As announced on the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s website last week, at its October 25th meeting, the MDAH Board of Trustees approved a $500,000 grant to help stablize the Webster County Courthouse:
Built in 1915 the Webster County Courthouse was one of architect N.W. Overstreet’s first designs in Mississippi. On January 17, 2013, an early morning fire severely damaged the Neo-Classical structure. A $500,000 Community Heritage Preservation Grant will fund the stabilization of the building’s walls and reconstruction of the roof.
This is good news, as that building’s future had been hanging in the balance as Webster Countians debated whether to move the county seat to Eupora and abandon the damaged historic building. Now that the decision to restore in place has been made, we look forward to seeing pictures of progress over the coming year as the building comes back to life.
Unfortunately that’s not the only news from the Board of Trustees meeting. Although the MDAH website doesn’t mention it, sources who attended the meeting tell me that the Board also granted a demolition permit for the Matty Hersee Hospital in Meridian. MDAH designated the 1923 Matty Hersee building as a Mississippi Landmark in 2007.
You may recall that Matty Hersee received a $300,000 grant award from MDAH’s Community Heritage Preservation Grant in 2009. But Meridian Community College, which owns the property now, turned down that grant. We had a “Hopeful Update on Matty Hersee” in June 2011 that indicated the college was back on board and was in the pre-planning stage with Belinda Stewart to rehab the building for classroom space for a nursing and medical careers program. I assumed that process was moving along and didn’t realize the college had decided against renovation based on the price tag, reportedly in the $10 million range.
So I was fairly shocked to hear that the MDAH Board had just given up and granted a demolition permit, and according to sources at the meeting, there was almost no debate before the unanimous vote. Assuming MDAH procedures were followed, the owner of a designated Mississippi Landmark property must run a public notice in the local newspaper before the Board of Trustees will bring the matter to a vote. My understanding about Matty Hersee is that there was no organized public opposition to the demolition, although as we saw with Mendenhall School Auditorium earlier this year, the MDAH board doesn’t seem to give a different answer when there is local support for a building. When do they deny demolition permits?
It’s interesting that MDAH itself has never published its Board of Trustees agendas on its website, which would allow a more general public to see what Mississippi Landmark buildings are endangered around the state. This is a simple thing that even local governments do as a matter of course (quick searches turned up the City of Jackson and the City of Oxford agendas for this week’s council meetings).
Normally, I would be willing to give the Board the benefit of the doubt that maybe this was a necessary loss, but the Board’s shockingly negligent and underhanded vote to grant a demolition permit for the Mendenhall School Auditorium in July gives cause for wondering how often these demolition permits are being granted when no one is watching. The Matty Hersee incident brings up the question, what are the guidelines that an owner must to meet to get a demolition permit? Are there guidelines? Or do you just have to get a legislator on your side and be sneaky? Does a building have to be structurally unsound and not repairable? Or does a public owner just have to say they don’t have the money and get their permit?
Clearly, MDAH doesn’t trumpet its demolition permits the way it does its grant awards, so this post is just to put the Board of Trustees on notice that Mississippi preservationists are now watching attentively and will be at future quarterly meetings. If we start to think that the state agency in charge of protecting Mississippi’s most historic places has abrogated that responsibility, we might start looking for ways to get a new board or at least new board members who care enough to stand up for our historic landmarks.