Sambo Mockbee: Legacy, Community, and the Empowerment of Myth

When the American Institute of Architects awarded Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee the AIA Gold Medal in 2003, he joined an elite company of architects (including Thomas Jefferson) who received the award posthumously. “The AIA does not like to confer a gold medal on people who are no longer living,” says architect Tom Howorth. “It’s an award for those who have the potential to continue contributing to the field of architecture. The fact that it was conferred on Sambo confirms he is continuing to shape the architectural landscape.”

The Cook House, near Oxford, Mississippi (photo by Undine Proh)

Sambo Mockbee died in 2001. Hailed as a visionary with designs such as the Barton House in Madison, the Cook House in Oxford and the Magee Church of Christ to name a very few, Mockbee set an even higher benchmark when he and D.K. Ruth co-founded the Rural Studio at Auburn University. There in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, the studio continues to be a place where students learn the social responsibilities of architecture by creating homes and buildings with a spirit for poor communities.

“Sambo’s mission was to see about people,” Jackie Mockbee says. Jackie married Sambo in 1970. “We had two blind dates, we really did,” Jackie says. “The first was at a homecoming for Sambo when he was at Fort Benning. I’m sure he didn’t remember me; I just remember having fun watching everyone there. Two years later, my cousin called me and said they were going to a party and said there’s this guy that we all know who needs a date. They started telling me who he was, and. I said, ‘Wait a minute; I’ve had a date with him before.’ They asked me if I had fun, and I told them that we really didn’t get to know one another. That night, Sambo asked me if I went to MSCW, if I was a Baptist and if I’d marry him. I said, ‘Yes, yes and no.’ That was in August. We were married that December.” The Mockbees had four children, but Jackie remembers that at their home in Canton, “We had kids everywhere.” Jackie says. “They ran all around the neighborhood, but always ended up in our yard. Sambo was like the Pied Piper; he always had something going on, he was always the coach, and when he hit that door, the kids came running.”

“He was a gregarious, affable, lovable teddy-bear of a guy,” says Malcolm White, a long-time friend. “Once you became his friend, you were his friend for life. He loved collecting eclectic personalities. He was an engaging conversationalist and could sit up literally all night and carry on about Van Gogh or the Civil War or American history or Western civilization or anything else you might be interested in.”

Magee Church of Christ (photo by L. David Fox)“He believed in legacy, he believed in creating things that would last,” Malcolm says. “He wrote a check out of an account that didn’t have a nickel in it for the first float that I ever purchased, the very same trailer that the Sweet Potato Queens use today.”

“In the early 80s, Sambo had an office on North Street on a stretch of property that’s now parking lots,” Malcolm says. “On Friday afternoons, Sambo would gather people and would serve Heinekens, which he loved, and sausages or peanuts, whatever he had on hand. Sambo began to explain to us that he had this big idea that he was closing in on, this notion that was going to involve all of us,” Malcolm says. “He wanted to empower rural people of little means in the same way that wealthy people could empower him to design beautiful, elaborate offices. He wanted to incorporate not just architecture and design, but philanthropy and entertainment and recreation, all the components that build community. Basically what he was talking about became the Rural Studio.”

Former partner Coleman Coker first met Mockbee in Corinth. “I think in 1980 or 1981, and we hit it off, just sitting around and talking. Neither one of us had much work at the time,” Coleman says. “He was making a lot of collages, I was painting, and that’s where we found a commonality in translating the world as we saw it through our constructions and paintings into architectural compositions. We never were successful going out and marketing ourselves, particularly to corporate clients,” Coleman says. “Most of the work we were proudest of involved small residences for people looking for something different, looking for something that had a relationship to place, to locale. Most of those buildings were reflections of the clients, an extension of their personalities, and as we got more built, more people would see them and give us a call.”

“We didn’t sit around talking about the work of other architects; we’d talk about literature—Welty and Faulkner—looking for roots, connections to place, and we found that so much more directly through Southern writers,” Coleman says. “There’s no long tradition of Southern architecture outside of the classical, which comes from Europe, and we weren’t looking for that. We were trying to build on what was just beneath the surface here in the Deep South, whether it was black culture or the culture of the landed gentry, whatever mythology could be unearthed.” Mythology, Coleman admits, is “difficult to talk about.”

