1970s Architecture and the Future of Historic Preservation in Mississippi

Three weeks ago, Thomas Rosell’s post “Mississippi’s Best Buildings of 1974” stirred up a substantial amount of conversation on local Mississippi examples of 1970s era architecture. It is eye-opening to many historic preservationists that buildings from this decade will be of the fifty-year National Register age eligibility mark in less than a decade. Considering how understudied and unloved 1970s architecture is, particularly outside of select coastal urban areas, preservationists in Mississippi and elsewhere will have an interesting time deciding what to pursue preservation efforts on.

One idea to consider is that the 1970s were an era of fragmentation. There was not an over-riding style that everyone conformed to during the decade. No style is ever conformed to by everyone, everywhere, at the same time, but the 1970s, with its Brutalism, New Formalism, late Mid-Century Modernism/Corporate Modernism, budding Post-Modernism, and a myriad of more “vernacular” expressions (especially in house design and small town/rural buildings), was an especially fractured time. So, some of the questions that historic preservationists will have to face and at least attempt to answer and define in the coming decade is “What is 1970s architecture, and how do we preserve it (what ever it is)?” This post is not an attempt to answer those questions; after all, it took numerous authors and historic preservationists years to define such styles as Art Deco and Mid-Century Modernism and bring them enough into the public consciousness that some examples would be preserved. This post is about “1970s architecture” coming to an age where it becomes old enough to be considered historic.

I have to admit, the era does not contain a large amount of architecture that I particularly enjoy. In fact, it contains a large amount of architecture that I really dislike. Mid-Century Modernists went for broke on big, bold, often bad ideas throughout the 1950s and 60s, and by the 1970s they were rolling snake eyes, building squat bunkers of banal sprawl indicative of the fact that ingenuity, optimism, and quality had run out just as quickly as oil.

That being said, there are quality, preservation-worthy examples of architecture constructed in every style and era, and I occasionally see Mississippi buildings from the 1970s that are so indicative of their construction era that they should be preserved, several of which I will mention here.

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The first is Allen Hall on the Mississippi State University campus. While there is always the chance that the administration has messed it up since I was there earlier in the decade, when I attended it was like walking into 1970. The furniture and vending machines in the lounge, the bolted-down desks and furniture in the classrooms, the doors, the slit-like windows, the vinyl flooring, the 1970s version of executive “opulence” in the President’s Office, all these things preserved like an insect in amber, encased in a large gray and brown box that no amount of crepe myrtles can hide from view. The building is so boldly, offensively, and unapologetically a product of the 1970s and so bold, offensive, and unapologetic in its hatred for its occupants that it really should merit stringent preservation. This is despite the fact that it is so unloved and so poorly regarded that the MDAH HRI does not even list it in the database.

Copiah County Chancery Complex (W. S. Henley Building), Hazlehurst; Google Street View, January 2016

The second is the Copiah County Chancery Complex in Hazlehurst, also known as the W. S. Henley Building, a building that, with its rounded edges, rounded window corners, diagonal wood paneling, and brown and white color scheme, screams at the top of its lungs at its neighbors – a historic courthouse, a historic church, Victorian houses, etc. – that it is from the 1970s, and it does not care how much they hate it. Walking across the parking lot, you see it across the street and think that aliens plopped it down as part of some sort of invasion, a small-town branch office of the main alien invasion headquarters in some big city far away; it is that out-of-place. One has to admire that and in this case, no matter how grudgingly, has to preserve something so unique, even if it probably uniquely bad. It is unknown when the building is constructed and when it would be eligible for the National Register. The MDAH HRI states it dates to c. 1980, which I believe is a few years too late, but online searches failed to turn up the architect, construction date, or much else about the building, other than the fact that it existed in the early 1980s. But, if it only dates to 1980, it will not be eligible for the National Register for over a decade and will probably not last to reach it’s fiftieth birthday intact, not with such a radical design for the area. While I am a great admirer of Classicism and less of an admirer of Modernism, hacking off the modernist elements of this building and replacing them with plastic Corinthian columns and Dryvit veneer is not what I would dub good Classical design.

