The Great Mississippi Architects Strike

A friend of mine at the MDAH archives alerted me to a 70-page manuscript in their collection by James G. Chastain, AIA (1922-2014), entitled Bureaucrat Architect and written in 2000. After practicing in Jackson as Neal & Chastain (1958-1961) and Biggs, Weir, Neal & Chastain from 1961 to 1970, James Chastain began his career as a bureaucrat with the State of Mississippi, overseeing the many public building projects going on around the state for the next two decades.

  • Mississippi Building Commission, 1972-1976
  • Mississippi Department of Mental Health, 1976-1980
  • Mississippi State Building Commission, 1980-1984
  • Bureau of Building, Grounds and Real Property Management, 1984-1988

In his introduction (p.1), Chastain explains why he sat down to write a memoir:

In the spring of 1999, I had a telephone call from Charles R. Smith, an architect with whom I worked at the State Building Commission, a State of Mississippi agency charged with the oversight of building construction at state institutions and agencies. Charles told me that, at the request of Elbert Hilliard, Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, he had written a review of his 1967 to 1977 employment by the commission and he wanted to send me a copy. I enjoyed reading his “Memoirs of a Public Servant” for he told stories about people and events, some funny and some not so funny. Because I got such pleasure from his review . . . I decided to continue his story for I was commission director during the period when there was a radical change in members of the commission and when, by legislative act, the commission’s duties were shifted to a new state agency.

Chastain’s memoir gives a human face to the dramatic changes taking place in the practice of architecture from the 1950s through the 1980s. It also goes into detail on several important preservation projects, including the Governor’s Mansion restoration of the 1970s and the New Capitol restoration of 1979-1982, and I plan to highlight those sections in future posts, but today’s post focuses on a period of Mississippi’s architectural history I had never heard about, the “Architects Strike” of 1960.

It had been the practice of the [state building] commission when contracting with architects to set a fee of six percent of the construction cost for their professional service. The new commission appointed members J.C. Love, Ben Hilbun, Jr., and J.P. Love as a subcommittee to negotiate with architects as to a proper fee schedule and to report subcommittee recommendations to the commission,

As a special meeting on August 30, [1960] the subcommittee recommended to the commission a new fee schedule for architectural services, six percent for the first five hundred thousand dollars of construction cost, five percent for the second five hundred thousand dollars and four percent of construction costs over one million dollars. Under the old schedule of six percent, with a construction cost of one million five hundred thousand dollars, the architect’s fee was ninety thousand dollars. Under the new schedule, the fee was reduced by fifteen thousand dollars for a project with the same construction cost. In 1960 dollars, this was a sizeable reduction in professional fee. On motion by J.P. Love, seconded by George Pyne Cossar, the commission approved the new fee schedule.

This change resulted in what has been called the “Architects’ Strike,” for architects were concerned not only with the total fee amount but with other terms of their contract with the commission, such as, no payment of any amount until a construction contract was awarded and the requirement that architects pay for soil borings, surveys and tests, a cost usually paid by the owner. At the request of architects representing the Mississippi Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the commission agreed that its fees subcommittee would meet in the Silver Room of the Heidelberg Hotel with chapter members to discuss these concerns.

At the September 14, 1960 regular meeting of the commission, architects were present. Charles M. Hills, in his Clarion-Ledger column “Affairs of State” reported:

ARGUMENT PLUS

About the hottest argument we have heard in sometime occurred at the regular meeting of the State Building Commission on Wednesday between architects and commission members over fees.

We heard talk of compromise, but no such spirit was in evidence.

Both sides were seemingly determined and since the commission holds the purse strings, we would say the protectors of the state had a little the best of it . . . .

At this “Argument Plus” meeting, the fees subcommittee was directed to negotiate with each architect previously selected for a project on a fee basis not to exceed six percent, and the subcommittee authorized to enter into contract with each architect who would accept the new fee schedule previously approved by the commission.

At its next meeting on October 12, the commission approved thirty-one contracts. Twenty-three contracts were for projects with a budget less than five hundred thousand dollars where there was no argument, since the fee was six percent. Five contracts were for projects with budgets in excess of five hundred thousand dollars which had been in dispute, since the fee was under the new step-down schedule the commission had adopted, and three contracts had been signed for an agreed lump-sum dollar amount rather than a percentage of construction cost.

Some architects wanted to file with the national American Institute of Architects a charge of violation of ethical standards against those who had signed contracts with the step-down fee schedule of less than six percent, but this action did not have strong support. Governor Barnett invited the architects who wanted to file the charges to meet with him in his Capitol office, and after this meeting no charges were filed. It seems that Charles Hills was correct in his statement ” . . . the commission holds the purse strings, we would say the protectors of the state had a little the best of it . . .”



Categories: Architectural Research

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6 replies

  1. interesting in a bureau-cratic way! will be very interested in the comments on the work at the governor’s mansion and the new capitol in future posts.

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  2. That’s it? It was over that quickly? I think I prefer the outcome of Elmer Kelton’s The Day the Cowboys Quit.

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  3. Malvaney, is Chastain’s memoir the only one written by a Mississippi architect?

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