This is the inaugural post in what I hope will be a regular series of posts regarding the buildings of Mississippi State University. I should naturally focus the first post on an important, widely known building of historical prominence such as Lee Hall or the YMCA or Perry Cafeteria or Montgomery Hall. But I have chosen not to. Those buildings, deservedly, get enough attention from alumni and the general public. This post is about the ignored, awkwardly named Patterson Engineering Laboratories, which is not even featured on Mississippi State’s historic buildings webpage.
Located at 516 Hardy Road, in the heart of engineering section of the campus, not far from the Drill Field, and surrounded by historic buildings, the Patterson Engineering Laboratories (which is one structure and will be referred to as Patterson Engineering throughout the post to make the subject and verb appropriately match) was constructed in 1949. Dr. Fred Tom Mitchell was president of then Mississippi State College and Fielding L. Wright (merely a year removed from his placement as the Dixiecrat vice-presidential candidate of Strom Thurmond in the previous presidential election) was both Governor and “Ex-Officio Chairman” of the State Building Commission. Former and future governor Hugh L. White, whose good taste in architecture and architects has been previously noted on Preservation in Mississippi, also served on the State Building Commission. The plaque near the main stairwell on the first floor states that L. B. Priester & Son was the General Contractor. That name also appears on the Poultry Science building across campus. The firm of Trolio & Liddle is listed as the architects for the structure. That Jackson firm seems to have specialized in educational structures, the destroyed Benton Elementary School in Yazoo County being another example of their work. The Consulting Architect listed on the plaque is much more familiar to Mississippi architecture aficionados: N. W. Overstreet.
Noah Webster Overstreet almost needs no introduction; his influence on Mississippi architecture is still present today. Overstreet brought modern architecture to Mississippi, both in architectural style and professional practice. He was heavily involved from the beginning in the Mississippi chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Yet, to my knowledge, the Patterson Engineering Laboratories is one of the only major buildings he was involved with that was constructed on the MSU campus. All of the main structures at MSU were constructed either before or after his main body of work. Claude Lindsley and R.H. Hunt are the names most commonly found on cornerstones and building plaques at MSU, not Overstreet. Even the ones he is connected to, he is usually a consulting or associate architect, not the primary one.
In the present day atmosphere of money determining a collegiate structure’s name, it is interesting to note the man for whom the Patterson Engineering Laboratories building is dedicated. Lucius Lamar Patterson dourly stares down upon present day young engineers in the building dedicated to his memory. Referred to as an engineer, educator, and administrator, Patterson was professor and Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1914 to 1947. In addition, he served as Dean of the School of Engineering from 1930 to 1949. This building can thus be seen as the culmination of Patterson’s educational career.
I have always been enamored with the Patterson Engineering Laboratories. The building bridges the gap between art moderne and mid-century modern. From the exterior, one sees clean lines and a long, horizontal form. The inset central section reinforces this impression through the concrete bands that run along that section of the façade, separating the first and second floors, as well as framing the “Patterson Engineering Laboratories” lettering. These bands give a sense of action and motion to the building that is more indicative of moderne than what is seen with mid-century modern boxes. The lettering is another reason to appreciate this structure; the font screams out that this building belongs to the Space Age. The 1950s engineering feel continues with the original front doors still present in both entrance bays. Perhaps it is my imagination but I can fully imagine J. Robert Oppenheimer, Werner von Braun, Richard Feynman, or any number of other scientific greats walking through those doors.
If the exterior gives the illusion of being in 1949, the interior completes the impression. Unlike so many other institutional buildings, the interior is not maligned by drop ceilings or cheap remuddlings; the hallways soar upwards to original light fixtures as the large paned, original windows allow copious amounts of light to illuminate the front halls on both floors. The interior doors are all mostly original, some still containing gold lettering likely as old as the building. Colorful, original tilework surrounds vintage water fountains inset into hallway walls. The omnipresent vending machine is the only noticeable intrusion of the present into the illusion of the past.
Not only is the Patterson Engineering Laboratories building historic and unchanged from its original appearance but Trolio & Liddle and N. W. Overstreet’s design is a superb, functional one. The large windows allow natural light into the structure, still essential today in order to cut down upon energy costs. Of course, the architects could not simply have a plain interior; the main stairwell provides a deviation from functionality for the sake of aesthetics. Its sense of motion also reinforces some of the art moderne touches seen on the exterior.
While the façade is what often receives the most focus in historic buildings, the interior is what we experience and gives us the true sense that we are in a historic building. I would encourage all Preservation in Mississippi readers to visit and walk the halls of the Patterson Engineering Laboratories, but it is still a working laboratory, home to one of the oldest Departments of Aerospace Engineering in the nation, so perhaps just enjoy the photographs.
All photographs copyright W. White 2008, 2010. All reproduction is prohibited without written permission.