Cataloguing Mississippi for HABS, Part 3

Part 3 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 and Part 2. Tomorrow’s post will consist of the Appendix, a list of 56 Mississippi structures that HABS recorded either in photos or drawings in the 1930s .

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The initial selection of twelve for recordation revealed a predilection for the cities of Natchez and Vicksburg, places highlighted in the summary outline as “the most flourishing” of the communities alongside the Mississippi River.[10] Natchez, Vicksburg, and other towns on the waterways may have been sustained by access to commercial markets as the outline suggests, but they were built and paid for by a plantation economy dependent on the labor of thousands of enslaved men and women. Of these river towns, it was Natchez that became the most important hub in the Territory. Indeed, Natchez evolved from a cultural center for the Natchez Indians, who belonged to the Mississippian civilization that constructed the area’s ceremonial mounds, into a strategic fortification and settlement for the French, and finally into a major commercial and social center in the American South’s cotton belt. It also was home to the second-largest slave market in the U.S. and home to over half of Mississippi’s free black population.[11]

A reflection of Natchez’s heft in guiding early Mississippian culture is its architecture, a collection of high style houses erected during the antebellum era as well as the more modest, galleried cottages that speak to a vernacular building tradition emerging from the confluence of French and Spanish Creole house types with the Anglo-American house plan. Shotgun houses, long associated with African-American domestic settings and with early eighteenth-century New Orleans, are also present.[12] The preponderance of domestic architecture is echoed in the HABS collection for the city of Natchez, and for Mississippi as a whole. The majority of places recorded by HABS in Mississippi are houses; that so many survived in Natchez is due to the decision to fortify Vicksburg and its railroad lines, leaving Natchez to its own devices during the Civil War. One of the most compelling examples of the war’s presence in Natchez today is, therefore, the unfinished state of Longwood, the octagonal masterpiece under construction when the war began. Workers simply put down their tools and walked away.

With the collapse of the plantation economic system and abject conditions during the war and reconstruction years in the South, the antebellum era was remembered selectively and through an ever-narrowing lens that blocked out the racial inequities and the cruelties of the slave system. The great plantation and city houses, so beautifully built and exquisitely finished, were financed through the labors of others and are sites of heritage tourism today. And just as they do for present-day visitors, these buildings drew the attention of the early HABS teams who concentrated their efforts Natchez and along the Mississippi River. Some 55 percent of the records in the collection are for historic places in the counties that make up the River region of the state. This region also includes the national park at Vicksburg and parts of the Natchez Trace Parkway. Once in Natchez, for example, interpretations of the past at places like Emerald Mound and the William Johnson House, or the Grand Village of the Natchez and the old Fort Rosalie site, complement the antebellum splendor of Melrose. Reflective of this broadening understanding of history are the most recent records entered into the collection for Natchez National Historical Park and the comprehensive documentation prepared on the park roads and parkways.

Better known today for its carefully measured drawings and large-format, black and white photography, the early HABS program aimed to use those documentary tools as standards for recordation as well as a guide to evaluating architectural development in each state. The outlines submitted by the district officers remained in draft form at the suspension of the program in 1941. The overviews touched on each state’s geographic, climatic, and cultural characteristics and summarized the political history of each. In looking at the outlines today, it is assumed that these factors were understood to have shaped the architecture of the place. Nonetheless, the presentation of local architecture reads as if the Greek Revival style was the most fully evolved aesthetic and offers little insight into builders’ wherewithal and intent. At the time the Mississippi outline was written, however, contextual questions and considerations were gauged against an intellectual framework that was dominated by a predominantly white male, social-political history.

