Mississippi Architects: Robert E. Lee (1870-1925)

A while back, I was reading a well-done, glossy history of Hattiesburg’s early neighborhoods, Historic Hattiesburg: History & Architecture of Hattiesburg’s First Neighborhoods (Department of Planning & Community Development, Neighborhood Development Division, City of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. n.d.), and I noticed a sidebar about Hattiesburg’s most famous early twentieth century architect, Robert E. Lee. The sidebar mentioned his death date, sending me to the archives to find his obituary. I had always assumed that R.E. Lee was named after the general, but in fact his middle name was Emmett, according to the obit in the Hattiesburg American.



Robert Emmett Lee Succumbs to Stroke of Apoplexy While Chatting With Daughter


Robert Emmett Lee, probably the best known architect in Mississippi, who drew plans for some of the State’s most important structures, is dead at his home in this city.

Death came suddenly shortly after 9 o’clock this morning. Mr. Lee had been ill for some time, and while his condition was serious, it was not believed to be of a fatal nature. Apoplexy was the cause of the death, which followed a stroke of paralysis sometime ago.

Mr. Lee was seated in a chair before a fireplace at his home, 463 Southern Avenue, talking with one of his daughters, when he suddenly toppled over dead.

Mr. Lee’s work will stand as monuments to him for generations. Not only in Hattiesburg, but throughout South Mississippi, are scores of buildings, which he designed, and the construction of which he supervised.

He was 54 years old, and was a native of Meridian. He came here some years ago, and was considered one of the most conscientious and hard working architects the State has yet produced.

All of the schools of the city, both white and colored, the Masonic Temple here, the new City Hall, the First Presbyterian Church, the Main Street Baptist Church, Barron’s headquarters, all of this city; and the hotel and stores at Columbus, built to replace those destroyed by fire a few years ago, were among his important bits of work.

Funeral arrangements await the arrival of relatives, who are due tonight and tomorrow.

He is survived by his wife, three daughters, [illegible on microfilm]

Hattiesburg American, March 2, 1925

Although I have yet to find a photo of Mr. Lee, I did come across this full-page advertisement he placed in the 1906-07 City Directory when he was at the height of his career. The former Hattiesburg Trust & Banking Company, which Lee designed in 1905, still stands and is a contributing structure in the Hub City Historic District.


Hattiesburg City Directory 1906-1907

Historian Dunbar Rowland gives us a much more full picture of Lee’s early career in his entry in Mississippi: Contemporary Biography (1907), p. 451, unfortunately sans photo. Dunbar also mistakenly believed Lee’s middle name was Edward, so at least I wasn’t the only one. Interestingly, while Lee’s obituary says he’s a native of Meridian, this earlier bio makes him a country boy of Winston County and Philadelphia.

Lee, Robert Edward, one of the leading architects of southern Mississippi, has his home and headquarters in Hattiesburg, Perry county, and is known as a man finely educated in his chosen profession, which has to do with the practical and esthetic values exemplified in every community. Mr. Lee was born in Plattsburg, Winston county, Miss., Dec. 29, 1870, and is a son of Thomas J. and Elizabeth P. Quarles Lee, both native of Mississippi and representative of old and honored families of this commonwealth. Thomas Jefferson Lee served with distinction during the Civil war rendering loyal service as a member of a Mississippi regiment and making a record of a faithful and earnest devotion to the cause whose final loss became a matter of history. Robert E. Lee first completed the work of the public schools, being reared in Philadelphia, Neshoba county, and later he attended the Agricultural and Mechanical college at Starkville, Miss., and finally entered the St. Louis School of Fine Arts, where he continued his technical studies bearing upon his chosen profession. After leaving school, he entered the offices of Gustave M. Torgerson, the well known architect at Meridian, Miss., who designed and supervised the construction of the World’s Cotton Centennial Exposition at New Orleans, La., remaining with this able preceptor for a period of four years and thoroughly fortifying himself in all details of the work of his profession. In 1901 he located in Hattiesburg and is now the leading architect of this city where he is held in high esteem in both business and social circles. He is unequivocal in his allegiance to the Democratic party but has never been an aspirant for official preferment of any sort. Mr. Lee was supervising architect of the new court house which was built in Perry county in 1905, and he devotes special attention to the planning and superintending of business blocks and school buildings, while his services are in demand in the most diverse sections of the State. He is progressive in his attitude and is a careful and reliable business man, commanding the esteem of all with whom he has dealings. On June 15, 1902, Mr. Lee was united in marriage to Miss Rada Hilliard, daughter of Ransom and Mary E. Austin Hilliard of Newport, Ky. They have two children, Ray Goss, born June 25, 1903, and Zada, born Jan 7, 1906.