“Sambo, through the paintings that he did, was building a whole mythological world,” Coleman says. “Characters would repeat themselves throughout the paintings, and they started telling a narrative. It’s easier to render a narrative through literature, even through painting, than it is through architecture, yet you strive to expound those roots and reprocess them through design. Our concern with social responsibility in professional ethics fell in trying to reach out to a group that was estranged otherwise,” Coleman says. “We were trying to design in context with this locale, the locale in a social sense, when the abject poverty in much of Mississippi was virtually ignored by the great majority of designers and the great majority of people who could afford architects.”

“Eutaw: Children of Eutaw Pose Before their Ancient Cabin” (Mural, photo by L. David Fox)

In 1993, Mockbee and D.K. Ruth founded the Rural Studio. “Prior to the Rural Studio there were a few notable construction-focused, hands-on learning opportunities in architecture schools in the country, notably at Yale,” says Tom Howorth, also a former partner. “But there was nothing on the scale, level of commitment and pedagogical continuity that runs through the Rural Studio. Now there are those sorts of programs across the country. So much of what we do is picked from catalogues that the work of putting buildings together becomes a matter of picking the systems that exist and putting them together in a way that you solve the client’s problem,” Tom says. “That wasn’t what Sambo was interested in; he was interested in creating from scratch. He challenged students to think originally.”

Daughter Carol Mockbee recalls that “Papa (Sambo) first started talking about the Subrosa Pantheon in 1999. In the summer of 2001, they started digging in the Alabama clay. D.K.’s mother had died, as well as two young professors at Auburn, and that was probably when they came to the decision to build a memorial space for the Rural Studio, a place to remember and meditate and reflect. So they started digging out the site for the Pantheon in Newbern. By August, they’d poured the first slab. Papa got really sick that fall and passed away in December.”

“The project was suspended for two years,” Carol says. “After I graduated from Auburn in interior design I applied to the Rural Studio as an outreach student to finish the Pantheon. I knew the idea, knew my father’s mythology behind it, and knew that he loved the project. Had I known then what I know now, I don’t think I would have touched it. But, luckily, I was ignorant, young and energetic. For the first few months, I worked on other projects. I had to find my own way, find my role and boundaries. Everyone was skeptical; one engineer at Auburn said, ‘You know, if you were my daughter, I would not let you do this.’ I left that meeting thinking that I am Sambo Mockbee’s daughter and he wouldn’t want me to be doing anything else. I completed it on August 27, 2005. I was so preoccupied with my last pour three days before that I had no idea Katrina was coming.”

“Every June 21, you can go into the Pantheon and stand at different points, align yourself with stars and planets, then sit on a bench next to someone, lean away from them, whisper into a pipe on your side, and the secret travels back to them.”

Samuel Mockbee (photo courtesy AIA)

Jackson: The Way We Were . . .

In 1981, Forrest L. Cooper and Donald F. Garrett published a selection of old postcards of Jackson from about 1902 until the mid-1950s, with more than 90% prior to 1920. The text was written by Carl McIntire, a self-professed “reporter, not a historian,” who nonetheless spent an enormous amount of time on the project, doing extensive research and interviewing more than 300 people. McIntire admitted to a margin of error, but states that “for the most part, all the dates and places are correct.” The book had a very limited printing and has hitherto never been republished. The link below will take you to a digital version of this exquisitely nuanced, intricately informative, and infinitely beautiful labor of love.

Jackson: The Way We Were . . .

The Segregated Landscape

Jennifer Baughn says of her important work, Buildings of Mississippi, that the goal “from the start was to integrate—and I use that word purposely—black and white landscapes.” In this splendid essay (presented as a sidebar on p. 313), Baughn explains how the components of Mississippi’s landscape came to reflect the divisions of the state’s closed society.

Before the Civil War, enslaved blacks were discouraged or prohibited from congregating without white oversight, and although blacks and whites interacted on a daily basis, it was in the context of owner and owned, powerful and powerless. For a brief period following emancipation this power relationship eased, but after 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional, all manner of places and spaces began to be segregated.

