Documenting the New Deal in Clarksdale: Civic Auditorium

entrance and flag pole

After taking a few weeks off from my might-never-end quest to document all the New Deal Administration properties in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, I was back on the hunt again this week.  I was intrigued by this building–the Clarksdale Civic Auditorium–when it was posted on Preservation in Mississippi.  It was only recently, however, that I discovered it was a Works Progress Administration building whilst following my favorite pass-time of searching the MDAH database inventory.  (I don’t know who over at MDAH thought of that, but she or he deserves a nomination for the most helpful and fun Internet site on the whole world wide web.)  You can also see a wonderful photograph of the entire front of the building on the 2009 post by Malvaney, and also in the 2009 post for Name This Place.

The Civic Auditorium was completed in 1939, designed by Mississippi’s Edgar Lucien Malvaney, and built by McCandless, CP with funding from the WPA.  McCandless operated in the 1930s in Clarksdale.  From the nomination form for the Clarksdale historic district (Wright, Baughn, & Gatlin, 2009):

…poured concrete walls…rounded front corners…fluted columns…

And, my personal favorite of the description,

…entrances appear somewhat anthropomorphic.

Off to the dictionary to look up anthropomorphic, only to discover that it is ascribing a human form or face to a non-human object…okay, now where might that be?  A nose, or mouth maybe, but eyes?  Or is it the form itself that is somewhat human–rounded?  Let’s hear from some of those historians and architects out there, and clear up this mystery.

bas relief and rounded windows

A bas relief figure is centered on the front facade (shown close-up in the photograph below).  She appears to be holding a skyscraper, and to the sides of her feet are a cowboy hat and a Native American headdress.  Because she is dressed in a robe and due to the style of her hair, I am speculating she is representing ancient civilization, and the merging of cultures past and present. She seems to be standing on water.  If there is an official explanation for the intentions of the architect, I did not locate it, but feel free to weigh in with your interpretation.

I also particularly like those rounded windows that extend along the lower wall, although their form is partially obscured by the too-tall bushes.  Wright, Baughn, and Gatlin (2009) described the windows:

…a ribbon of 2/2 horizontal awning metal windows.

Perhaps “ribbon” is an architectural term, but if not, it certainly evokes a lovely image–a decorative function curving across the face of a building, rather like a ribbon lying against the sleek surface of a young woman’s hair, contrasting the texture of the other elements.

The auditorium, which still sees regular use in a variety of forms, has a seating capacity of 1500.  In 2011, MDAH awarded a grant of $350,000 for a study of needed work, and to repair portions of the exterior and interior elements.



Categories: Clarksdale, Delta, Historic Preservation, Modernism, New Deal

18 replies

  1. I am doing an article on the Senatobia Auditorium. Since you seem to be our resident expert on WPA buildings, I’d love to have some input from you. Please contact me at the address below. Thanks

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  2. Regarding the bas relief sculpture. Looks like a cotton bale behind her.

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    • Good eye–I think you could be right! And how fitting as well.

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    • I think that is a cotton bale—good eye. Beautiful bas relief. I hope this building stands forever. Architect was very artistic and did a wonderful structure to last. Assume he is relation to our Malvaney??? I am nt an expert, just a lover of beautiful buildings. I do think the hat could be farmer’s. And I leave the building to you who know but looks to me as same as CBOT….Love this Suzassippi ~~

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  3. p.s., regarding the bas relief sculpture, do you think it might be CERES, Roman goddess of agriculture and the skyscraper building she’s holding might be the Chicago Board of Trade building built in 1930? The Chicago Board of Trade building has a statue of Ceres on the top of the building as a tribute to the board’s agriculture commodities heritage.

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    • Another interesting thought, though I have no idea.

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      • Look up the Chicago Board of Trade building and compare it to the “skyscraper” figure on the bas relief. I just took a quick glance and did not do a detailed comparison. At first I thought the skyscraper figure resembled the Empire State Building so I wondered about any NY connections. Of course, most of the cotton money was in New York banks!

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  4. I’m coming up blank on the use of “anthropomorphic” in this context, I’m embarrassed to say. We created the HRI database to divert your attention from such puzzles, and we accept your nomination for “Most Fun Site on the Whole World Wide Web”!

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  5. i believe anthropomorphic is simply misused in this context. is that a cowboy hat or a conquistador’s helmet?

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  6. Great post! I have to agree that the bas relief figure appears to be holding the CBOT building; there is a very close resemblance. (It is a very interesting historic building, too!). But I think the hat resembles a farmer’s hat. It isn’t quite cowboy! I’m glad this building is still in use!

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  7. Maybe that’s the Mississippi River at the bottom under the bas relief figure’s feet (bare feet). Maybe she’s wiggling her toes in the Mississippi Mud? HA!

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  8. Never one to ignore a challenge, I have looked up images for 1939 cowboy hat, 1939 farmer’s hat, and conquistador helmet. One could make a case for any of them. What throws me is the juxtaposing of a conquistador helmet with what appears to me to be a Native American headdress–it does not seem to fit. I looked up photographs for winged helmet, but there is nothing close. So, I guess it, like the rest of the bas relief, is open to interpretation until someone finds the architect’s plans.

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  9. And now, I am going to have to backtrack yet again. Look up images of “conquistadors and Native Americans” and you will find images of both helmets and feather headdresses in the same image. By golly, Mark, I believe it is a helmet, and that would be fitting with some of the other aspects of earlier civilization depicted in the sculpture.

    And this really is my last word on it!

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  10. I can see the antropomorphic by viewing the full frontal picture in the photograph of the entire front of the building on the 2009 post by Malvaney (link below). The upper windows on each corner are the eyes, the bas relief is the nose, the windows below the bas relief is the mouth and teeth and the wings of the building are the ears! Well, might be a stretch but that’s what I think it looks like.

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