I was reading The Dispatch’s website Thursday regarding a couple of stories also posted on Preservation in Mississippi’s Twitter feed about how the MDAH has not made R. E. Hunt High School, Columbus’s African American high school, a Mississippi Landmark after expediting Lee High School’s landmarking earlier this year, “MDAH still hasn’t made Hunt landmark” and “Our View: Where is a former white high school more historically significant than a black one? In Columbus.” Those articles are worth reading.
Perusing the rest of The Dispatch, I looked at the staff report, “Building permits 11-1-18” which contains the short, far-from innocuous line, “Possum Town Properties; 803 6th Ave. N.; Demolish dwelling; Nichols Construction.” That line is a regression from a previous report I located, “Building permits 10-18-18,” which states, “Possum Town Properties; 803 6th Ave. N.; Demolition Permit; Nichols Construction.” The phrase “demolish dwelling” is never a good one to read when it is used in a city like Columbus with so many historic dwellings. Even more so when the dwelling in question at 803 6th Ave. N. is Beckrome, an approximately 180-year-old house of both architectural and historical importance.
Beckrome is not one of the current crop of Pilgrimage houses, which leads to it being somewhat overlooked today, but it has not always been an obscure house; it was noted as a landmark house for years. Helen Kerr Kempe included it in her book The Pelican Guide to Old Homes of Mississippi: Columbus and the North. Beckrome was also formerly listed on tourist brochures.
Beckrome was constructed in 1836 for the first principal of Franklin Academy, which is only a few blocks away. It is often described as a “New England style” house, but it is more accurate to call it late Federal style. There is nothing especially New England-y about a two-story, five-bay, center-hall plan house. It reminds me more of Virginia than Massachusetts, but a safe statement is that its Colonial and Early Republic-era antecedents are found all along the East Coast. Beckrome’s exterior woodwork has not suffered any alteration or vinylization, so the corner pilasters, window surrounds, and portico still illustrate its architectural style and original craftsmanship. It also retains original (or at least very old) nine-over-nine and six-over-six sash (likely double-hung) windows as well as a transom and sidelights at the front entrance; the front door appears to be modern and cheap.
The interior shows some Federal stylistic features, but also shows signs of remuddling. At least three Federal style mantles still exist. Because the photographs on the house’s Realtor.com listing are in no particular order, it is difficult to determine which rooms have these mantles. They appear to be in three first floor rooms, but the largest one is not in one of the front rooms. The mantles, stairs, and other original woodwork all show a plainness combined with quality craftsmanship typical of a late Federal vernacular house. Beckrome was never a mansion, even in 1830s Columbus (compare it to another house of similar age on the same block, Temple Heights), but was a commodious dwelling.
The house might be somewhat overlooked today, but Beckrome was home to one of Columbus’s most interesting and similarly overlooked citizens, Dr. William Spillman. Essays by Columbus’s preeminent historian Rufus Ward, “Dr. Spillman, lost in history,” and Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Jim Woodrick, “Mississippi’s Renaissance Man: Dr. William Spillman,” have helped bring Spillman somewhat back from complete obscurity.
Born in East Tennessee in 1806, William Spillman was a Victorian-era renaissance man who moved into Beckrome in 1838. By occupation, he was a druggist (pharmacist) before attending medical school and practicing as a doctor for two decades. He left medicine to spend his last twenty-five years as an itinerant Methodist minister noted more for his theological expertise than preaching ability (which was probably a euphemistic way of saying he was more adept at putting congregations to sleep than putting the Spirit of the Lord into them).