As blacks began to move to urban centers around 1890, new neighborhoods of narrow streets and alleys lined mostly with shotgun houses were developed, as for example the Henry Addition (see DR54) in Greenwood. Dense populations, limited employment opportunities, and widespread poverty characterized many of Mississippi’s black neighborhoods, even as they gave rise to an African American middle and upper class. Towns with large black populations–notably Jackson, Greenville, Meridian, Hattiesburg, and Clarksdale–often developed a separate, self-contained African American community with its own business district, hotels, churches, cultural center, schools, and funeral homes. Although often located adjacent to industrial or flood-prone areas, these districts gave African Americans relative security to form their own institutions without white interference. Because churches were one of the few institutions owned and run by black leaders, they became the anchors of such neighborhoods, but public and private schools also provided focus and space for community events.

By the early 1950s, a rising African American middle class began to embrace suburban living, moving out of the old mainstays such as Jackson’s Farish and Greenville’s Newtown neighborhoods into new black subdivisions lined with small ranch houses, such as the residence of Medgar and Myrlie Evers. By 1960 many black congregations with modest newfound wealth began replacing their older churches with new buildings. Such projects often allowed black architects (e.g., DeWitt Dykes and Clair M. Jones) to make their mark in such churches as Laurel’s St. Paul Methodist (pictured below). It was in this complex landscape of neighborhoods dotted with bungalows and shotgun houses and modern schools and churches that the civil rights movement formed and activated around the state.

 

(From Buildings of Mississippi, published 2021 by the Society of Architectural Historians and the University of Virginia Press).

The Pink Apartments

Growing up we called them the “pink apartments”, something unique to the architecture of the neighborhood and an attraction to passersby throughout Belhaven.

The two apartment complexes at 1204 and 1214 Kenwood Place were built in 1938 by Jackson architect James T. (Jack) Canizaro. They have been the home of hundreds of tenants over seven decades spanning three generations of Jacksonians. The apartments rest quietly behind a façade of crepe myrtle and magnolia trees, cool and shady and adjacent to the old Kennington property, which gave their street its name. The pink apartments have no prenomen, but have a great story to tell. No one can tell it better than Bob Canizaro, son of the original designer, who grew up there in the building’s early years.

Mr. Canizaro, an architect himself, lives in Evanston, IL. He grew up in Belhaven with a loving family and great friends surrounded by post-war Jackson and those wondrous times we refer to as the greatest generation. This is his story as told to Bill Harvey, a neighbor from just up Manship Street. 

“The stork arrived at Baptist Hospital on Christmas Eve 1938 and quickly moved me to 1110 N. Jefferson Street, a four-plex that stands today. My architect dad (James T. Canizaro), announced my arrival in a series of blue prints complete with maps, plans and schedules. My first gift from him was a football, which I never played with much myself, but I enjoyed following my favorite teams. These were Notre Dame and Central and St. Joseph High Schools in Jackson. My family moved into the 1204 Kenwood Place building when it was completed in 1939.

The tri-plex apartments were a joint effort with a cousin, Emile Cavallo, a civil engineer. Jack and Emile decided to construct our two buildings so they each could live in one unit and have an income from the other two. Mr. Cavello had been in business for a while and could stake the effort for my dad since he was just getting started in his career.  Apartments were not new to the neighborhood although the architectural design was unique. I never heard any negative complaints except from his mom, Rosa Pantoliano Canizaro.  She felt it lacked a proper front porch where you could rock and talk to the people on the sidewalk. Traditions vary but hospitality remains the same.

I lived and grew up at 1204, until I was 18, then went to Notre Dame, my dad’s alma mater. Many tenants came and went in our apartment building. There was a Dutch couple, Col. And Mrs. Von Oven who lived there during World War II. He was in the Royal Dutch Air Force in training at Hawkins Field. The Dutch flyboys were notorious for their antics in downtown Jackson, often flying low down Capitol Street and waving at the girls in the high-rise office buildings. A woman who worked for us heard a loud noise one day and looked out the kitchen door on the front of the building and saw the Colonel flying down Kenwood Place. No small wonder we won the war!

