Suzassippi’s Mississippi: Tate County Courthouse

I think it is part of my nature that I tend to root for the underdog.  When it comes to things like world peace and hunger and poverty, this is hugely important.  When it comes to the 101 Places in Mississippi to See Before You Die, it’s probably not all that significant in the grand scheme of things.  But, folks, the Tate County courthouse

…remains as perhaps one of the finest Victorian public buildings of Mississippi…only known architect-designed structure surviving from the 19th century in Tate County…one of the only known pubic buildings of Cook’s known to survive… (John L. Hopkins, 1993, nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places)

and it comes in at #21 out of 26, a lowly 2% of the vote (n=20)….waaaaay after number 2 spot of Sullivan-Stone-Freeman law office in Oxford with 7% (n=65), and even below Taylor Grocery and Phillip’s Grocery. I agree that the SSF law office is a quaint Victorian building, and it has all that Faulkner connection going for it (which in Oxford seems to trump almost anything), and the upping block in the front yard.  And Taylor Grocery is kind of cool, but truly is no more unique than any other little community’s downtown businesses where someone has made an icon out of a place that at one time none of us would have ventured inside of, let alone to eat something in there.

The Tate County Courthouse in Senatobia was designed in the Romanesque style by architect James B. Cook in 1873, and constructed in 1875-76 by builder/contractor J. H. Cocke (Hopkins, 1993).  (You can see the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places at this link.  The nomination form includes 21 photographs, including of the interior of the building.)

Unlike many, or perhaps even most, courthouses, the Tate County courthouse is not downtown on its own square in the center of the community.  This is attributed to Senatobia being established and developed a decade prior to the establishment of Tate County (Hopkins, 1993).  Instead, the courthouse is located between the downtown commercial district and a residential neighborhood, a few blocks from the center of commerce.

Hopkins described the building

…structure appears to taper inward from its foundation in something of an optical illusion provided by its battered and engaged buttresses located at each exterior corner…tapering effect increases its tall proportions, which are enhanced further by the steep raking slope of its gable roofs…combination of the effects focuses the eye on the center bell tower, which projects slightly forward of the main block and rises a full story above the main roofs before reaching its stacked spire.

I ask you, how can any of those other buildings compete with this description, or the significance of it in terms of architecture and preservation?

How many “Architectural Word of the Week” elements can you spot in these photos?  (Hint: pilaster, corbel).  See if you can find these: wheel window, trefoil motif, jerkinhead, buttress.

The roof is made of “individual fish-scale pattern stamped metal shingles” (Hopkins, 1993).  He speculates that the metal shingles may be part of the circa 1904 remodel, as Cook’s original specifications called for a slate roof.  Hopkins further speculates that Cook himself could have been the undocumented architect for the circa 1904 remodel, given that he was still alive and practicing in the area and that the architect

…took great care to continue the lines, proportions and details of Cook’s original 1873 design.

Hopkins documents that Cook drew inspiration from the work of Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), and that the design for the courthouse

…appears to borrow on forms and details published in [Vaux’s Villas and Cottages, 1864].

Belinda Stewart was the architect for the 1997-2000 restoration of the courthouse.  The building is constructed of locally-produced brick (Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area) and trimmed in Alabama limestone.

In a non-architectural realm, the court room was used for filming the 1996 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt (CityofSenatobia.com).

Now, don’t all of those factors add up to a Mississippi place that is far more “must see” than one more antebellum home?

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Categories: Courthouses, Historic Preservation, National Register, Senatobia

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13 replies

  1. Thank you for bringing us this magnificent post! This has to be the most unique courthouse in the state. Beautiful architectural design, preservation and photos.

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    • Thank you so much! I know it was risky–I think ‘dissing’ Oxford, Faulkner, and antebellum houses in Mississippi is sufficient grounds for deportation in these parts.

      I was just so impressed with it, and then found out about its history and was hooked. Next time, I want to go inside and see all the restoration–especially that court room!

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  2. They painted or stained the brickwork?

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    • I believe the building is currently so. The building used to be painted white. I am not sure when it was first painted.

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    • It is painted. In the pictures in the nomination form (1993) it was painted white. Perhaps this color was chosen in the 1997-2000 restoration?

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    • As luck would have it, or Providence, I came across this little article in my newspaper research this weekend, and since it answers the question about painting, I post it here in full:

      OLD COURT HOUSE MAY BE PAINTED IN TATE COUNTY (Jackson Daily News, Feb. 21, 1929. p. 5)

      SENATOBIA (Special)–“The supervisors of the county are contemplating giving the Tate county courthouse its first coat of paint. The courthouse will be 56 years old this coming June; but has never had the distinction of being painted: except perhaps during the carpetbag days, it might have been painted red on some occasions. The present courthouse is the first and only one Tate county has ever had.

      “It was built in 1873. An addition was made to it in 1904. Architects have pronounced it in prime condition, good for another half century. The courthouse was built two years after Tate county was created. And there was no bond issue. The supervisors sold the country’s share in the old Mississippi & Tennessee railroad and to this amount added a few thousand dollars in short term loan warrants. The county jail, built the same year, was erected on this plan. It is still serving, too.”

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  3. Hi Susan. It’s Suzan from the Oakland MS Reunion! My family moved to Senatobia after leaving Oakland in 1971, and this is the courthouse where I got my driver’s license. Thanks for the beautiful pics! We are planning another Oakland Event for next year, so I will keep you posted. Love your blogs!
    Suzan Irby Freibert

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