You can see a full list of currently known R.E. Lee designs at the MDAH Historic Resources Database. I notice that the MDAH list does not include any buildings in Columbus, referred to in the obituary above.


While Lee’s Ross Building has come back to life, his Eaton School has not been so fortunate.

Eaton School, March 2010

Eaton School, March 2010


Categories: Architectural Research, Hattiesburg


17 replies

  1. I wonder if the obituary writer meant “Columbia” rather than “Columbus.” Was thre a significant fire during this time in either town?


    • In 1919, the six-story Hunt-design bank building in Columbus, under construction by the master builders at D. S. McClanahan, suffered major damage after a fire that engulfed the upper two floors. Many stores surrounding the area were damaged , including the Princess theater and the Cumberland Telephone Company Exchange.
      Apparently there was no attempt to salvage the upper two floors in the restoration that followed. This is probably where Robert Emmett Lee entered the picture.
      Rufus Ward recorded details in his weekly column on the efforts by area fire brigades to extinguish the raging fire.


      • The 1907 Six-story (second)Columbus Insurance and Banking Company suffered a fire in 1919. Further reading gives credit to P. J. Krouse for supervision of the restoration of remaining four floors.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this ‘mini-bio’ of Hattiesburg-connected architect Robert E. Lee, a name familiar to me from my youth in that city in the 1940s/50s–a time, I might add, when many of his buildings still stood, were in good condition, and were a delight to the environment.

    The male members of my family–including myself– patronized an old-time wonderful barber shop on the ground floor of the Ross Building(the chairs were made by the Koken Company); there were numerous professional offices upstairs where I recall sitting on hard seats awaiting appointments; and the drug store on the first floor had one of the most elegant soda fountains ever! Lee’s other Hattiesburg structures were important parts of our community then, and those that remain now are equally important!

    The thought above re ‘Columbia’ vs ‘Columbus’ seems more logical– but i can’t seem to easily find out about a downtown fire in the former; would love for someone to do this research.

    Liked by 2 people

    • After Rufus Ward’s expose on the possible arson of the impounded cotton bales, he also published a detail story in the Commercial-Dispatch–gleaned from newspaper archives, I suspect– of the downtown four-story building fires destroying the top floors. I have a post card stuck away somewhere from the Mayo Drug Store in Columbus postmarked sometime in July, 1909 featuring a four-story commercial building. The postcard was printed in Germany. I’m thinking that Barksdale was editor of the Columbus-Democrat at the time.
      Could Columbus’ Lee High, completed in 1918, have been R.E. Lee’s work? Overstreet was at Mississippi A & M in 1918.
      There was another world famous architect born the same year of Overstreet in 1889. Who was he?


      • Old Lee High was finished in 1917. It was a P.J. Krouse design.


        • Thanks.
          Do you have a link to P.J. Krouse designs that were never included in the NRHP? I see that Kenneth P’Poole had requested in 1987 that listings which no longer existed, be removed from the list. Did Columbus’ Lee High ever make the list?

          With Krouse’s connections to the New Deal, could he have designed the “poured-in-place -concrete” constructed Brooksville School which has got to be the Mother of All WPA Rural Schools in Mississippi. With Bilbo’s connections to FDR and the New Deal, Krouse and Bilbo must have schmoozed at sometime in their careers… they both being “Masons.” In the Bilbo photo connection, there are six Pruitt Studio photos of the Brooksville School construction-in-progress. Construction began in 1942, but delayed because of the war. Construction ended in 1944… the year that Krouse died.
          I toured the Brooksville School last week after a fifty two-year absence.


          • You’re welcome.
            Here is the link to the MDAH entries for Penn J. Krouse. https://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov/Public/rpt.aspx?rpt=artisanSearch&Name=Krouse&City=Any&Role=Any

            It is far from complete, as I don’t believe there is a complete archive of Krouse’s work. Any inventory number that has “NR” indicates a resource is either listed or considered eligible for listing. If the inventory number contains a standalone “X”, that means the resource has been demolished.

