MissPres News Roundup 7-8-2019

My last news roundup was a somewhat cursory one. This time, I am going to try and cover what fell through the cracks in June and what has happened in the past two weeks. And let me tell you that instead of stuffing themselves with delicious grilled meats and shooting off fireworks, some people have spent their July 4 holiday making the wrong type of preservation news.

Now for the news.

Our biggest item of news comes out of Jackson, where the Sun-n-Sand Hotel, a mid-century Modernist downtown landmark just as famous for its political history, has been purchased by the state of Mississippi for $1.3 million, and according to the Mississippi Business Journal headline it “will be razed” for . . .  wait for it . . . a parking lot. But like most headlines, once you start reading the story, you realize it’s more complicated than that. While the article states that the building is a Mississippi Landmark, the MDAH Historic Resources Database does not indicate it is. But MDAH chief architectural historian Jennifer Baughn (name misspelled in the article) notes that as a public property, the building will be reviewed by MDAH for its architectural and historical significance. Meanwhile, Lolly Rash, executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, points out that the property has been on the 10 Most Endangered List since 2005.

“I think it’s huge mistake,” Lolly Rash, executive director of the Heritage Trust, said in an interview on Wednesday. “I think we need to look at all options before any historic building is demolished, particularly the Sun n Sand, which had such tremendous amount of history for our state.”

The Heritage Trust website states: “In 2001, House Ways and Means Chairman Billy McCoy said, ‘We have passed many important measures because of our conversations after hours in the Sun-n-Sand.’”

Its free form, space-age sign recalls the mid-twentieth century Las Vegas style atmosphere and hints at its reputation as the place to party in Jackson.

Read more . . .

While the article notes that Lamar Properties, which has owned the Sun-n-Sand since 2005, sold it for $1,015,021, there’s no discussion of why the state needs such a high-priced surface parking lot within half a block of two state-owned parking garages, how many new spaces in addition to those already available in the large parking lots surrounding the building will be made available if the building were to be destroyed, or whether the building is structurally unsound or could be renovated as state offices (admittedly not as interesting or as tax-producing a use as renovation as a hotel or apartments).

Whatever the case may be, the Sun-n-Sand is unarguably one of Mississippi’s most important architectural and historical landmarks of the mid-Twentieth Century, important for its role in state politics and of equivalent architectural significance to match the Googie architecture of Southern California and the Doo Wop Motel District (Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District) in The Wildwoods, New Jersey.

Stay tuned on this one as Preservation in Mississippi will continue to roundup whatever news comes out about this landmark.

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Also in Jackson, is news (from both the Clarion-Ledger and Mississippi Public Broadcasting) about Habitat for Humanity Mississippi Capital Area’s plans to renovate or build 100 houses over the next five years in the post-World War II-era Broadmoor neighborhood of north Jackson. The neighborhood is going to be Habitat MCA’s “focus for the next five years” according to executive director Merrill McKewen. Habitat has had a presence in the neighborhood since the early 1990s, long before their current Broadmoor initiative, with McKewen connected to the neighborhood even earlier, as a 1988 Southern Living article featured McKewen’s family in the context of young families moving into Broadmoor.

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Last we heard about Biloxi’s 1928-29 Saenger Theater in March 2018, its renovation project had lost its CBDG funding but was expected to go ahead, but according to the WLOX story “Historic Saenger Theater still slated for renovations,” the City Council recently tabled a resolution to accept a construction bid from $2.1 million to repair the exterior and the flytower amid comments by one councilman, Robert Deming III, that the building should be demolished:

“It’s a 90-something year old building that’s been neglected for a long time. There’s no telling how much money this is gonna cost,” said Biloxi Councilman Robert Deming III. “We’re talking about a considerable amount of money. I know it’s the most unpopular thing to say tonight, but I would rather build a state of the art, fully functional facility for less than that amount of money.”

I’m not sure it’s the wisest approach to expect that the City might build a “state-of-the-art” facility for less than $2.1 million and also adequately maintain it, seeing as how the City is the one who has owned the Saenger (and neglected it, according to the right honorable councilman) for decades. But then again, no one has ever elected me to public office, so what do I know?

A follow-up story by WLOX points out that the Hattiesburg Saenger is thriving and has begun to turn a profit, while the Sun Herald has an in-depth look at the Saenger’s situation in the articles “Will anyone restore Biloxi’s Saenger Theatre like they did in New Orleans and Mobile?” and “Timeline of Biloxi’s Saenger Theatre, from 1929 to now.”

