When looking at architectural history it is important to consider building types in addition to architectural styles. One such building that might not carry much architectural merit is the humble Carnival Den. But this lowly structure is the bringer of much joy throughout the carnival, or Mardi Gras, season.
The earliest mention I found of a carnival den in Biloxi comes from the Biloxi Daily Herald. On January 12, 1915, they reported;
The floats are at the old Central school building on Main street, now being used [as] the carnival association “den.”
Perhaps the first purpose-built carnival den in Biloxi was constructed on the city lot north of Division Street near Lee Street in early summer 1925. On July 20, 1925, in an article titled “Carnival Den Is Complete,” the Daily Herald reported;
“…it is necessary that a building be constructed to house the present floats and so it was necessary for the Chamber of Commerce to erect the building with the aid of the city commissioners. The den is in an excellent location where the parade can form and be straighten[ed] out in fine shape before reaching the business district.”
Five days later the Daily Herald reported that “the floats used in the last Mardi Gras parade have been removed to the Carnival Den on Division street, owned by the Chamber of Commerce.” This was roughly in the same area as the Nichols School stands on Division today. This den was still reported as in use in 1929.
Before these purpose-built buildings existed, floats were built where space was available, often taking over a business at the cost of the business owner. In the July 20 article mentioned above the Daily Herald states, “Due to the kindness of Walter H. Hunt the floats for last years carnival were built in his garage at Main street and Howard Avenue, which almost caused a suspension of his business located at that point.”
In the latter part of the 20th century, the modern carnival den emerged. These were spacious metal frame buildings clad with metal siding, which were designed to accommodate ever-increasing float sizes and carnival activities.
On January 20, 1970, the Daily Herald reported that the Gulf Coast carnival season was somewhat subdued because of Hurricane Camille. Nevertheless, preparations were still underway and “memberships, krewes, throws and Mardi Gras medals are available” at the Gulf Coast Carnival Association carnival den on Hill Street in Biloxi.
A year later on January 27, 1971, the Daily Herald stated that the Mardi Gras medals had been received by the “Gulf Coast Carnival Den on Walker Street.” at the south-east side of the Back Bay Public Housing Project. Carnival Headquarters maintained an office full-time adjacent to the den where carnival medals, tickets, throws, costumes and krewe information could be obtained.
Gulfport’s Krewe of Gemini is younger than GCCA, having been established in 1968. Gemini’s first den was built on Searle Avenue in Gulfport during October & November of 1972 by the Gulfport contracting firm of W.M. Smallwood. It is a steel frame and metal clad side gable, low-pitched roof, building. Originally 60′ wide by 50′ deep, it held 12 floats. Now nearly centered, the roll-up door originally was offset on the front elevation, and on the right side of the front elevation was a pedestrian door. Since the initial construction, the building appears to have been expanded on the south side with an addition that is approximately 40′ wide by 60′ feet deep. This addition features one doorway that is protected by a front gable porch roof supported by two decorative metal posts. There is additional parking for floats on an adjacent slab to the south of the structure.
The current Gulf Coast Carnival Association carnival den in Biloxi was built c.2007 and is on Esters Boulevard with a lot that spans the entire block to Peyton Drive. It is a gable front steel frame metal clad building. Each end features one large roll-up door, one pedestrian door, and a large, louvered, gable vent. This den is named for Walter “Skeet” Hunt in honor of contribution of the Hunt family to the Gulf Coast Carnival Association. You might remember that name from the 1927 newspaper article at the beginning of this post.
Thanks to the video in the link below, you can take a look at the inside the Gulf Coast Carnival Association carnival den.
Reading over period newspaper accounts, it sounds like the carnival den began not only as a place for the floats to reside but also where throws and costumes were kept and where carnival organizations could hold functions and meetings. Since the modern-day structures have shifted to a space specifically for floats and no longer host other ‘krewe’ related activities, the nomenclature may have shifted away carnival den to simply float den as seen with the naming of the GCCA building. Many other carnival dens existed in Biloxi over the years, and I’m am sure there are more throughout the coast. This building type is not just a coastal, or even a Southern phenomenon, as I found period references from both the mid-west and on the east coast. Do you have a carnival den in your neck of the woods? Do you have a structure that serves a similar purpose but it has a different name? If so let us know!