Meridian Demolitions and Why Ordinary Old Houses Almost No One Cares About Should Be Preserved

609 34th Ave., Meridian. The difference between these two houses? The one on the right has been less fortunate in ownership and will be demolished.

609 34th Ave., Meridian; Google Street View, May 2013. The difference between these two houses? The one on the right has been less fortunate in ownership and will be demolished.

At the end of the WTOK News story about the demolition of the Old Citizens Bank Building at 2212-2214 Fourth Street in Meridian was a statement by Community Development Director Bunky Partridge, “Well, we’re always looking at our homes around Meridian, to condemn them.” The story also stated that the Old Citizens Bank demolition is one of many being conducted in Meridian at the beginning of the year.

3409 5th St., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2016

3409 5th St., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2016

Victorian front door, 3409 5th St., Meridian; Google Street View, May 2013

Victorian front door, 3409 5th St., Meridian; Google Street View, May 2013

The WTOK story focused on one building, but what else in Meridian is being demolished? The City of Meridian is of no help, listing only a generic demolition approval in the city council minutes. However, The Meridian Star did publish an article about the demolitions, “Meridian City Council votes 3-2 to condemn 39 properties” back on October 4. The City Council meeting was very contentious, with multiple property owners or their representatives stating that city officials such as Partridge and Code Enforcement Manager Wiley Quinn Jr. “put up roadblock after roadblock” preventing owners from doing work to remove properties from the city’s condemnation list.

“If anyone wants to rehab their property, we’re willing to work with them.” Quinn said. “We’ll give them up to a year. Once they bring it up to a habitable state, we will work with them. If we’ve done all the work, then I’m ready to tear it down.”

“I did what the city asked me to do and hired people and paid them. I met with Mr. Quinn. He told me what I needed to do,” [Linda Jordan, whose deceased mother, Ida Mae Jordan, owned the home on 3409 Fifth St.] said. “The people were then denied permits. When (the city) saw I was willing to do whatever it took, they came up with this floodplain. This came after the fact to issue a permit.”

In the end, the council and mayor approved demolition of all the houses on the docket, including the properties whose owners or owners’ representatives spoke against demolition.

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Front Facade, 635 33rd Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Front Facade, 635 33rd Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Front Gable, 635 33rd Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Front Gable, 635 33rd Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Of the 39 houses approved for demolition, not all have the age or architectural significance to be considered historic. All are in generally poor condition. Yet, many either are or would be considered historic, particularly in the context of other historic houses around them and are not in too poor of condition that they could not be restored. For example, 609 34th Ave.3409 5th St., 3012 Davis St., and 635 33rd Ave. are contributing resources to the National Register-listed West End Historic District; while 1618 26th Ave. is a contributing resource to the Mid-Town Historic District.

But this post is about more than just these houses in Meridian. Why should such ordinary and generally undistinguished buildings be preserved? Should they be? One could say that these houses and houses like them should not be preserved. That is the City of Meridian’s position, even when confronted by owners who wish to restore them, but is obviously not my position. I will explicate why it is not, using these Meridian houses as a case study.

Rare Mission Style Bungalow, 1618 26th Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Rare Mission Style Bungalow, 1618 26th Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Front Facade, 3012 Davis St., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Front Facade, 3012 Davis St., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Side Facade, 3012 Davis St., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Side Facade, 3012 Davis St., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Side Facade, 3012 Davis St., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Side Facade, 3012 Davis St., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

3821 Smith St., Meridian; Google Street View, July 2016

3821 Smith St., Meridian; Google Street View, July 2016

2253 41st Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2016

2253 41st Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2016

Front Facade, 1417 26th Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Front Facade, 1417 26th Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Leaded Glass Front Door 1417 26th Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

Leaded Glass Front Door 1417 26th Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, May 2013

907 Bragg Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, August 2013

907 Bragg Ave., Meridian, Google Street View, August 2013

First, is an aesthetic and design argument embodied in both building and site. Behind the neglect and sometimes unflattering alterations are human-scaled buildings that are designed in “simple” forms but with a degree of detail that is unable to be replicated in a new building. The neighborhoods that these houses are in have some of the attributes generally ascribed to perfectly designed neighborhoods. The houses are close enough together to reduce sprawl but are freestanding to provide some privacy among neighbors and enough yard space for outdoor activities (during the few months in Mississippi when it is neither too hot and humid nor too cold and damp).