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Also from down on the Coast is the worrying Sun Herald report “Great Southern Golf Club files for bankruptcy, will close its restaurant.” Gulfport’s Great Southern Golf Club is Mississippi’s oldest golf course and has been indebted since Hurricane Katrina ran roughshod over the Coast, destroying its clubhouse and waterfront course. MissPres News Roundup 12-5-2017 contained a Sun Herald article about a proposal to develop the property (or a portion of the property) into a housing development. Tom Barnes’s “Of Lawns and Pleasure Piers…The Great Southern Hotel in Gulfport” is essential reading about the history associated with this section of coast.

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You cannot exactly call it “coastal” news if it is about something thousands of feet underwater and miles off land, but that is all just semantics. “‘It’s like a dance.’ How a USM professor led team to explore 2 historic shipwrecks” describes University of Southern Mississippi’s School of Ocean Science and Engineering associate professor Leila Hamdan’s recent role as lead scientist of a nine-day expedition to research two Nineteenth Century shipwrecks, including one of the deepest in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Hamdan, these discoveries “will give all of us a better understanding of the cultural and economic past of maritime history,” while also indicating how shipwrecks, underwater infrastructure, and other human-caused events are changing the deep ocean. In Hamdan’s words:

“We need to know this information now, because if we don’t know what the deep-sea natural environment looks like now, we can’t predict how environmental change or human change will impact these places.”

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South front – Isom Place, 1003 Jefferson Street, Oxford, Lafayette County, MS. HABS photo, 1975.

From Oxford grapevine (not The Oxford Eagle, which has not reported this), comes word that the Isom-Barksdale House, owned by the University of Mississippi since 2000 as the Barksdale Reading Institute, is for sale. Built c.1843 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the two-story, wood-frame Greek Revival residence features a monumental porch with small cantilevered balconette at the second floor. According to the realtor’s website, the property just north of the courthouse square comprises 5,089 sq. ft. with 6 bedrooms and 6 1/2 baths, and it can be yours for a cool $2.89 million.

According to the MDAH Historic Resources Database:

“Planter Samuel Carothers, an officer in the Battle of New Orleans, had this house built in 1843. In 1847, Dr. Thomas Dudley Isom purchased it. As a young trading post clerk in 1836, Isom had proposed naming the frontier settlement after Oxford, England, in hopes it would be chosen for the state university. Local lore credits the giant magnolia in front of the house to the young bride Sarah Isom, who carried the shoot from her home in South Carolina. In 2000, the University of Mississippi acquired the house, which is now the home of the Barksdale Reading Institute” (see Oxford Walking Tour, p. 2).

Thomas Isom came to the area from Tennessee in 1835 as the nineteen-year-old agent of an Indian trading company. After completing medical training in Philadelphia, Isom returned to Oxford in 1839 to practice medicine. As a prominent citizen of the region, he was sent to the Mississippi secession convention, where he argued against separation from the Union. During the Civil War, however, Isom served as a military surgeon in Virginia with the 17th Mississippi regiment and later opened a military hospital on the University of Mississippi campus for the victims of the Battle of Shiloh. After the war, Isom continued his medical practice and became one of the most prominent and progressive physicians in northern Mississippi in his use of new drugs and surgical techniques.

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I reported in my last roundup about a house fire at 212 South Franklin Street in Aberdeen. The Monroe Journal, “Cause of Aberdeen house fire ruled undetermined,” states that the Aberdeen Fire Chief, after examining the house with the fire marshal, has ruled the fire undetermined. Those officials believe the fire originated in the dining room and was likely “something electrical.” The house was vacant, as the previous owners had passed away, but it was being remodeled by a new owner. It would not be the first building to burn during restoration or renovation work; the world watched an example of that with April’s conflagration of Notre Dame Cathedral (read Malvaney’s “Fire *shudder*” for comments on historic building fires). 212 South Franklin Street was part of Aberdeen’s local Silk Stocking Row Historic District and a contributing resource to the National Register-listed South Central Aberdeen Historic District.

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Next time you are in Aberdeen, you should be able to hear the historic Monroe County Courthouse clock chime accurately for the first time since 2016, “Monroe County Courthouse clock working again.” Three county employees have worked diligently to get the clock running at a fraction of the cost of bringing in a professional clock company.

