Gulfport’s main library sits proudly on Beach Boulevard on the eastern edge of downtown. Built in 1966 and designed by Gulfport architect Charles L. Proffer in the New Formalism style, it’s not a traditional candidate for passionate preservation love. But it is a beautiful building and many Gulfport residents love it and want it saved for their children. The grand yet completely modern colonnade, spiral staircase, and ultra-cool light fixtures give the building a very retro feel, even it its current state. Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge washed through the first floor of the building (which was also damaged in Hurricane Camille) and the library is currently operating from a modular building on the site. When a whole variety of very complex FEMA and flood-elevation requirements seemed to point toward the demolition of the building rather than its repair and return to glory, a local group called We The People organized to save the building and the public space overlooking the beach that it represents.
Educating themselves about all the various laws that might impact the decision about the building, We The People asked the Mississippi Dept. of Archives and History (MDAH) to designate the building a Mississippi Landmark under the Mississippi Antiquities Act in May 2008. During the summer of 2008, FEMA’s historical review section, which had not weighed in on any of the debate asked the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places to render a decision about whether the building was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Keeper’s decision in early October 2008 was that the building was eligible for the National Register based on its exceptional local significance in the architecture and planning. This eligibility decision meant that the issue would now enter FEMA’s Section 106 process:
The purpose of Section 106 is to balance historic preservation concerns with the needs of federal undertakings. This review process ensures that federal agencies identify any potential conflicts between their undertakings and historic preservation and resolve any conflicts in the public interest.
Later in October 2008, the Board of Trustees of MDAH voted to designate the library a Mississippi Landmark; but the designation seems to have been fairly half-hearted–the MDAH Board stated that rather than reviewing any demolition permits or other changes to the building, they would defer future reviews to FEMA’s Section 106. This essentially meant that the Board had no opinion on whether the building should be demolished and didn’t want to get involved in the controversy other than to agree with the Keeper of the National Register that it was significant.
Many people don’t understand that just because a building or place is “historic” doesn’t mean the federal government won’t pay to have it torn down. Lots and lots of vacant lots on the Coast used to be grand historic homes–FEMA tore them down without breaking a sweat. So, the battle for the Gulfport Library is not won yet. Hopefully, there’s a creative solution out there that will allow the building to be repaired and used again as a public space for the next generation of Gulfporters.
In the midst of all the controversy, sometime in October 2008, the pedestal that had held the statue of Gulfport founder and benefactor Capt. Jones was removed from the site of the library where it had been since 1942. We The People accused Mayor Brent Warr of stealing the pedestal, while the Mayor stated he had had it put in safe storage.
The first big meeting of the interested parties occurred on January 15, 2009–see these articles from WLOX and the Clarion-Ledger. I would put in some very good Sun-Herald articles, but I see they won’t let us look at anything over 30 days old without a fee. Oh well.
While we’re on the subject of the Coast, I want to give a shout-out to the people at Slabbed for covering the crucial yet incredibly tedious issue of insurance on the Coast and the insurance industry in general. Many people who don’t live on the Coast don’t realize how expensive insurance has become even for houses that have never even been close to getting flooded. Why should you care? Well, historic houses are often the ones taking the hit, as homeowners of middle-class means just can’t afford to repair their house and live in it again.
“Library Discussion Much Calmer at Supervisors Meeting,” WLOX, Feb 9, 2009.