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The Second/”New” Security State Bank (currently a Regions Bank) at 300 East Main Street in Starkville is an excellent local example of New Formalism (Classicist Modernism would be a more descriptive name for the style); but if Brutalism was and is loathed by the public and loved by architectural critics, then New Formalism is its opposite. The style’s greatest proponent, Edward Durell Stone, was one of the architectural profession’s great apostates from the mid-1950s until his death (and after, retaining that reputation to this day). Back in the early days of Preservation in Mississippi, Malvaney gave a great summary of the chapter dealing with Stone in Tom Wolfe’s seminal From Bauhaus to Our House, “From Bauhaus to Our House: Apostates and Post-Modernists.” The New Security State Bank in Starkville is a Modern take on the ancient Greek and Roman temple forms, and, like most New Formalist buildings, is far better proportioned with a higher degree of care and craftsmanship than later Post-Modern and other nominally “Classicist” buildings because most New Formalist buildings were designed by architects utilizing the rigorous Beaux Arts training they had earlier rebelled against. Banks seem to be an especially common building type for New Formalist designs; traditional bankers and the public could have columns, marble, and a sense of permanence and stability (essential for a bank) while still being modern and new. The New Security State Bank is more traditional than some other New Formalist banks as it continues the traditional urban streetwall at the busiest intersection in downtown Starkville while placing its parking and drive-thru in back, making the building fit far better into downtown than, say, its mostly windowless, bunker-like, gray, concrete, Brutalist neighboring bank across the street. The New Security State Bank is included in the National Register-listed Downtown Starkville Historic District but is classified as a non-contributing resource due to its age, dating from 1972, a decade away from the fifty year mark when David Preziosi prepared the National Register Registration Form in 2012.

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A fourth and final building for this post, far more well-known and far more acclaimed than the three previous examples, is the Chris Risher, Sr. designed Meridian Police Station. All of Risher’s modernist buildings carry a certain cachet, and this one is no different. In 1977, the Mississippi Chapter of the AIA awarded Risher two Honor Citations, one of which was for the Meridian Police Station, which was completed that year. The building is considered one of the best modernist structures in Mississippi and as the pinnacle of Risher’s career. After a demolition threat from the City of Meridian, the MDAH Board of Trustees designated it a Mississippi Landmark on September 22, 2015, giving it some protection from demolition. That makes it, unless I am mistaken, the only Mississippi building from the 1970s that has any form of historic recognition and preservation protection. Since its Mississippi Landmark designation and accompanying $300,000 Community Heritage Preservation Grant for a new roof (which was unanimously rejected by a Meridian City Council still emphatic in its desire to demolish the building), there has not been much news about the building, and it still sits empty. Many posts on this site have concerned the Meridian Police Station, for those interested I would recommend “Chris Risher’s Meridian Police Station Under Threat,” “To Preserve and Protect,” “Chris Risher’s Meridian Police Station Honor Citation,” and “Meridian, You’re Blowing My Mind!.”

Anshe Chesed Congregation, Vicksburg

The above examples are not the only ones worthy of preservation from this understudied era, and different people will have different suggestions about which buildings should be preserved, with debates occurring over what should be preserved, why should it be preserved, and how the general public can be convinced that it should be preserved. For instance, are Gunnar Birkerts’s utopian Brutalist buildings at Tougaloo College worth preserving? What about Paul Rudolph’s much remuddled Fredella Village Apartments in Vicksburg, which “celebrated” their fiftieth birthday in December and consequently became eligible for the National Register. What about buildings not designed by out-of-state Starchitects such as Godfrey, Bassett, Pitts & Tuminello’s 1970 Temple Anshe Chesed in Vicksburg? How about the coastal houses of Carroll Ishee; which ones should be preserved and what is the best way to ensure their preservation?

