Modernism in Natchez: Natchez High School

A couple of years ago on an early summer evening, I was driving into Natchez just after a thunderstorm, and suddenly, for the first time on scores of visits, I noticed Natchez High School off to the left. After doing a quick U-turn, I spent some time walking around this Modernist campus, which looked great, set in the midst of a wide green lawn with the sun shining on the purple clouds behind it. The “building” is actually composed of many small pods, each with four classrooms opening onto sidewalks and interior courtyards. The classrooms are arranged so that each one has two almost fully glazed walls. Then there’s what I think is a library at the front, with its distinctive folded-plate roof–an automatic magnet for Modernist-lovers.

As I snapped these pictures, I thought about the blog post I would write with them, but as often happens, I came back home, downloaded them, and forgot. Until recently, that is, when I was back in Natchez at the Historic Natchez Foundation looking at the “Hometown Teams” exhibit, and in the hallway I spotted this lovely aerial rendering of Natchez High, with R.W. Naef’s name prominently displayed as architect. There’s no date on the drawing, but I think I recall the school opened in 1962–it’s not in the MDAH HIstoric Resources Database. Naef, of Jackson, is in the MDAH database, with a list over over 100 buildings to his name.

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This aerial view gives you a good sense of the connected-pod layout of the campus, although some later additions at the front of campus (which you can see in the Google map image below) clutter up the openness and clarity of the original. This pod design was on the cutting edge when it was open, with light-filled rooms and airy courtyards considered amenities for scholarly and social life. In today’s security-conscious society, though, I’ve heard these schools are sometimes considered a problem because the buildings are hard to close off from intruders and the courtyards make it difficult to observe students at all times. With that in mind, I applaud Natchez for keeping this stunning Modernist building in good shape and still in use as Natchez High School, motto “Yes We Can.” (Be sure to check out the wikipedia page, which looks to have been recently edited by two students in the Class of 2018.)



Categories: Cool Old Places, Modernism, Natchez, Schools

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4 replies

  1. Thank you for your attention to this Natchez anomaly! Unfortunately in spite of all aesthetically good qualities, it seems to be a functional, security, and academic nightmare. Hopefully it can find an appropriate future mission that does not unduly impact the children of Natchez.

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    • I can buy the security issues, but I’ve heard too many school administrators use a historic building as a whipping boy for academic issues that aren’t the building’s fault. Then they get their new building that usually looks like a prison at great cost to taxpayers and still can’t show academic progress. The only “historic” (I guess it’s getting to be historic since it happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s) school architecture that I will accept was an utter and complete failure academically was the Open School movement, which seems to have come out of the ed and architecture schools and I can’t believe had any input from actual teachers. School districts such as Jackson spent gobs of money overhauling 1950s buildings by removing most interior walls, forced students and teachers into a loud and unfocused environment, and then were surprised when it was a miserable failure. Within 10 years, they spent another gob of money putting back the walls and re-creating classrooms again.

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  2. Great post!

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