If you’ve ever been in downtown Biloxi, or even just seen photos of the historic business district, you’ve likely laid eyes on the former Peoples Bank Building. Its iconic turret is used in Biloxi Main Street’s logo. The Romanesque pile, now home to the wonderful Ellzy’s Hardware, served as the headquarters of the bank from 1896 until they purchased the former Harrison County Bank building and moved into that banking house in 1924.
The MDAH HRI database has documented evidence that Wm T. Harkness (1869-1941) was the Builder/Architect of the building. A reasonable probability, as the Harkness family were prominent in the Biloxi building trades in the late 19th and early 20th century. Multiple period newspaper articles cite Harkness as the builder, and a plaque original on that building that has since been relocated to the current-day Peoples Bank bears Harkness’ name. I had never thought to think otherwise until I came across the somewhat unusual ad that W. T. Harkness took out in the Biloxi Herald in November of 1896.
Regrettably, I haven’t been able to find a copy of the August 1896 The American Contractor to see what exactly caused Harkness to take out the tantrum-esque ad, nor a later edition to see if The American Contractor ever published the “Harkness Correction.” Apparently, a J. F. Hutchisson was doing some work for Harkness and trying to drum up business for himself, and W.T. didn’t take too kindly to that. The J.F. Hutchisson mentioned is likely James Flandin Hutchisson II (1856-1926). Similar to the Harkness family, the Hutchisson clan were builders and architects from Mobile, Alabama. This clue sent me back to reading From Builders to Architects: The Hobart-Hutchisson Six, an interesting book about the family of builders and architects that shaped Mobile’s built environment for nearly 200 years. Looking back over the chapter on James Flandin Hutchisson II, the book states that he disappeared from Mobile newspapers in the last few years of the 1890s for several reasons, but most likely because work in Mobile was slowing down. So it stands to reason he might have been spending time in Biloxi. Searching for Harkness in the papers, his name often comes up as having hired others to aid with the design and construction work. However, beginning in November of 1896, Hutchisson began placing advertisements in the Biloxi Daily Herald such as the one below.
Perhaps the Harkness ad that ran on November 14th was sour grapes, for Hutchisson striking out on his own with the November 7th advert. The same day of the first ad, a brief newspaper article covered his relocation to the city.
Mr. G.F. Hutchisson (sic), an architect, formerly of Mobile, has located in the Redding Building in this city, where he intends practicing architecture in all its branches. Original designs and estimates of cost for all classes of buildings will be executed with accuracy and precision. Special attention given to sanitary plumbing heating and ventilating. Any work entrusted to Mr. Hutchinson (sic) will have prompt and skilled attention.
Biloxi Herald, November 7 1896, page 8.
Poor James Hutchisson probably paid for that brief article and the typesetter still managed to misspell his name twice in two different ways. But Thomas, you might be asking, how do you know the bank in the Harkness ad is the old People Bank building? The buildings Harkness states he was upset about Hutchisson receiving credit for belonged to Charles F. Theobald. In August 1896, Theobald ran two ads simultaneously, one for a new building for The People Bank, which he served as president for, and another for his own personal residence to be built at the corner of Main and Beach Boulevard.
While the Theobald House is long gone, the bank in question still stands at the corner of Howard Avenue and Lameuse Street.
Hutchisson’s ads stop running in the Daily Herald in February of 1897. In 1899, he returned to Mobile having become a U.S. Deputy Marshal and would soon move to Chicago, Illinois, where he lived out the rest of his life. So what do you think? Does the authorship of one of Biloxi’s more notable buildings belong to a native son or a skilled Mobilian architect?