I once made the suggestion on this site that, “Why don’t we create our own Mississippi list of 101 ‘Buildings You Must See Before You Die.'” The worst suggestion EVER made in the history of Preservation in Mississippi based on the number and intensity of the headaches it caused, but it generated a great deal of thought and comments (just shy of 250) about what Mississippi buildings the state would be much poorer place without. I swore to Malvaney not to make any wonderful suggestions like that again but here comes another suggestion. In the comments section of this post, perhaps start that conversation about which buildings that have just reached or are within a decade from National Register eligibility should be preserved by leaving comments suggesting and debating what buildings constructed from c.1965 to c.1978 you believe are worthy of preservation.



Categories: Banks, Hazlehurst, Historic Preservation, Jails, Meridian, Mississippi Landmarks, Modernism, National Register, Recent Past, Starkville, Universities/Colleges

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22 replies

  1. I have been dreading the day when I am required to appreciate Post Modern architecture, but that day is quickly coming. That said, it was not long ago that I was not a fan of Brutalist buildings. However, after actually studying their design and the beautiful little architectural moments they generally have that I grew to really like them. Perhaps the same will be true of Post Modern architecture. Luckily, we have very few examples of high Post Modern in Arkansas, so I won’t have to deal with it much. haha.

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  2. Excellent post W. The building that first comes to mind to offer up for discussion is the former Gulfport VA laundry building. I don’t know the year of construction, but recall after Katrina Andres Duany saying that the purportedly award-winning building should be altered before people want to preserve it.
    Veterans Administration Hospital Laundry.  Gulfport, Miss

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  3. A daily happy habit, the Preservation in Mississippi blog is always a pleasure to read and learn from, and especially so when the posts are about the ’60s and ’70s, the decades during which I grew up and began to be beguiled by architecture, especially anything piping-fresh. It is a puzzlement to me why this country’s citizenry is generally so dyspeptically averse to modern architecture. To me it exemplifies America: new, daring and not owing to the historicism of Europe. That said, I truly appreciate the full range of architectural expression and hate to see anything drastically altered or torn down.

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  4. Yes, to Birkerts’s Tougaloo buildings!!! There are a couple more of those bank buildings in Pearl (probably statewide), one of which is pebbled concrete, but in the open, new formalist style. I love MCM, but I can appreciate good brutalism, etc.
    My daughter, however, loves it, and she loves Lamar Hall on the campus of the U. of Miss. She also likes the Central Fire Station in Jackson, though it has perplexed me since it was built.
    We both agree that the worst example ever, and a building that should have been torn down by now rather than expanded a dozen times, is the Baptist Hospital in Jackson, along with their clinic up State St. between Fairview and Oakwood with its dark concrete and arrow slit “windows”.
    One of my favorite 70s buildings is the Jackson Mall (and I don’t care that it was designed and mostly built in the late 60s).

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    • It is sometimes hard to gauge what was built in the early 70s and the late 60s. That is why I gave the dates c.1965 to c.1978 at the end of the post. I am not sure for instance when Allen Hall or the Copiah County Chancery Complex were built. There is little information about either online, and I cannot find any photographs I may have taken of Allen Hall’s plaques (though, like other MSU buildings, I believe it has several, see Malvaney’s “MSU’s Love Affair With Building Plaques“).

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  5. The master plan for Mississippi State already calls for the demolition and removal of Allen Hall. I wonder if more folks will appreciate it before it’s gone.

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    • Every MSU master plan since before I attended has called for its removal. It has survived because it contains so much classroom space and so many offices (more than can be accommodated after its removal by all the other existing buildings on campus, even after the current building campaign, which has added mostly dorms and very few classrooms) and because it is so well-built (steel, concrete, cinder blocks, bricks, etc.) that it would be very expensive to demolish. More than likely, it will be altered through a remodeling at some point, which is what MSU’s current Design and Constructions Manual advises.

