N. W. Overstreet-designed Alcorn County Courthouse Centennial on October 4

Alcorn County Courthouse, Corinth, MS – Front Facade; June 15, 2004; W. White, photographer

On October 4, the City of Corinth and Alcorn County will hold a centennial celebration for the historic Alcorn County Courthouse, a landmark designed by the dean of all Mississippi architects, Noah Webster Overstreet. That makes this an opportune time to look at the architecture and history of this building.

Alcorn County Courthouse (Second), Corinth, MS – Cooper Postcard Collection, MDAH, http://www.mdah.ms.gov/arrec/digital_archives/series/cooper/detail/21334

In early Fall 1917, the Alcorn County Courthouse burned. It was the second Alcorn County Courthouse, an interestingly-arranged red brick structure in the High Victorian Gothic style designed by then-Vicksburg-based architect Alfred Zucker and constructed by Covert & Higgins.[1] The courthouse had been in use for thirty-seven years before it burned (on either September 30, 1917 according to a reprinted 1980s Daily Corinthian article or on October 2, 1917 according to a report on page 395 of Safety Engineering, November 1917, Volume 34, Number 5). The Safety Engineering report gives a concise description of the fire, while providing a good general idea of the second Alcorn County Courthouse’s construction:

October 2, 1917. Corinth, Miss. Alcorn County Courthouse. Court Square, main entrance on Waldron street. One 2-story building partially destroyed. Walls, brick. Floors, wood. Roofs, slate and tin. Cause, unknown. Fire started in 2nd story. Discovered by night watchman about midnight. Alarm, water works fire whistle. Duration, 2 hours. Stopped after destroying interior woodwork. Fire was favored by old construction; no fire walls. Firemen handicapped by tardy alarm and low water pressure. Persons in building, none. Means of escape, stairways only. Value of building and contents, about $40,000. Property loss, $27,000. Record vaults were not damaged. Some current papers and books were burned.

Although the article states that the record vaults were not damaged, the fire actually destroyed many important county records, including the first four probate books covering 1870 to 1913, among other records, which continues to cause problems for Alcorn County genealogists. The Mississippi Legislature also had to pass a resolution to replace Alcorn County’s burned law library.

Alcorn County Courthouse, Corinth, MS – Front Entrance Lamp Post; December 31, 2008; W. White, photographer

The Alcorn County Board of Supervisors moved quickly after the fire to rebuild. They really wasted no time whatsoever, as less than four months later the January 16, 1918 issue, Vol. CXIII, Number 2195, of The American Architect, has on page 10 the “Building News” item: “Corinth, Miss. – N. W. Overstreet, Architect, Jackson, Miss., has prepared plans for a courthouse, of brick and terra cotta construction. Cost, $80,000. Address Alcorn County Supervisors.” Although I have not gone to a library to delve into The Daily Corinthian microfilm to get the exact construction dates, everything I have read indicates that 2018 is the courthouse’s centennial – that it was finished in 1918. If that is the case, it is a credit to E. G. Parish Construction Company for such quick work. Thankfully, a bronze plaque inside the front entrance commemorates the firm, along with Overstreet. To the right of it is another plaque containing the names of Alcorn County officers for 1918, starting with the Board of Supervisors: S. B. Martin, president; and members J. B. Romine, C. Y. Butram, T. D. McCalla, and J. B. Coleman; and then listing the County’s myriad other officials: W. C. Sweat, attorney for board; W. L. Madden, sheriff; O. M. Hinton, chancery clerk; W. A. McCord, superintendent of education; Clay McClamrock, assessor; T. H. Johnson, prosecuting attorney; and J. M. Hamlin, surveyor.

N. W. Overstreet was one of the most prolific courthouse designers in Mississippi’s history, with ten original courthouse designs constructed plus five more additions and remodels. Alcorn County was one of his earlier designs, his sixth courthouse project in the state after the 1913 Franklin County Courthouse in Meadville, the now-demolished 1915 Webster County Courthouse in Walthall, the 1915 Pontotoc County Courthouse in Pontotoc, the 1916 unbuilt Pearl River County Courthouse in Poplarville[2], and the long-demolished 1917 reconstruction of the Harrison County Courthouse in Gulfport. He was not unexperienced in courthouse design, but even so, how was he able to provide plans to the Alcorn County Board of Supervisors within just a few months of the second courthouse burning? Easy, he copied one of his earlier courthouses: Pontotoc County.