Col. Lyon Brandon and his wife lived in our building on the Manship side after the war. He worked for the American Legion, traveled around the world and brought me matchbook covers that made a fine collection. I was fond of a tenant named McGehee. He and I were regulars at the old Jackson Senators baseball games at the fairgrounds. We were close to Dr. Estelle Maguria who lived in our middle apartment. After she left, William Fulton, former director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting moved in.

Tenants in our building were generally professional people. The interior and exterior of our home lent itself to the enjoyment of a boy growing up in the times – plenty of room in the back yard, high ceilings, a banister to slide down, my own room, a hill in front to navigate on cardboard sheets and visits to nearby stores for ice cream and comic books. I could walk or ride my bike to school. My dad raised chickens on the back porch and there were endless nearby places to explore. My dad had his architecture studio in a building in the rear yard until the 1960’s. After that it was used by my mother, a recognized Mississippi artist, for a studio. later I made it into an apartment.

My sister Jean Trigiani  lived in the end apartment in 1966 when the rent was $95 a month. She is now Mrs. Jean Enochs.  She remembers when she and her good friend Tine, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ellis Wright grew up together. Tine, who is now Tine Wright Purdy of Huntsville, AL, lived with her family in the 1000 block of Manship Street. She and Jean would play together at their homes or at the Wright and Ferguson Funeral Home where Tine’s father was a partner. Sometimes when the girls needed someone to talk to – maybe on a childhood problem, they would call one another and agree to meet halfway between their residences on a Manship Street curb to talk it over. Having the Baptist Hospital close by proved convenient as I visited the emergency room often with my dad for sprains and stitches. My wife, Beth rescued a brick from the old hospital for me as a memento of those days when the hospital and Jackson were a little smaller.

My good friends in the Kenwood/Manship neighborhood were Fred and John Reimers, John Harley Walsh, Robert Stockett, Kirby Walker, Jr. Guy Lowe, John Potter, Gilmer Spivey, Bernard Meltzer, Tupper and Doug Drane and Howard Shannon. Our family was friends with the Bufords, the Millers, the Wrights, the Harrises, Granthams and Garrisons. This area produced a golf foursome (Reimers, Walsh, Spivey, Canizaro) during our high school and college years. Along streets a little farther a-field, the friends I can remember were Thad McLauren, Rip Pritchard, Jim Herring, Donald McGehee, Bill Bates, George Wilkinson, Bob Thompson, Jim Evans,  Robert Taylor, John Deweese and Ricky Rothenberg.” Older Jacksonians will remember many of these prominent names.

I recall meeting  kids from the neighborhood at Mrs. Downing’s kindergarten on the corner of Poplar and Jefferson. Most of my schooling was at St Joseph, but I spent three wonderful years at the original Power Elementary School at Pinehurst and North State.

My family had a farm in Madison County where I spent most weekends riding horses and making a bit of trouble for the farm manager.  Robert Stockett  (Stockett Stables) and I rode a lot and entered horse shows at the State Fairgrounds. Our farm was a Hereford cattle ranch back then but there were many other types of animals and crops. I later helped care for the chickens, pigs and goats and harvest grain and hay.

I did found time to play ball on the Reimers ‘back forty’; engage in a game of kick the can along the intersection of Kenwood and Manship; and hope, in winter, to get enough snow  to sled down our gentle hills each season. I do remember the 1100 block of Manship was gravel – not conventional gravel, but crushed limestone like they use along railroad tracks.

My friends and I would have rubber gun wars on the “big ditch” on Poplar, which is now Belhaven Park. We would ‘play out’ in the evenings, catch lightning bugs and watch the mosquito sprayer go up and down the nearby streets. I loved model (electric) trains, as did most kids of my era. Freddie Reimers had a miniature rail yard in one of his family’s out buildings and I spent hours playing there. On summer nights, before air conditioning, I would lie awake and listen to real trains switching on the old GM & O yard. My sister also remembers the train cars banging day and night on the tracks over by St. Ann Street. They would make loud noises to the point it got to be sort of a joke.