Regarding this group of Meridian houses. Photographs show all of them have details which are difficult and expensive to replicate. The diamond shingles, bargeboard, and ogee brackets found just on the front gables of this group of houses are not items that can be purchased at any suburban big-box home store. Items that were once common stock items, today all require expensive custom millwork from a skilled millworker at a well-equipped shop, which is becoming more difficult to find as such people age. Yet, these items mentioned do not even scratch the surface, since these houses have leaded glass and Victorian decorative front doors and presumably some retain interior details such as mantles, trim, pocket doors, and other items. In general, these are only replaceable by finding architectural salvage that has been scavenged from unprotected historic buildings.

Second is an environmental argument. We must do more to conserve our natural resources and one of the best ways to do so is by preserving the buildings we currently have. These houses have embodied energy; all buildings do. It is in the wood used for the framing, decking, siding, flooring, trim, windows. How many years did the trees cut for those components have to grow, especially to become rot-resistant old-growth wood? How much effort was required to cut, mill, transport, and construct a house out of that wood? How long did it take for the forest where the wood was cut to recover from logging? When all that material is discarded, all of the embodied energy is lost, with more cumulative effects to the environment added by new logging of lightweight, new-growth wood; milling the new wood; transporting it; and constructing something new.

The easiest way to think about this is with the phrase, “The greenest building is the one that is already built.” This is an extension or rephrasing of historic preservation’s original mantra, “Repair, not replace.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation calculated that even if 40% of an existing building’s materials are retained, the construction of a new building, even an energy-efficient one, would have to exist for an average of 65 years to recoup the embodied energy lost with the demolition of the previous building. Single family homes such as these in Meridian take less time, which also varies by location. Still, even if a plan was in place to demolish these houses and replace them with new housing, instead of the litter-strewn, tall-weed-covered vacant lots which they will become, those new houses would probably take about 30-40 years to recoup the energy embodied in these more aesthetically pleasing and solidly constructed Victorian, Craftsman, and Mission-style houses.

Third is something that many professional historic preservationists do not think about. Indeed, I am sometimes guilty of ignoring it. It is the personal history of the house. One could call it the personal history or the memory or the humanity of a building, but by any name it is the human side of a building. It is unquantifiable and has no economic value and usually gets pushed aside by other arguments for preserving historic buildings. To put it in perspective, when I showed my mother (a historic preservationist as well) the houses in this post, she stated, “Think of how many families lived in those houses over the generations, the people who lived there and raised families.” That statement is in many ways the heart and soul of historic preservation in my view. Look at all the historic buildings around you; think of all the people who have lived and raised families in them; then, think of the people living and raising families in them today; and finally, think of the people living and raising families in them in the future. While we can talk about tax credits and all sorts of other things, very few historic preservationists became preservationists because of tax credits. We like old buildings and want to see them preserved. We figure out the intellectual and economic justifications for historic preservation later.

The houses in this post are all doomed. Demolition has likely already begun on some of them. But in thinking about these houses and their demise, perhaps we can think about other similarly disregarded houses in our towns and across the state and how historic preservationists can advocate for their preservation and restoration; so that these old houses on tree-lined streets will continue to be a presence in Mississippi for generations before and after us.

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Categories: Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, Meridian

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9 replies

  1. There won’t be anything to go back to, if this continues.

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  2. Thank you for a superbly articulated argument. I hope everyone who cares about Meridian and Mississippi reads it and heeds it.

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  3. Thanks for bringing us this heart-aching news W.

    “We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed” -Ada Louise Huxtable.

    According to a 1953 Architectural Forum article (linked below) It was proposed that the Urban Renewal Administration certify that a city was making a sincere effort on its own behalf to rehabilitate slums and prevent new slums from forming. The same article goes on to state that New Orleans was recognized for initiating a rehabilitation project, rather than wholesale demolition. I think it would be a fair argument that there is so much interest in New Orleans today due in part to its extensive historic fabric.

    Public Housings Future
    The powers that be have to understand these structures for what they are; RESOURCES. No matter how much money, political power, or good intentions a redevelopment project has the only thing they cannot build is an old building.