Pontotoc County Courthouse, Pontotoc, MS – Front and Side Facades; Suzassippi, photographer

The Alcorn County and Pontotoc County Courthouses have some differences, most noticeably with Alcorn possessing a full-height basement and Pontotoc having a higher-pitched tile roof, and with variation in detailing but are as close to identical as any two courthouses in Mississippi. The columns, attic portico, clocks – all the main features are the same with only their detailing preventing them from being exact copies. Mississippi State University Libraries Special Collection has architectural drawings for the two courthouses in the Overstreet (N. W.) Architectural Records collection; they were even digitized by architect D. Tracy Ward as part of his Historic Courthouse Architecture of Mississippi book project (but to my knowledge those digitized files have not been made available to the public). I have not seen those drawings, but I would place a fairly substantial wager that the floor plans for those two courthouses are as nearly identical as their exteriors.

Alcorn County Courthouse, Corinth, MS – Front Facade Clock Detail; June 15, 2004; W. White, photographer

The National Register of Historic Places nomination form has a description of the Alcorn County Courthouse more concise and detailed than I could write:

Three-story, five-bay center block with two-story, three-bay flanking wing, load-bearing brick and terra cotta masonry courthouse building with Neo-Classical and Prairie School influences, built 1918; the structure occupies an entire city block bound by Waldron, Franklin, Foote and Taylor Streets. The main block and wings are set upon a raised basement. The main block is covered with a low hip roof and projects forward of the wings; the wings have a flat roof behind a parapet wall. The main block features a deep cornice above a strip of five attic story windows, each separated by a squat Doric pilaster of terra cotta. An adaptation of a full Classical entablature spans the width of the block beneath the attic windows, with segmental-arched hoods above clock faces at the corners. Below, the front (Waldron) facade is hexastyle in antis with Doric columns on Tuscan shafts. The pronaos contains three segmental-arched entrances at center flanked by single rectangular tripartite windows; above are five segmental-arched tripartite windows with transoms. Entrance is gained by a two-tier monumental stair. The wings feature a full entablature above three sets of two-part, 1/1 DHSL [double-hung single light] with single light transoms; a paneled spandrel separates the first floor windows from the second. The basement level windows contain 1/1 DHSL.

Suzassippi’s Pontotoc County Courthouse post from a few years ago shows how Overstreet had previously utilized some of those same features in that earlier building.

Alcorn County Courthouse, Corinth, MS – Front Entrance Hallway; December 31, 2008; W. White, photographer

Alcorn County Courthouse, along with Overstreet’s other courthouses of the period, is a mixture of Prairie School and Neoclassical styles. In a paper I wrote several years ago about Overstreet’s 1910s and 1920s educational architecture, I made the case that his use of the Prairie School style, a progressive architectural form, provided a physical manifestation of the progressive educational trends then being undertaken in Mississippi’s school system, particularly the creation of modern consolidated schools. Alcorn County Courthouse can also be examined similarly. Overstreet could have designed and the Alcorn County Board of Supervisors could have insisted upon a strictly Neoclassical building. Pike County chose to do just that, and Overstreet’s later Prentiss County and Tippah County Courthouses are more overtly historical in design. Instead, the Alcorn County Courthouse is a building that physically represents the Wilsonian, Southern Progressivism that characterized Mississippi government in 1918 – new ideas, new designs but without breaking with tradition.

Alcorn County Courthouse, Corinth, MS – Main Stair; December 31, 2008; W. White, photographer

The courthouse’s exterior has changed very little in a century with the replacement of the original front doors the only major change. Photographs and postcards from throughout its history show the march of time only through landscaping changes and automobile models (the site Courthouse History has an illustrative selection).

According to the late Scotty Moore’s official website, the large courtroom was often used for assemblies and performances, which is why Elvis Presley played shows in the courthouse on January 18 and April 7, 1955. The courtroom, like other parts of the interior, later fell victim to a disfiguring mid-century renovation, with a drop-ceiling closing off the original balcony, wood paneling covering the walls, the floor swathed in carpet, and all benches, furnishings, and other decoration removed and replaced. Thankfully, the courthouse’s interior did not receive a complete gutting and remodeling, so there are areas which have retained their original historic details alongside areas displaying the worst attributes of mid-century design.

Alcorn County Courthouse, Corinth, MS – Second Floor Hallway; December 31, 2008; W. White, photographer

Alcorn County Courthouse, Corinth, MS – First Floor Hallway; December 31, 2008; W. White, photographer

The courthouse is one the rare Mississippi buildings that has three levels of historic designation. It is a contributing resource to the National Register-listed Downtown Corinth Historic District. It was designated a Mississippi Landmark in 1992. It also falls within the boundaries of the City of Corinth-designated Corinth Historic District, which was established in 1993. With luck, that combination of will protect the building from any disfiguring alterations or demolition.

