A History of Belhaven Heights : Part 1

The Setting

Today’s Belhaven Heights Historical District is one of Jackson’s most architecturally unique neighborhoods.  Situated on one of Jackson’s highest hills, it is known for its diverse architecture, terraced lawns and tree canopied avenues.

Map 3

Through the 1940’s and 50’s, the Belhaven Heights neighborhood grew eastward to its logical boundaries (Map 3). These boundaries have changed somewhat over the years but today are generally considered to be Fortification Street on the north, the old GM&O Railroad bed near Greymont Ave. on the east, Spengler Street on the south and North Street on the west. The actual neighborhood parameters are Fortification to High Street and State Street to I-55.

Map 1

Belhaven Heights Historic District was initially listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 28, 1983. A revision and amendment was put in place in 1998. The historic district is located near the downtown core of Mississippi’s capital city. The neighborhood’s first historic district (1983) is shown on Map 1. This diagram shows residences along and on both sides of Morningside and North Jefferson Streets and Bellevue Place with Madison Street and Terrace Court also included in the district.

Map 2

The 1998 amended district, shown in Map 2, is generally bounded by Fortification Street on the north, southward along Quinn, and west to Monroe where it drops south to Harding and along the western edge of Belhaven Heights Park. The boundary line continues to just south of Spengler and west to Jefferson, then north and west to North Street, then back to Fortification.

In 1899, the Jackson Daily News described Belhaven College and its surroundings as “remarkably picturesque and attractive…located thus in the most beautiful spot in the city, surrounded by elegant residences, within easy reach of every important point in Jackson, yet enjoying the seclusion of a suburban position.”

Belhaven College c. 1900

Belhaven Heights consisted of scattered parcels prior to the 20th century but the first subdivision (part 1) was platted March 29, 1905, by the Belhaven Heights Company, (A.J. Hackett, president). This was largely the area south of Fortification with a small part extending north of Fortification to Persimmon Street and covering the area east of Monroe and west of Greymont Ave.

Few structures remained in Jackson following the burning of the city during the Civil War. One of these is the Oaks, located at 823 N. Jefferson Street (part of Belhaven Heights),  a Greek revival cottage built in 1853 by former Jackson Mayor James H. Boyd (1809-77). Today it is a museum and the property of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in Mississippi. Boyd, a Kentucky native, came to Jackson in the 1830’s, was mayor of Jackson for four terms and served at least six terms as alderman including the years when the American Civil War raged through the city.

Much of the land area that is now Belhaven Heights was part of the vast Edwin Moody Estate. The family land and residence was located in the area bounded by Morningside, Madison, Boyd and N. Jefferson Streets. In 1875, there was only one other residence in the Heights area.  This entire block of property was sold to Col. James Hamilton for his residence  he named Belhaven for his Scottish ancestral home. Col. Hamilton sold his home to Dr. Louis Fitzhugh in 1894 for the establishment of the first Belhaven College which is described in detail in the history of Belhaven. Other early land owners and developers in Belhaven Heights were J.B. Harris, J.C. Smith, W.J. Brown, Miller & Greaves, A.J. Hackett, Gilbert Hemmingway and Edward W. Crane.

As Jackson grew and new streets added, some of the thoroughfares in Belhaven Heights acquired new names. According to the 1925 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, the 900 block east of Boyd Street became Bellevue (for the college). It achieved notoriety later as Judges Hill. Oldham Street became Harding, Rhodes Street became Rio, Greymont Avenue south of Fortification was known as East Street and the 1100 block of Riverview was Cherokee Street. George Street, named for U.S Senator James Zachariah George, was formerly known as Penitentiary Street as it ran to the north of the state penitentiary which occupied the land where Mississippi’s New Capital Building stands today after its construction in 1903.

Throughout the years Belhaven Heights has remained a largely residential area with its only early commercial establishment being the old Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad beanery at the intersection of Spengler and Madison streets. More on this structure, its colorful history and the railroad itself will be discussed in a later section.

(Information in this section is taken primarily from Living Places by the Gombach Group, Morrisville, PA (1997-2014) and the application for inclusion on the National Park Service Historical Register of Historic Places (2011).Thanks go to Jim Woodrick at the MDAH for assistance with the maps and narrative information from the Belhaven Heights application for listing on the Historical Register.)