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  4. Indeed! And, as much as I love modernist buildings (and you know I do!), I always wonder what wonderful old building sat on that lot before; in the cases of ones that I know of what came before, there is a bittersweet appreciation of the new.

    But, as you write, it is even worse when nothing new comes. I remember what Jackson’s Congress and President streets (and the whole area behind Millsaps and Baptist Hospital, now known as Midtown and the Millsaps Arts District) looked like when I was younger with the lovely old houses and fourplex apartment buildings. Now they are weeded lots or parking lots for Baptist Hospital, itself a Death Star sized (figuratively) eyesore. Besides the families who originated the houses, were the friends of mine who inhabited them when we were young, with their parties and little dramas.

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  5. i guess i’ll drag the elephant into the room. What is the socio/economic history of this area? (I’m assuming all of these heartbreaking losses are in the same district). I don’t mean to be pig-headed, but we do have clear-cut patterns at work in Mississippi communities..and everywhere else.

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    • Most of these houses are located around Meridian’s downtown, mostly west of downtown. None are located south of the railroad tracks.

      The neighborhoods when these houses were constructed were middle class and white. Today, due to white flight and chronic disinvestment, they are neither. That is one of the reasons why these houses are being demolished. It is very reminiscent of the 1950s and 60s urban renewal ethos that sees these neighborhoods as comprised of blighted buildings and residents that must be cleared away. It is sickening.

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  6. I was in attendance at the city council meeting to address these houses. Ms Jordan gave a great emotional appeal but it was later revealed that she had done no work and wasn’t prepared to any work in the near future. She had promised the council from over two years prior that certain things would be done and that she wanted to preserve the property. She took no action for a year, begged for and received another year. Her case was two years of promises with no delivery. So the order was approved on that property. However, it was still offered that if within 2 weeks or 1 month that if she showed work being done that they would hold off on the demolition. There is a waiting period due to the longlist of houses needing demo, and that the city must wait for the county to do the demo work. There was another citizen present that had a similar problem for years. Even though there was no visible signs of work he claimed to have put tens of thousands of dollars into a house but he was reluctant to do any more of it would be condemned. That was his explanation for 6 months inaction on his property. The council asked if they removed the property from the list would he bring it up to code. He never answered the question but rambled on and on about how the mayor and administration had disenfranchised him.
    The city has numerous nice houses at risk. The problem is that the price to restore them would never be realized through renting and people that would spend the money wouldn’t be or feel safe in those neighborhoods. Their destruction is all but assured.
    The typical path for these properties that I’ve noticed is that a family builds the house, has kids, kids grow up and move off, parents age and die, leaving the house to out of town children. They try to sell. No reasonable offers. They rent. Renters don’t pay, pay slow or pay but all place property under wear and tear of varying degrees. Landlord eventually faces a big ticket repair like a roof but opts to patch. Renters not happy with leak or other things so they don’t care about property. Property eventually falls in such a bad state that it’s unlivable. So it sits empty for years slowly decomposing. Crooks break in and steal architectural items to sell for scrap. Homeless move in. Animals move in. House burns from homeless fire. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
    The problem can be fixed by new homeowners being given the property for a small fee if they will save the house.

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    • Too many houses have the trajectory you describe. I agree with your last point; the question is how do local governments, historic preservationists, and/or non-profit groups achieve transferring houses like these from the current property owners (often absentee and unwilling to put money into their property) to new owners, preferably making them owner-occupied houses. The current situation you have described that is seen in so many places is not beneficial to anyone, leading to higher crime, lower property values, smaller tax base, poorer schools, fewer municipal services, and so on. Nearly all of the historic neighborhoods in Mississippi that today have high-property values, low crime, high owner-occupancy, etc. went through down times. It does not have to be the death knell for a neighborhood like it has been for these Meridian neighborhoods.

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    • To W. White’s point, a good friend of mine has lived in Belhaven in Jackson since the 1960s. I remember he told me how in the 1980s and early 1990s, you could hardly give a Belhaven house away because everyone was moving out, the Yazoo clay was bad for foundations, crime, etc. But he and many others held on, and now it’s back to being one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Jackson. Tearing down a city is no way to build it, especially when you’re tearing down architecturally significant houses to be replaced by either vacant lots or crummy cheap housing.

      Liked by 1 person

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