As a way of commemorating the 47th anniversary of Hurricane Camille this week, let’s look back at two structures that are prominent features of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s skyline. While it is apparent that disaster shapes our physical environment in what is lost, as preservationists we can learn where we are today by understanding the guiding principles, materials, and methods that shape what in turn replaces lost landmarks. Two significant apartment buildings that came to be in the wake of Hurricane Camille are the Santa Maria del Mar in Biloxi, and the Villa Maria in Ocean Springs.
Santa Maria del Mar in Biloxi was described in a Biloxi Daily Herald article as a “contemporary Spanish,” 13-story tall, air-conditioned building with 136 efficiency apartments, and 74 one-bedroom apartments. It cost $3,250,000 to construct and was completed by fall of 1971. Villa Maria in Ocean Springs, described in the same Daily Herald article as being “of modern design,” contained 99 efficiency apartments, and 98 one-bedroom apartments. It cost $3,200,000 to build and was completed for occupancy in the summer of 1971. It is not clear from the article if the Villa Maria was originally air-conditioned. Interestingly enough the article goes on to state that these buildings were some of the first in the northern gulf region to be built following building codes that responded to hurricanes.
The two buildings are constructed of reinforced concrete. They have been designed to withstand a 200-mile-per-hour hurricane. They are some of the first buildings in the Camille area to be built using the hurricane code of Florida. The windows, walls and doors are of extra strength. The buildings will be fireproof.
– Catholic Charities Gave Vital Aid, The Daily Herald Biloxi-Gulfport, Miss. Sunday. August 16, 1970 p. F-11
Florida began mandating statewide building codes during the 1970s. It seems natural that in the wake of disaster new construction designs that can save lives and buildings would be heartily embraced and swiftly adopted. For comparison sake, Mississippi only adopted a state-wide code for new construction in 2014, and municipalities can opt-out. (yay! #50) Looking at these two buildings they certainly give the impression of stout, strong, béton brut construction that won’t be going anywhere during hurricane force winds. While from a distance the apartment buildings may look identical, in the photos below you can see the differences in the details. Perhaps the faux balconies on the Santa Maria del Mar give the building its “contemporary Spanish” flair.
In addition to a lobby with a front desk and manager’s office, the first floors of these apartment structures originally featured an automatic laundry, a beauty parlor, card rooms, and an assembly area, along with doctors’ suites and nurses areas. Designed with seniors and the disabled in mind, the buildings included safety features, such as grab bars in the bath, and doors, baths, kitchen and other areas were designed for use of wheelchairs; ramps were included. Perhaps these are early adoptions of now-required ADA compliance?
A little bit about how the Santa Maria del Mar and Villa Maria came to be. I was surprised to learn that these structures were not funded through Catholic Charities but rather through FHA financing.
“Catholic Charities, under the direction of the Catholic Diocese of Mississippi, has formed a non-profit corporation to own and operate the apartments. The ownership was made possible by the utilization of long term, low-interest FHA insured Section 236 financing. These apartments are not being built or financed by Catholic Charities, Inc. They are being built and financed under the FHA rent suppliment (sic) program.”
Architects of the structures were James T. Canizaro of Jackson and John T. Collins of Biloxi, with F. Marion Walker serving as resident architect at the construction site. Maurice Plott served as construction superintendent for Dunn Construction Company of Birmingham, Alabama, who was the contractor for both structures.
Villa Maria in Ocean Springs fared quite well during Katrina, being somewhat inland. It is still in use for senior apartments. Santa Maria del Mar, right on Highway 90 in Biloxi, suffered significantly more water damage in Hurricane Katrina and has been vacant since the storm. Stout construction to “hurricane code of Florida” standards likely has helped the tower weather Katrina and 10+ years of abandonment quite well. It has recently been gutted as part of a plan to renovate the apartment structure as a hotel.
What rules or guidelines shaped the way a building looks in your neck of Mississippi? Let us know!