What the Mississippi outline does highlight is the geographic richness of the state, particularly the impact of the Mississippi River on exploration and settlement by Western Europeans in the eighteenth century and the river’s rapid evolution into a transportation corridor of unprecedented scale. Mississippi’s other rivers, such as the Tombigbee, also gave rise to cities and commercial centers like Columbus and Aberdeen. The original occupants of the land, the Native Americans living near Biloxi and the Natchez tribe, ran into French explorers in the late seventeenth century. By the second quarter of the eighteenth century they had been forced to withdraw from their traditional lands. Two buildings are cited in conjunction with this period of history, the Old French Fort at Pascagoula and the Old Fayard Home in Biloxi, and both are representative of what the authors called the “primitive” phase of Mississippian architecture. Others, primarily located in Natchez, are identified to illustrate the extent of Spanish influence on the state’s built environment despite its brief hold over the political fortunes of the Territory. These include Lawyer’s Row, the Parrish House, Concord, Gilreath’s Hill Tavern, Windy Hill Manor, Hope Villa Farm, Airlie, and the Marschalk House. The ascendence of Anglo American preferences is noted with the reference to Gloucester, the dwelling of the first territorial governor Winthrop Sargent and one described as a “beautiful example of the early southern mansion in Natchez.”[13] The antebellum era was evoked as the “truly romantic [or “glorious”] age of the South and examples of the art and architecture of the era give evidence of the culture and bountiful life of the period.”[14]

Mississippi’s outline was just one piece of a larger programmatic goal wherein each district was to submit a synopsis based on the standardized overview format. The individual reports were to be folded into a six volume set entitled Outline of the Development of Early American Architecture.[15] While the contextual Outline remained incomplete, HABS succeeded in identifying and recording 152 buildings across the state between 1934 and 1939. As the initial program ended, the Mississippi team photographed seven more buildings[16] and proposed an additional fifty-six for measurement.[17] In looking back at the early work in Mississippi and in evaluating the collection records today, indexing the entries bridges the gap between the initial questions posed by O’Neill and his ideas of what the collection could tell us and contemporary inquiries. Cataloguing the collection in detail affords the researcher the ability to map the diffusion of an architectural type or building form. An index on an item level would reveal much more about Mississippi’s buildings and do much to fulfill the intentions of the founders of HABS.

In looking back at early work in Mississippi and in evaluating the collection records today, digitizing the HABS collection and adding key search terms allows researchers to make their own inquiries of architectural form and historical context.

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Back to post 10 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 1933-50, Mississippi, folder 2, NARA.

Back to post 11 For more on Natchez, see for example, Ann Beha Associates, “Natchez National Historical Park, Natchez, Mississippi, Historic Resource Study,” 1996; Mary W. Miller and Ronald W. Miller, Great Houses of Natchez (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986); William Ransom Hogan and Edwin Adams Davis, William Johnson’s Natchez: The Antebellum Diary of a Free Negro (1979; Baton Rought: Louisiana State University Press, 1993).

Back to post 12 John Michael Vlach, “The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy,” in Common Places: Readings in Vernacular Architecture, edited by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach, 58-78 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986); and more recently, Jay D. Edwards, “Unheralded Contributions Across the Atlantic World,” Atlantic Studies 5, no. 2 (2008): 161-201.

Back to post 13 “Outline . . .,” 9-15, 17, RG 515 HABS, State Organizational Files 1933-50, Mississippi, folder 2, NARA.

Back to post 14 Ibid, 10.

Back to post 15 The decision to compile outlines and publish them was made in 1936. The outlines were never published in their entirety, however, some formed the nucleus of state catalogues and books like Thomas Waterman’s Mansions of Virginia. The North Carolina outline was published independently as The Early Architecture of North Carolina, a collaborative effort between Waterman and photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Back to post 16 RG 515 HABS, State Organizational Files 1933-1950, Mississippi, folder 2, NARA.

Back to post 17 RG 515 HABS, State Organizational Files 1933-1950, Mississippi, folder 4, NARA



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

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1 reply

  1. Thank you for a wonderful post with useful links.The letter books and manuscripts of Judith Sargent Murray, women’s advocate, were found in Arlington’s attic in 1984.

    Liked by 1 person

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