railroads will want very much to get in on the property mentioned.
The mayor is not forgetful of the interests of the State Fair, and he would be among the last men in the city to see harm come to that institution, but he realized, he says, that the property on which it is now located is entirely too valuable to be devoted to any institution which lasts only ten days in any year, and that eventually the fair will have to be located on less valuable property.
Secretary of State J.W. Ower thinks the building ought to be repaired, put in good shape, and that several of the State departments should be moved into it. He would have the department of archives and history, the department of agriculture and commerce, and probably the insurance and land departments quartered in the old building, first made good as new in order to avoid the congestion of the new building, which he declares is already badly crowded for room. On account of this suggestion a large number of the present members of the Legislature are in sympathy with it, and this would probably have as strong a following as would any other one plan. None of the officials proposed to be moved, however, desire to move from the new building.
To spend about $80,000 in converting the building into a State hospital is the idea of Dr. A.E. Rowan, of Wesson, state senator from the eleventh district. Dr. L.S. Rogers, of West, representing Holmes County in the lower house, would be willing to do this. He wants a State hospital, but is not particular as to just what property is used for the purpose.
Some time ago Major R.W. Millsaps suggested that the State donate the property to the Confederacy, to be used for memorial purposes in connection with the Confederate park which adjoins it. In the event the State would not agree to do this, he suggested that it be purchased for that purpose, and himself agreed in that event to subscribe $10,000 to the proposed fund. The Legislature has not yet had an opportunity to act upon the suggestion.
Should Sell Property
Judge R.V. Fletcher, former attorney general and later supreme court justice, thinks the property should be sold and the proceeds converted to some useful purpose. In the event the Legislature cannot agree upon this, he thinks the building should be remodeled and put in first class shape, either for those state officials who are about to be crowded out of the new building for the lack of room, of for a hospital or some other useful state institution. He thinks it ought not to be permitted to stand as it now is, an eyesore and a menace.
There is another idea which has many supporters, that whatever is done with the old building, the state ought not to sell the property, on the theory that sooner or later the state will need all the real estate it now owns here for such state institutions as time may bring into demand.
These are the principal ideas, theories and sentiments in regard to the historic old building, and although the question has been before every Legislature since the new state house was built, there has never been a sufficient number of the members who could be concentrated upon any one plan to get through a measure of any kind as to the final settlement of the question.
Unless some plan can be evolved which will meet with the approval of Gov. Noel, so that he can be induced to make some recommendation in regard to it, the coming session will not have the question to deal with because while its sale would bring money into the treasury, it is not properly to be classed as a revenue measure within the meaning of the constitutional provision which prohibits the consideration of any measures other than revenue appropriation bills, not recommended by the governor, either in his opening message or in some supplemental message.
Vicksburg Evening Post on December 27, 1909, p.6