This is the first of a two-part article by Mark Davis of the Pearl River County Historical Society that originally appeared in the PRCHS newsletter, The Historical Reporter, in Septmber 2010. Mark has contributed articles on MissPres before, notably two biographical sketches of architects, P.J. Krouse and Clair M. Jones, and an article about the hidden WPA mural in Picayune’s Post Office.
Thanks to the Pearl River County Historical Society for allowing this reprint. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted.
Leo Frederick Wagner Jr.
Buildings rise daily; but to design them beautifully requires a keen alchemy. Pearl River County has suffered from a paucity of great design; yet a handful of distinguished architects have left fine examples of their work within it. They include P. J. Krouse, architect of Poplarville’s First Baptist Church, the county’s courthouse and Pearl River Community College’s beloved Huff Hall; F. Mcnaughton Ball Jr., designer of the boldly modern Dog Trot House in Riceville; E. Fay Jones whose beautiful Pinecote Pavilion graces Crosby Arboretum; and Wilfred Lockyer, planner of Picayune’s Old City Hall. But none of them has captured the hearts of citizens or inspired civic pride in quite the manner of Leo Frederick (Fred) Wagner Jr., architect of Picayune’s First Baptist Church and of Read Park Pavilion.
Wagner, an only child, was born August 27, 1929 in New Orleans, the son of Leo Frederick Wagner Sr. of Indiana and Louisiana native Gladys Adams. Growing up in the Uptown section, he developed the quietly contemplative demeanor of the loner but remained attuned to his richly atmospheric surroundings. Educated entirely within the city attending Robert Mills Lusher and Isidore Newman Schools, he then entered Tulane University’s School of Architecture, receiving his B. Arch in 1954.
While at Tulane Wagner met James Paul Oubré (21 Jan 1929–31 Aug 2007; B. Arch Tulane 1952) and, in his fifth year of architecture school, his wife: Bay St. Louis native Virginia Seal. Upon graduation from Tulane, Wagner and Oubré worked for several years at the firm of Curtis and Davis before partnering to open their own office in the Maritime Building at 203 Carondelet Street in New Orleans. This partnership lasted approximately ten years and laid the foundation for successful future practices of both individuals as well as a decades long friendship.
From 1956-1965 Oubré and Wagner took on a series of important projects usually with one partner or the other focusing on each project. In 1961, the First Baptist Church in Picayune decided to replace its building. While James Oubré worked on the Calvary Baptist Church in Slidell, Fred Wagner concentrated on the Picayune project. There he sought to replace First Baptist’s outmoded 1925 building of less-than-inspired design with
an elegant and understated yet inspiring building based on Georgian models and profoundly respectful of the southern traditions found at Colonial Williamsburg and in Jefferson’s Virginia architecture.
Begun on October 11, 1964 and dedicated on September 11, 1966 the new building succeeded in the popular imagination so well that it has been featured in numerous publications and used as a backdrop in real estate brochures and many other publications wishing to vaunt the charm of the area. Red brick, wooden trim painted white, fan-topped windows and careful proportioning accomplish the effect. The main entrance is flanked by six columns 32 feet tall and five feet in diameter. Its 186 ft tall spire dominates the surrounding area and is visible throughout much of the town. The area seen from it is so wide “that parishioners used to climb the steeple to watch the Static Firings of the space flight engines at Stennis Space Center, then known as the Mississippi Test Facility.” Wagner sometimes preferred to design religious buildings finding them “challenging and stimulating in a way that secular buildings are not.”
Another of his buildings just across the street has also become a symbol of the city. Reed Park Pavilion, a simple bandstand of classic style, its image has been used on letterheads, embroidered onto police patches and adopted as a city logo sporting the motto Picayune: New South, Old Charm. This building was recently taken down and rebuilt to the original design in an upgrade of Jack Reed Park which added better sound and light systems meant to make the popular park even more user friendly.
Back to post 1. The original drawings and blueprints for First Baptist Church and Tranquility are presently housed in Wagner’s architectural office in Bay St. Louis; but they are destined to join his other papers at the Southeastern Architectural Archive of Tulane University to be kept in Special Libraries Collection 180: “Fred Wagner Office Records.” “I thought that would be best for my former clients and for people interested in the buildings.” (Wagner Interview of August 6, 2010).
Back to post 2. Jean Williams. Facebook comment.
Back to post 3. Wagner Interview of August 6, 2010.