MDAH Giveth, MDAH Taketh Away . . .

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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.

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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.

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Categories: Courthouses, Demolition/Abandonment, Eupora, Historic Preservation, Meridian, Mississippi Landmarks

19 replies

  1. Has MCC stated if they have developed an alternate for the cost of preservation? As in: we can have a larger xSF modern structure for the amount required to save this old one?

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  2. looks like a great filming location, you could make most of the renovation/restoration money just by renting it to a major film studio

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  3. One might think at some point someone might realize if folks stopped neglecting buildings, keeping them in repair and in use, they would not end up with so many things needed in order to save them.

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  4. Matty Hersee is not structurally unsound. I was in the building in 2012 and it was mostly still in tact. The bottom floor had been mostly gutted of material, but the top floors still had some medical equipment in them and most of the walls and utilities were still in place. I do not remember seeing any evidence of roof compromise either. There was no rot or anything else that I noticed. The building was in perfect shape for a renovation. I went out on the roof and walked around with no evidence of soft spots or anything else. This is also the first thing I have seen about this building being demolished. I’m fairly active in historical matters around town and I have not seen or heard a word. Granted, I don’t subscribe to our local paper, so if that’s the only way it was advertised, I would have missed it, but it must have been kept quiet enough to not create a buzz.

    You can find some of my photos of Matty Hersee in 2012 here: http://www.nathanculpepper.com/AShutterInTime/Matty-Hersee-Hospital/

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    • I suspect “kept quiet enough” is a good characterization. I do believe they did the required public notice, but I believe there was also an effort to ensure that public notice stayed buried in the public notices and didn’t make it into a front page article. This is a more typical way of doing things than perhaps most of us have realized.

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  5. It is hard to imagine the public could become attached to a building as devoid of warmth and character as Matty Hersee Hospital even though the architect may have done significant work elsewhere. It looks like an institutional warehouse of death. Why was it listed as a landmark? Was the listing for architectural merit? Palladio is not turning in his grave.

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  6. It’s lack of warmth and character stems entirely from the altered windows and horrid paint job, which is easily fixed. And although MCC claims this building will collapse at any second, a recent structural report shows it’s completely solid with very few problems.

    This will be a great loss.

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  7. I’ll be sorry to see the old building go. I was born in this hospital and my grandmother also worked there.

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  8. I’m sure this building could be renovated for a useful purpose and made more attractive; but it is hard for me to believe that the same public who could not be energized to save charming, historic old Ceres Plantation will be motivated to save Hersey Hospital.

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    • My point above is that MDAH has apparently no guidelines for when a landmark will get a demolition permit. Ceres proves that point just as well. I believe that Ceres had a great deal of public support expressed in numerous letters to the MDAH board, and it was in good shape, aside from a few rotted porch boards that the Vicksburg Post always mentioned. In that case, MDAH declined even to designate it a landmark knowing full well that that was a de facto demolition permit. The point is a general unconcern or lack of seriousness on the part of the board about the mission of MDAH and its role in protecting publicly owned historic buildings around the state, not in whether the Matty Hersee Hospital should or shouldn’t have been landmarked or given a demolition permit. The board seems to have opened the door for all sorts of reasons for demolition, which leads me to question what wouldn’t they give a demolition permit to? Further, their unwillingness to announce their proceedings about demolition in the same open way they announce their grants invites speculation about back room deals and back scratching.

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  9. Sorry, Hersee Hospital.

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  10. E. L. Malvaney–I agree with your point and concern. It seems very obtuse for a board to revere something one year and authorize its demolition the next. I am an example of the mixed message that has sent. Which decision is authoritative and correct–the reverence or the demolition?

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  11. I think there is the issue of asbestos.

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  12. Is there such thing as an anti-preservation lobby?

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  13. I can’t imagine anyone in Meridian being too enthusiastic about saving Matty Hersee, since this is coming from the same people that chose not to save Hotel Meridian, which was in just as good a shape Matty Hersee is in. I imagine this will be yet again just another empty lot for the city of Meridian.

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  14. There a large effort to save Hotel Meridian. Matty Hersee is in MUCH better shape than the Hotel, but both should’ve been left for preservation. I haven’t given up on Matty Hersee…or the Meridian Police Department because it’s a Chris Risher, Sr. design. I’m hoping others will join me. If you’re interested in preservation in Meridian, MS please contact me at angiebarker@live.com
    Thanks, ELMalvaney for your efforts!
    Angie

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  15. *WAS a large effort to save…

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  1. Matty Hersee Update « Preservation in Mississippi

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