William Spillman’s avocations are what make his life so interesting. He was one of Mississippi’s first scientists, belonging to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia when few other Mississippians could claim that honor, and, according to Woodrick, was interested in and contributed “to the fields of botany, conchology (the study of shells), geology, paleontology, and speleology (the study of caves).” The Smithsonian Institution, U.S. Geological Survey, Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Mississippi Geological Survey, and Geological Survey of Alabama, among other organizations, all published papers based upon Spillman’s discoveries and work. He corresponded with many of the great scientists of his era, such as conchologist Isaac Lea, father of modern soil science Eugene W. Hilgard, infamous but influential paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, pioneer invertebrate paleontologist Timothy Conrad, paleontologist William More Gabb, Alabama’s first state geologist Michael Tuomey, fellow Mississippi renaissance man B. L. C. Wailes, and paleontologist, parasitologist, and the original CSI, Joseph Leidy.
While he made contributions to numerous fields, Spillman’s paleontology contributions were his most prolific and influential. He spent a great deal of time discovering fossil sites on the Tombigbee River and its tributaries. He gave the Barton’s Bluff site in Clay County the sobriquet, “Shark’s Defeat” as the place was so littered with shark’s teeth. Plymouth Bluff is likely where Spillman’s discovery of a Mosasaur occurred and certainly where he found numerous other fossils. Quoting Woodrick’s essay again, “Because specialists in geology and paleontology did not regularly come to Mississippi in the 19th century, almost all that was discovered about Mississippi Cretaceous fossils between 1854 and 1873 was due to Dr. Spillman’s efforts.”
William Spillman’s crowning achievement was his exhibition of a Basilosaurus at the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition – the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair. Described at the time as a “great whale-like monster,” over 130 years later, Basilosaurus cetoides (also known as a Zeuglodon) can be described today as one of Mississippi’s state fossils, due in part to Spillman’s pioneering work.
Spillman died in 1886 after suffering a fall. Although he spent the last decades of his life itinerantly, he must have still considered Columbus as home since he is buried in Friendship Cemetery. In keeping with how he has been forgotten over the years, his grave is unmarked.
Despite its architectural significance as a largely intact example of late Federal style architecture and historical significance as Dr. William Spillman’s house, Beckrome is not on the National Register of Historic Places, either as an individual listing or as part of a historic district. It has also not been designated as a Mississippi Landmark, which is not surprising as it is very rare for privately-owned buildings to be designated; the program was designed for publically owned buildings, and property owners have to request Landmark status. Neither the house nor the surrounding neighborhood are a locally-designated historic district, meaning that even Columbus’s weak historic preservation ordinance is not applicable to Beckrome.
Since July 2010, the house has been on the market almost continuously, with thirteen listings or price changes under three different listing agents and real estate companies. The last real estate agent even listed the house on the CIRCA Houses website to drum up interest. That site states that the house was sold; all real estate listing sites simply list it as off-market with the exception of Zillow, which states that it sold on August 30. According to Lowndes County property records, including the property record card printed on September 19, Beckrome is owned by William M. Boyles and has been since at least 2009. Any sale or transfer to the owner listed by The Dispatch, Possum Town Properties, would have had to have occurred since September. That being said, The Dispatch, not Lowndes County, likely has the correct property owner listed as Possum Town Properties is an LLC registered to Peter Imes, former Memphis real estate developer and current fourth-generation publisher of The Dispatch.
I hope that “demolish dwelling” basically does not mean “demolish dwelling” and is not indicative of a full demolition, partial demolition, or any other action that would threaten Beckrome’s architectural and historical significance. To my knowledge, the Imes family is not known for demolishing historic houses; now would not be the time to start (nor would any other time, either). Its demolition would be an egregious loss for Columbus, one of many during this historic building demolition spree that has affected the city in the 2010s. Hopefully, one of our Columbus readers will be able to comment on the house’s current situation, preferably with some good news. With the loss of the Friendship House, Lipscomb House, and numerous other buildings in the past few years, plus the possible impending, wholesale destruction of the Factory Hill-Frog Bottom-Burns Bottom Historic District, Columbus needs some good historic preservation news.
Note: All photographs in this post are copied from inactive real estate listings and are used with attribution for the purpose of illustrating Beckrome’s architectural features. No copyright infringement is intended, and the photographs will be removed if requested by the rights holder.