            The old Lee School burned 7 years before the National Register was created in 1966, so I am doubtful it was ever listed.


          • Eureka!

            Thanks for the link.
            P.J. Krouse is the Daddy of the “White Complex” at Brooksville. As posted previously, the Bilbo Photo Collections at McCain Library contains six Pruitt Studio photos of the Art Deco Building. The Pruitt Studio Collection was sold years ago and what was not bought by individuals is now housed at the University of North Carolina. Birney Imes purchased some of the photos.
            The principal at the school for many years was Mr. St. John, aka by his sobriquet, “Squint.” His home was sold after his death to Wade Smith of Brooksville. Upon Smith’s death, his nephew from Hattiesburg went to clear out the estate and found a treasure trove of St. John family materials in the attic. He retrieved it and took it to Robert’s Purple Parrot restaurant. When Smith’s nephew told Robert what he had found, Robert told him just to lay it on the bar. What happened to it after that only Robert St. John knows.
            Maybe Robert will enlighten us in his folksy Sunday food column of the Hattiesburg-American.


  3. I wondered about whether “Columbus” was a typo for Columbia, but when I check the National Register nomination for the Downtown Columbia Historic District, I don’t see any reference to a major fire. Plus, there aren’t that many big buildings downtown there that I think would have required an architect like Lee, so I think Columbus may be right, and we just never had that connection made for us. Well have to start digging!


    • There was an historic fire in downtown Columbus, but I don’t see a connection to the time frame of Robert E. Lee’s professional career, since the fire was in 1865. But I do recall a comment on the irony of the long leaf yellow pine, which brought wealth and prosperity to Hattiesburg, also led to the fires that destroyed parts of the old city. I assume the writer meant “flammable” rosins[sic] leaching from the heart pine wooden floors and roof structures., etc.

      Rufus Ward on research from Gary Lancaster’s “archives.”



  4. I believe that Lee’s home address was 403 Southern Avenue rather than 463 Southern Avenue. Ill have to follow up with a city directory, but his obit in the Biloxi Herald (which the microfilm of is clearer than the microfilm of the HA) appears to list 403 Southern as his residence.


  5. Am delighted we are having some comments re architect Lee. Yesterday, I neglected to say that my grammar school, then called Camp School, was a Lee design; greatly remodeled, it still stands. Have just tried to get some visuals for ‘403 Southern Avenue’ vs ‘483 Southern Avenue’; and, while there is a somewhat remodeled house at the former that could be Lee’s, I only got an intersection for ‘483’— but, there is a more recent bldg. on that corner, so it could be on the site of the Lee home. But, maybe we’ll hear more from Mr. Rosell and his city directory search.


    • The other “Hattiesburg school,” the “lab” school on the MSC campus, Demonstration School, was designed by N.W. Overstreet. Demonstration was my parents alma mater(1935). Just west a block down Front Street from the Ross Building ,at the corner Main Street, I saw Adolph Hitler’s Mercedes-Benz convertible parked in front of the WOW building. This was 1950. Did you ever see it? A true story that I found documented just recently online by the Guardian. All these years, I had always suspected that it may have been a hoax.


  6. I would love to get a sign with history of the Heathman plantation area. How do I go about getting one of the markers I see in different areas . In downtown Infianola was was put up for the Craig Claiborne home. The Heathman commissary building is on the National Historic Register. Lois Robertson

    Date: Wed, 11 May 2016 11:01:15 +0000 To: robertsonlois@hotmail.com


  7. Mea culpa—with reference to Hattiesburg architect R. E. Lee, I mis-read ‘463 Southern Avenue’ from the obit as ‘483 Southern Avenue’—- but, interestingly, perhaps that block has neither ‘high number’ since the arrow on the google map points to the same spot– the intersection… but, some of us are still waiting for Mr Rosell’s research in the Hattiesburg city directories…


    • I haven’t had time to find a early 1920’s Hattiesburg Directory yet. But when I sent Malvaney Lee’s Biloxi Herald obit last year I did look up the address then on the 1925 sanborn map. The only address that existed then of the bunch was 403 Southern Ave.


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