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Save Aberdeen Landmarks (a link to their older, more informative website included) was in recent news, “SAL chairman addresses crumbling former drugstore building.” Aberdeen’s Board of Aldermen and a neighboring pair of property owners would like the preservation group to repair Phoenix Drugstore, also known as the Green Building, at 103-105 East Commerce Street. SAL Chairman and Founder Dwight Stevens told the aldermen, “There’s nothing that would please me more than to start work tomorrow and get it saved.” The group has had difficulties raising money to restore it and suggested the City of Aberdeen take ownership in order to get access to grant money which SAL cannot. Stevens also offered to deed over the building to the neighboring, complaining property owners; an offer that the neighboring property owners had not taken him up on. SAL is still dealing with remaining debts from their renovation of the Kimmel Bakery at 102-104 West Commerce Street, which hampers their current work.

Another article, “Save Aberdeen Landmarks hits ‘restart’,” from last August puts the recent June 18 meeting into context, detailing some of the issues Aberdeen’s local preservation group is facing with the Phoenix Drugstore.

[T]he former Phoenix Drugstore, commonly known as the Green Building, downtown is another ongoing project. Trees were recently sawed down from the inside of the neglected building.

The integrity of the building remains a concern for neighboring Main Street business owners.

“Four or five years ago, a construction engineer was hired, and he said we had two to three years before we’d have the same thing that happened in Okolona, and that’s why we’re concerned,” said Henry Hammack, whose business, Henry’s, is next door.

A storm toppled two downtown Okolona buildings in 2015, and a third one was damaged. According to Stevens, a divider wall was removed from the Phoenix building years ago, which weakened its structure.

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The Natchez Democrat reported on the June 30 closing of Historic Jefferson College. For the foreseeable future, the MDAH will open the site to the public only by appointment and for hosting public events such as the Great Big Yam Potatoes Old-Time Gathering and Fiddle Contest in May and the Black and Blue Living History Program in October. June 30 saw a group of alumni, former cadets, and friends of the site gather to remember the school’s history, discuss its future, and express their displeasure at its closing. News of the MDAH’s “changes in programming, interpretation and hours of operation at Historic Jefferson College” was first reported in April, “State plans changes for Historic Jefferson College.” The MDAH has not unveiled detailed plans since that time.

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Not everything is bad news.

Also out of Natchez is “First Presbyterian Church makeover uncovers nearly 200-year-old brick” from The Natchez Democrat. Cracking in the front portico’s columns at the National Register-listed First Presbyterian Church in Natchez has necessitated some repair work. The church’s minister and elders were initially very worried about the column cracking, fearing it was severe structural damage that would require rebuilding the entire columns. However, contractors Germany Construction and Fitzgerald masonry discovered that the underlying brick is “in excellent shape,” with only “About a foot and a half at the top of one column [that] will have to be rebuilt.” The columns are being repointed, then plastered with a softer stucco that should be more resistant to cracking, with wood at the base of the columns also being repaired. The article lists other recent repair work undertaken at First Presbyterian, including new roofs, repaired windows in the sanctuary, and an almost completed restoration of all stained glass windows in Stratton Chapel. Maintenance work like this will help keep this nearly 200-year-old architectural and historical landmark around for many years to come.

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City Purchases Historic Theater with Tourism Funding” and “Vacant building could hold key to Houston’s future” contain the news from Houston that the former Houston Theater at 110 North Jefferson Street, a contributing resource to the National Register-listed Houston Historic District, has been purchased for use as a theater and community arts space. The second article contains a 1936 photograph of its original storefront, which the future restoration will hopefully recreate in a convincing manner.

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In Woodville, The Natchez Democrat article “Wilkinson County mounds to be part of new exhibit at Woodville museum” has the report (boy is it refreshing to have a newspaper which still reports the news) that the Wilkinson County Museum currently has a new exhibit which brings attention to two Wilkinson County sites, the Lessley and Smith Creek mound sites, on the Mississippi Mound Trail. Dr. Megan Kassabaum, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and two student curators, Arielle Pierson and Erin Spicola, created the exhibit in the wake of excavation projects undertaken at the two sites in 2018.

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In other museum news, this time from the Daily Journal, “Look for the Union Label: Museum hopes new branding means bright future.” The article is an interesting one about how the Union County Heritage Museum is trying to appeal to different, younger demographics in order to move into a future where the museum is seen to still have relevance. It also illustrates some of the (mild) tensions that crop up when such changes are made.