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      • A MSU-led “remodeling” of a mid-century building is almost as scary as the word “demolition.” Allen Hall was still shiny and new in the mid-late-70s when I came to the campus,

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  6. With a resplendent non-elegance, this photo of Mississippi State University’s Centennial Sculpture (1878-1978) captures the spirit of Allen Hall’s unkindness to everyone, including babies and puppies:

    http://digital.library.msstate.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/uac/id/11448/rec/12

    In was completed in April, 1972. According to its Grand Opening program, “This handsome modernistic structure–completed at the cost of $3,034,500–was named in honor of H. E. “Slim” Allen of Jackson…”

    “The architect for Allen Hall was Bill Archer and Associates of Meridian, with Wakeman and Martin of Starkville serving as associate architects. The interior decorations were designed and selected by Morris Thompson and Associates of Jackson.”

    Sourced from the “Allen Hall” Vertical File in the Mitchell Memorial Library, Special Collections, University Archives, Third Floor.

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    • Thank you for the information on Allen Hall. Although I seem to remember that Allen Hall has multiple plaques scattered about with architects, university officials, elected office holders, donors, etc. listed, I could not find any photographs that I might have taken of those plaques and could not remember (or locate online) any of the whos and whens of its construction.

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  7. There are several buildings at Mississippi Valley State University that I love, and Jackson has a number of 1970s buildings that I think are worthy of preservation, including the Education and Research Center and several office buildings on I-55 North that you’ve inspired me to finally put together into a post or two. In the meantime, W., Mr. Bright Ideas, maybe you should put these comments into a survey that will get us to something like a “1960s and 70s Buildings to See Before You Die” list.

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  8. I suggest that a period of late modernist/ corporate modernist work continued to the early 1980s, at which point the influence of the first classes of the School of Architecture (and their professors) began to affect design directions. Before anyone freaks about the term “Post Modernism”, which has acquired a noxious taint, perhaps “after modernism” is a softer term. Regardless, this period gave us Sambo Mockbee, and that alone gives the lie to that period being worthless.

    If there’s an opposite of “regress” I just did it. Pregress?

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  9. The Bay St. Louis City Hall (formerly the Coast Electric Building) is an interesting building that has just reached the fifty-year mark. I like the double brick columns on the first floor and the rhythmic bay windows on the second. Although the building is landscaped well, its location on Highway 90 across from a Pizza Hut and Popeye’s certainly leaves much to be desired from an urban standpoint.

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    • That is a great building. I just recalled we have a rendering that shows how glorious it should/could/would be.

      https://misspreservation.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/coast-electric-crop.jpg?w=350&h=198

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    • To be thinking about that Coast Electric building I imagine your gears are turning for a survey of 1960’s and 70’s. I’ll propose a name based on the somewhat twisted premise that these buildings are endangered: “1960’s & 70’s Buildings To See Before They Die.”

      I’ll put it out there just because I saw that it is under consideration for demolition, but Dennery’s New Formalist facade looked particularly interesting in this street view image.

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      • I was not thinking about the Coast Electric Building/Bay St. Louis City Hall at all. Today’s comments on the post “Mississippi Builders: A.C. Samford Company” made me look at the buildings listed in that post, one of which is the Coast Electric Power Association Headquarters Building, which has a Google Street View link, and voilà.

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        • Ah Okay. Sorry for the confusion, since there are two, former, Coast Electric Buildings right next to one another. The c.1949 Coast Electric Building/Bay St. Louis Police Dept. that A.C. Samford bid on and the 1968 Coast Electric Building/Bay St. Louis City Hall that Fred Wagner designed.

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          • I did not make my comment clear. Your link to the earlier building in the post led me to its Google Street View, which is how I came across its neighbor, the later (Wagner) building.

            I was just making the point in my earlier comment that I was not jonesing for some 1970s architecture. I simply stumbled along a rare good building from the era that is worthy of preservation.

            I am not sure Dennery’s Restaurant qualifies for preservation. Maybe, but it is a hard sell. One thing I will note, since it is not visible in the Google Street View due to the sun’s glare, but Dennery’s has a decorative frieze on its facades. The frieze adds more kitsch than class to the building.

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            • The frieze shows up in some other street views, I just liked the 2017 street view as the building looks attractive with that blinding white appearance. I agree about the kitsch-ness of the frieze.

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