The Residences

Homes in Belhaven Heights grew eastward from North State Street where early prominent Jackson citizens built their residences after the Civil War. Sadly, far too many have succumbed to the wrecking ball of progress. In the early 20th century young professionals built several blocks east of State on North Street and names in city directories of the time will be familiar to students of Jackson history. Home construction was sporadic and lots were large with few houses situated on a given block. These blocks filled in later as the neighborhood population increased.

The Oaks (photo by Cecile Wardlaw)

The Oaks at 823 N. Jefferson Street, former home of Jackson Mayor James H. Boyd, is the oldest residence in Belhaven Heights (1853) and one of the few structures that survived the Civil War. It is also the best known for several historic reasons one of which we will soon see. There was another nearby area that is renowned as well. This is the 900 block of Bellevue Place known throughout its lifetime as Judges Hill. The 800 block of N. Jefferson is also considered by some as part of this nomenclature.

Judges Hill was the home of six judges and one attorney in the early 1900’s. Most of these houses still exist. The primary “hill” peaks at the intersection of Bellevue and Madison streets where the observer looking eastward can see well into Rankin County. You can stand a few feet higher by walking up the incline of Terrace Court just to the west of Madison Street.

Lyell House

Bellevue Place judges, their street address and year their homes were built were: Fifth District Court Judge Garland Lyell, 935, (1910); State Supreme Court justice  E.O. Sykes, 942, (1912); State High Court Judge Clayton D. Potter, 943 (1916); and  Judge J.B. Holder, 948 (?). Jefferson Street judges were Circuit Judge Wylie Potter, 804 (1924);

Sykes House

and State Supreme Court Justice Sydney Smith, 855 (1923-24). Attorney J.A. Gordon resided at 857 N. Jefferson.  All structures are still standing except at 948 Bellevue and 857 N. Jefferson. These are now apartment complexes.

Lewis-Mack House

Other homes of interest in the district are the Lewis-Mack house at 901 N. Jefferson (ca. 1923-24) and the one story cottage at 909 Jefferson (ca. 1912),  which is listed in the 1985 Field Guide to American Houses (p. 457) as a prime example of an American Craftsman home. Persons interested in following the trail of property owners in the Heights from 1833 to 1905 are encouraged to consult the Abstract of Title to Belhaven Heights on file in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Chyrl Grubbs, former resident of the Sykes House was interviewed by Jack Bertham for his newspaper article. “You can ride up and down these small streets and know that important decisions were made in these houses,” she told the reporter. While not as large or distinct as the Belhaven area to the north, “the district is significant for the homeowners’ determination to remain close to downtown and their concentrated effort to stand against encroaching commercialization.” Grubbs points out that the Sykes residence was once literally fit for a queen to be. “In 1943, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands stayed at the house while visiting the city to inspect the Royal Netherlands Military Flying School stationed at the Jackson Army Air Base.”

While upkeep of residences over 100 years old is a challenge there is much restoration taking place and a prime example of this will be discussed in a future installment of this history.

The Boyd Home (Oaks) is more than just a historic dwelling and museum. It has the distinction of hosting the nation’s first Memorial Day concept in April of 1865. An accounting of this event was published in neighbor Jesse Yancy’s blog Mississippi Sideboard on April 23, 2015 and features an article authored by Greenwood Cemetery Association President Cecile Wardlaw based on research by local historian  Peter Miazza. It is presented here in its entirety.

The First Real Memorial Day

“Widely acknowledged as the precursor of Memorial Day, widespread observance of a Declaration Day began shortly after the hostilities in the Civil War, when citizens began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers.

“Many cities claim to be the home of this observance, including Waterloo, NY, Boalsburg, PA, Carbondale, IL, Columbus, GA, and much closer to home, Columbus, Mississippi. In their 2014 book, the Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday, Dr. Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware state that according to the Veteran’s Administration, at least 25 cities across America claimed to have originated the Memorial Day holiday. While numerous historians feel that the true history may never be known, this book rejects that claim and explores the factual history of the holiday and shows that most of the better-known stories are mere myths and local legends; that being said, Jackson, Mississippi can lay verifiable proof that the first Declaration Day was held on April 26, 1865 in the historic Greenwood Cemetery in downtown Jackson..