The Daily Journal also has a regular “Museum News” column from Pontotoc’s Town Square Museum, detailing its visitors, recent donations, and activities, including the upcoming July 11 Pontotoc County Historical Society meeting, where author Laura Sydney Fisher will present a program on historic sites in Pontotoc, with an emphasis on her specialty: haunted history (the program is also detailed in “Paranormal and supernatural author to speak at Historical Society’s July meeting“).

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Local volunteers cleanup forgotten cemetery in Pearl River County” has information about recent efforts to preserve Hancock County’s Spring Branch Cemetery.

The cemetery has a storied history. Some of the people buried there were previously interred at the Gainesville Cemetery.

That is until the Gainesville Cemetery was relocated when NASA purchased the land that became Stennis Space Center and the surrounding buffer zone, Polk said. That is why many of the deceased were reinterred in the Spring Branch Cemetery, located in the buffer zone. Then, the Spring Branch Missionary Baptist Church was torn down, and the cemetery fell into disrepair, Polk said.

When Polk first saw the cemetery, headstones were broken, slabs marking graves had sunken into mud pits, a grill and an old mattress had been abandoned at the entrance and everything was overgrown with pine brush, she said. One of the headstones shows signs of damage possibly from gunshots and cemetery signs have been stolen, Polk said.

Local resident Vanessa Mitchell Polk has led those efforts, putting countless hours and counted dollars of her own retirement money into the project. Her hope is that Hancock County will take over the cemetery’s maintenance once her and the other volunteers’ work is complete.

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In my own inimitable way, I have covered the preservation news in Mississippi like the dew. But, leave a comment about any un-dew covered news stories that I may have missed or not had time to cover.

And that was the news.

Read more MissPres on the Sun-n-Sand. . .



Categories: Aberdeen, Antebellum, Biloxi, Churches, Demolition/Abandonment, For Sale, Gulf Coast, Gulfport, Hotels, Houston, Jackson, MDAH, Museums, Natchez, New Albany, News Roundups, Oxford, Renovation Projects, Theaters, Universities/Colleges, Woodville

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9 replies

  1. I would add what’s known informally as “the cave house” on Grove Street in Vicksburg, an important landmark from the siege that is now empty and was recently the victim of an arson fire that damaged part of the east-facing wall. On the grounds of the house, which is almost obscured from the street by two massive magnolias, was one of the more famous siege caves (long since collapsed, though there’s still a small marker identifying it as such), which was the highlight of battlefield tours led by a man named Tom Lewis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lewis reportedly dug the cave and was among the most forceful advocates for establishing the Vicksburg National Military Park, though he did not occupy the extant house but lived next door in a house that did not have a suitable bank for excavating a cave. That famous picture of a man standing in front of a siege cave with a collection of relic bombs depicts Lewis and this site. The future of the property, which was one of the most important endangered historic sites in Vicksburg before the fire, is even more vulnerable now. The story-and-a-half house appears to be pre-Civil War, though it was “improved” somewhat over the years (things like bathroom additions and a few French doors, etc.). Inside is an odd mix of crude, almost primitive details and incongruously elaborate plaster medallions. It would make a nice satellite site for the military park, illustrating civilian life during the siege, though given the state of historic preservation in Vicksburg, is more likely to be torn down.

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  2. At the May 17, 2019 Oxford Historic Preservation Commission meeting, a Certificate of Appropriateness was discussed for the proposed 3-story hotel to be constructed between the Isom House and Oxford Floral on Jefferson Avenue. This plan has apparently been on the books since at least 2017.

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  3. this kind of post is very much appreciated by ex-pat mississippians who live elsewhere; hi, alan huffman.

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    • The sister ship–Rufus Ward says his publishers claim that ships are not sexed–to Professor Hamdan’s Alcoa Puritan was the Alcoa Pilgrim. Both merchant marine vessels were laden with bauxite ore and were sank by U-Boats. The Puritan suffered no loss of men, but the Pilgrim lost 39 seamen; there were six survivors. Most of the crew were Mississippians and Alabamians. The Master of the Pilgrim was Leon Roar Petersen and I am wondering if there is a familial connection to Mendel L. Petersen who was a 1934 Demonstration School graduate and a 1938 Mississippi State College graduate. None found, yet.
      Any clues, Ed Polk.

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