Cataloguing Mississippi for HABS, Part 2

Part 2 of 3 in a series by Virginia Price, originally presented at the 2009 meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians in Jackson, Miss. See Part 1.

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Established in November 1933 and underway in 1934, the Historic American Buildings Survey was more than a make-work program for architects. Many of the architects doubled as photographers and historians by taking photographs of, and making notes about, the places they measured and drew. Ideas about preserving architecture through recordation complemented those espoused by the Ecole des Beaux Arts that encouraged careful study of ancient (classical) architecture and historical precedent in its curriculum. The meticulous measured drawings and sketches provided a repertoire for Ecole graduates that informed their design and restoration projects. Interest in early American architecture was further buoyed by the Colonial Revival movement, and historical architects began to measure and field note both high style and vernacular buildings with increasing frequency. Some of these drawings appeared in Charles McKim’s (1874) New York Sketch Book of Architecture,[5] many more in volumes of the American Architect and, later, in the Architectural Record. With the initiative of Leicester B. Holland, Chief of the Fine Arts division at the Library of Congress and member of the preservation committee for the American Institute of Architects, that these independent and sometimes regional trends coalesced as the Survey.

Leading the documentation effort in each state, or district, were men nominated by the American Institute of Architects. These so-called district officers typically had devoted years to recording examples of early American architecture, were active in local preservation initiatives, were members of a local AIA chapter, and had architectural practices dependent on a design and restoration business. Mississippi’s first district officer, A. Hays Town, was one of these men. Town served from 1934 to 1940, when he moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana; at that time, Emmett J. Hull was nominated to replace him. Hull was the district officer from 1940 to 1941, when funding for HABS was halted as the United States entered World War II. Assisting Hull with his duties as the district officer was Jefferson P. Waldrop. The Assistant District Officer knew the program well for Waldrop had been part of the state recording team in the 1930s.[6]

Dunbar Rowland, first director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH)

Dunbar Rowland, first director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH)

Hull’s position won him a place on the State Advisory Committee, an entity established by the AIA to guide the investigation and recommendation of subjects to receive HABS documentation. Generally the committees consisted of three architectural professionals as well as one or two local historians. For Mississippi the committee was composed of Hull, C.H. Lindsley, F.P. Gates, Dunbar Rowland, and Judge A.H. Longino.[7] As a committee these men reviewed the existing literature and determined what documentation had already been completed on the state’s historic buildings. Only then did they compile a list of sites for consideration, ranked in order of priority, which was forwarded to the Washington, D.C., office for approval.

In Washington, it was Holland and John P. O’Neill of the National Park Service who outlined the standards for selecting and recording the buildings. The guidelines they drew set a national standard for documentation that were then implemented on a local level by the district officers. O’Neill’s instructions to the district officers asked that they consider architectural examples of historical importance, such as those places associated with statesmen and those associated with historic events, in addition to those of interest to discerning historical architects. These guidelines influenced the contents of the Mississippi survey.[8] Many of the subjects chosen reflected the high style houses of the affluent in and around Natchez as well as those structures tied to the French settlement period and those tied by happenstance to the Civil War.

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To connect the various buildings and structures selected and documented by the survey teams to American architecture as a whole the HABS administrators requested that the district officers provide an outline or overview of their region’s architectural forms. Questions to be addressed by the outlines sought to elucidate the defming character of a region’s architecture and how it developed in each area studied. In the summary draft prepared for Mississippi, specific architectural elements and building materials are noted as well as the arrival of the central passage floor plan. The “transitional” phases included many structures made of wood, plus houses with double porches rather than the two-story classical porticoes of the Greek Revival, with square box columns, narrow corner boards, and irregular floor plans. It was the Greek-Revival buildings, here called the “formal types,” of the antebellum era that the outline’s authors admitted had come to “symbolize the Old South.”[9] No architectural description or definition accompanied the categorization.

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Back to post 5 Perschler, 2, who cites Leland M. Roth, McKim, Mead and White, Architects (NY: Harper and Row, 1983).

Back to post 6 RG 515 Records of the Historic American Buildings Survey, State Organizational Files 1933-50, Mississippi, folders 1-4, and RG 515 Records of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Records of the District Officer, District and State Correspondence, Box 2, Mississippi folder, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, Maryland.

Back to post 7 RG 515 HABS, State Organizational Files 1933-50, Mississippi, folders 1, 4, NARA.

Back to post 8 HABS Circular No. 1, December 12, 1933; HABS Bulletin No. 3, December 29, 1933.

Back to post 9 See Section II: Development of Local Architecture, in the “Outline of the Development of Early American Architecture: Mississippi,” 25-28, RG 515 HABS, State Organizational Files 1933-55, Mississippi folder 2, NARA.



Categories: Historic American Building Survey (HABS), Historic Preservation

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