“As the story goes, citizens of the Confederacy were well aware of the strategic importance of Appomattox; those in Jackson, Mississippi were already shaken by the fall of Richmond on April 4, 1865, and the news of Grant’s victory reached Governor Charles Clark some days later. In her diary his daughter recalled the telegram being passed around: ‘yes, it was all over. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox! Like a thunderbolt it fell on all of us. We were stunned. I remember feeling astonishment that we were not all dead’.

“Many if not most were already resigned to defeat and were shocked by the assassination of Lincoln less than a week later, so it was a somber group that assembled on Tuesday evening, April 25 at the Oaks, home of former Jackson Mayor James Boyd on North Jefferson Street. Just before midnight two couriers arrived with the news that Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor and Union Major General E.R.S. Canby had agreed to a truce in Meridian, darkening the mood. Among them was Sue Langdon Adams, a Missouri native and niece of Mississippi’s Senator Robert Adams. A nurse, Sue had infiltrated Union lines bringing medical supplies back to Confederate forces and informing Confederate authorities of Union troop deployments.

“When the news of the truce came, Sue was reading Plutarch’s Lives., where it’s mentioned that the graves of fallen soldiers are adorned with wreathes of laurel. Fearing that the reoccupation of Jackson was imminent, she tore out a blank page and penned an appeal to the women of Jackson to gather the next day at the city cemetery at two in the afternoon and adorn the graves of fallen soldier with flowers. One of the young couriers took the note and raced to the office of the newspaper, Mississippians, just in time for it to be printed in the next morning’s edition.

“The next day, a large group of citizens gathered in the cemetery and soon nearly every soldier’s grave was covered with floral designs of every kind. Troops led by Colonel McFarland marched through the cemetery as the band played Handel’s ‘Dead March’ from Saul. As Adams moved through the rows of graves, she saw that some were unadorned and asked why there were no flowers on them. Told they were graves of Union soldiers, she replied, ‘I will garland them with my pink roses for the mothers and sisters who sobbed over them as they marched away. Maybe they fell in the riven flags in the battle of West Jackson’.

“Adams moved to California and married a Judge Vaughan. She died in Arlington, Virginia in 1911 and is buried in the Mount Olivet United Methodist Cemetery there. Her memorial efforts were acknowledged in an inscription on the monument which was unveiled on the Jackson Capital Green in 1891:

‘It reeks not where their bodies lie,
By bloody hillside, plain or river,
Their names are bright on Fame’s proud sky,
Their deeds of valor live forever.’”

Now you know the rest of the story and the story began in Belhaven Heights.

Before leaving our visit with Peter Miazza we should take a look at one of the prominent family names of old Belhaven Heights. These were the Spengler’s who lived along the east side of the 600 block of N. Jefferson. Only one house remains, 646, the former home of Hubert Spengler, Sr.

Hubert Spengler was Peter’s paternal great-grandfather. He operated several businesses but was best known for the office complex still standing at the northwest corner of State and Capitol Streets known as “Spengler’s Corner”. A plaque on the building reads, “Spengler’s Corner: Oldest Jackson building in continuous commercial use, this was the cornerstone of the group of structures along Capitol and State Streets now known collectively as Spengler’s Corner Historic District. A commercial and entertainment center in the 19th century, it was the site of Spengler’s Hotel, a favorite meeting place of state legislators. Erected c. 1842, the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”  According to Peter Miazza, the hotel burned about 1906.

There was only one commercial development in Belhaven Heights through its early years and that was the area which abutted the GM&O Railroad on the eastern boundary.  This was no ordinary string of warehouses and outbuildings. It had a roundhouse,  rail shops and a hotel with a ghost who we will meet in the next segment.

(Sources for this material are Justice Comes to Judges Hill, Jack Bertram, Clarion-Ledger, September 7, 2001, pp 1E, 3E (Judges Hill); Declaration Day from Voices Heard from the Grave (publication pending), Peter Miazza, local author and historian and Greenwood Cemetery Board President Cecile Wardlaw.)

(Copyright Bill and Nan Harvey, March 2018)

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