The October 4 courthouse centennial will coincide with a regular installment of Pickin’ on the Square, Corinth’s popular bluegrass and traditional music revue held on Thursday nights during the spring, summer, and fall. Organizers plan to begin the informal ceremony at 5:30 p.m. that evening on the courthouse square (inside the courthouse if raining). Local dignitaries will provide an opening welcome with the main speaker being Todd Sanders, tax incentives coordinator in the Historic Preservation Division of the MDAH. Corinth artist Tony Bullard will be on hand displaying his work, including work inspired by Elvis’s Corinth performances. While the event is, in itself, a good way to celebrate the courthouse, the centennial celebration’s organizers hope it is just the beginning of marking the building’s history, particularly its importance as a marriage destination during the period in the mid-Twentieth Century when Mississippi, unlike neighboring states, had no three-day waiting for marriage. More information about the celebration can be found in The Daily Corinthian article “Great memories linger around Alcorn County Courthouse” with the article “100 year spruce-up” detailing efforts by the CARE Foundation to do minor spruce ups to the courthouse square in preparation for the centennial.

This centennial is a good time to take a look at the history of this landmark. Here’s to the Alcorn County Courthouse first century and to its remaining a landmark for another century.

Unless noted, all photographs copyright W. White 2004, 2008. All reproduction is prohibited without written permission.

Alcorn County Courthouse, Corinth, MS – Courthouse Lawn; December 31, 2008; W. White, photographer


[1] The peripatetic Alfred Zucker practiced in his native Germany, then Washington, D.C., Galveston, Vicksburg, back to Europe, New York City, and finally Buenos Aires. He had numerous architectural partnerships, all of which seemed to have ended badly due to his questionable business practices. His partnership with J. Riely Gordon went so badly that Zucker fled to South America to escape Gordon’s $100,000 fraud and misrepresentation lawsuit. His Mississippi work might be the subject of a future post, as he was one of the state’s most prominent architects during his short period in Mississippi.

[2] The Pearl River County Courthouse is known as a P. J. Krouse design from 1918. However, the March 23, 1916 issue, Volume 75, Number 12 of Engineering News has a listing in the Buildings: Proposed Work section on page 192 reading: “Miss., Poplarville – Plans being prepared by N. W. Overstreet, Jackson, for courthouse for Pearl River County. Estimated cost $75,000.” Another listing in the Buildings: Proposed Work section on page 388 of Engineering News’s May 25, 1916 issue, Volume 75, Number 21 states, “Miss., Poplarville – Board of Supervisors voted to build new courthouse. Noted Mar. 23.” The June 15, 1916 issue, Volume 75, Number 24 of Engineering News has on page 458 the news that, “Miss., Poplarville – Press reports state plans being prepared by N. W. Overstreet, Jackson, for courthouse. Estimated cost $40,000. Address County Clerk, Poplarville. Noted May 25.” Within two years, Pearl River County was shopping for another courthouse design, as page 10 of the January 16, 1918 issue, Vol. CXIII, Number 2195, of The American Architect, has the “Building News” item: “Poplarville, Miss. – The Pearl River County Commissioners are having plans prepared for a courthouse, to cost $85,000. P. J. Krouse, Architect, Miazzo-Woods Building, Meridian, Miss.

I have found no other published reference to Overstreet’s involvement in this project, and the Overstreet project list which I have has no mention of the Pearl River County Courthouse project. It is quite likely that the Pearl River County Courthouse is entirely a P. J. Krouse design, with nothing of Overstreet’s design being reused. However, given the similarities in their courthouse designs (see Krouse’s Clarke County and Pearl River County Courthouses and Overstreet’s Franklin County, Webster County, and Pontotoc County Courthouses), it is safe to say that Krouse and Overstreet were either influencing each other or had the same set of stylistic influences, and one could surmise that if Overstreet’s design had been constructed, it would look very similar to the Krouse design that was.

Volume 75 of Engineering News is digitized as part of Google Books and can be found at this link: https://books.google.com/books?id=mONHAQAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false. Volume 113 of The American Architect is at https://books.google.com/books?id=eV5RAQAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.



Categories: Corinth, Courthouses, Historic Preservation, Preservation People/Events

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1 reply

  1. another good post, mr white: on this particular building and on mr overstreet’s courthouse work, in general.. thanks, am glad this one is around the celebrate its centennial!

    Like

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