We could also hear the starting whistle at the Buckeye Oil Mill on Fortification and trains on the Illinois Central line along Mill Street when the wind was from the west.   I remember in the early morning the calls of the vegetable vendors who would peddle their wares on carts throughout the neighborhood. ‘ Fresh shell butterbeans and peas’, they would cry. ‘Okra, corn, tomatoes’. At dawn when the air was still, my sister could hear the lions and elephants at the zoo. I cut grass, worked on the farm, subbed on John Harley’s paper route for money to spend at Cain’s Drugstore (later Parkins Pharmacy) on the corner of Fortification and Jefferson and for a fudgesicle at Shady Nook.

Like so many sons, I owe much of my good times and success to my family. My father, James T. Canizaro, was born in Vicksburg of Italian immigrant parents. He studied architecture at Notre Dame (1928) and worked in Chicago for Graham Anderson, Propst and White. He spent a year in Europe during the Depression studying  Art Nouveau, Bauhaus and Art Deco architectural designs. After a short stay in Washington, DC, he moved to Jackson in 1936. He had just married Helene Host of Lake Geneva, WI. She said many times she married an architect because she did not want to marry a Wisconsin farmer. There was probably a bit more to it than that. She became a Tennessee Walking Horse fan and enjoyed the farm almost every weekend.

My father’s first design projects began in 1937. He preferred the Modernism he had seen in Europe, but was not able to sell that concept to many clients in Mississippi. The Kenwood Place apartments were finished in 1939 and were his original inventive concept of what he had observed on trips to Europe and Miami. It has been described as Art Moderne. He also told me he had admired then current architecture in Southern California. He had a chance to try his ideas on work in Oxford, Mississippi for a local apartment developer.  He did other projects during those years in Oxford (City Hall) and Natchez (Armstrong Tire and Rubber Co.) making him spend a lot of time on gravel roads observing construction. In Jackson, he worked on designs for residences, the City Court, St. Dominic Hospital, the Pix (now Capri) Theater, Farish Street Baptist Church, Christ the King Church, St. Mary’s School, Sally Reynolds School, the JSU cafeteria, the apartments currently at 1005 Popular Blvd., Trustmark Bank (First National) and many other local and state institutions.

My dad had a real hill to climb to prove himself given his ethnic heritage. Because of his talent, charming personality and generosity with his time he was successful. He provided leadership in many of the local cultural, social, religious and charitable organizations. Among these were the Little Theater, where my dad was in some plays, the Jackson Symphony, the Art Association, Magnolia Speech School, Good Samaritan Center, St. Vincent De Paul Society and the Catholic Diocese. My dad died in the Kenwood Place Apartment building in 1984 and my mother moved to St. Catherine’s in 1989. I sold the property to Holden Clark in the early 90’s and he sold it to Waddell Nejam a few years later.”

We see without seeing so many lifetimes in Belhaven.  We admire its eclectic structures whose casement windows reflect the sunlight of a peaceful afternoon. We walk along sidewalks built a half-century ago, half covered now with grass but still a pathway for new parents of children in strollers and pets hopefully on leashes on their way to a walk in Belhaven Park. We take the rugged oaks, like the innocence of our youth, for granted and admire the newer trees and plants in well-kept yards. We share the tranquility, which has always been there, the tenants and lives forgotten or just beginning. The pink apartments stand guard over our past and future. Their legacy is who we are. Thank you Jack and Bob Canizaro for just one more reason why Belhaven is special and a historical treasure to all who know and love it.

 

Robert (Bob) H. Canizaro FAIA is married to Dr. Beth Chihan Canizaro, the founder and Principal of Davis Magnet School, has two sons (Mark and Paul) and lives in Evanston, Illinois.  He is a former principal in the architectural firm, Canizaro, Cawthorn and Davis in Jackson. His resume includes courthouses, hospitals, laboratories, churches, offices, retail shops, residences, schools and a major airport. He has been honored with design awards by members of his profession for many of these works and has a long list of professional memberships and achievements including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mississippi AIA.  He enjoys living in Evanston, far enough from the traffic of the big city but near enough to enjoy the cultural and gastronomic amenities of the urban environment. He maintains a number of contacts in Mississippi and visits Jackson often.

Bob Canizaro and Bill Harvey, September 2012