Buildings of Mississippi: A Review

Books about Mississippi architecture tend to focus on poverty-stricken African-American communities or the antebellum and Victorian-era mansions of the state’s white elite. Buildings of Mississippi finally puts them side-by-side, as they actually have been for centuries.

“Our goal from the start was to integrate—and I use that word purposely—black and white landscapes,” said co-author Jennifer Baughn. “This book helps illustrate how the two races did interact in some ways, and in other ways were separated.”

Nine years in the making, Buildings of Mississippi is the 26th volume of the Buildings of the United States (BUS) series commissioned by the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH). This series documents state-by-state the full range of structures that are deemed of historical or architectural interest by experts in the field. Jennifer V. O. Baughn is Chief Architectural Historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the author of numerous articles on the state’s historic buildings. The late Michael W. Fazio was Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Mississippi State University and coauthor of Buildings across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture. Mary Warren Miller is Executive Director Emeritus of the Historic Natchez Foundation and coauthor of The Great Houses of Natchez.

Illustrated with photographs and maps, and newly redesigned in a more user-friendly format, readers of Buildings of Mississippi will come to know the history of 557 sites, illustrated by 249 photographs (all but 33 taken by Baughn and Fazio) and 29 maps. Along with stately plantation houses (and their housings for slaves), the volume surveys a range of other locations such as Native American mounds and villages, 20th-century enclaves built for sawmill workers, neighborhoods that bolstered black Mississippians during segregation, and the vernacular streetscapes of small towns as well as modern architecture in Greenville, Meridian, Jackson, and Biloxi.

The buildings are grouped into twelve regions that move roughly from the southwest corner of the state to the north, the east, the center, and then south to the Gulf Coast. Buildings of Mississippi includes such wide-ranging places as Longwood and Wister Gardens, Poor Monkeys, Club Ebony, and Dockery Farms in the Delta, the Coca Cola Company in McComb, Ginntown Rosenwald School near Tylertown, Holy Child Jesus Catholic Church in Canton, Shiloh Methodist Campground and Piney Woods School in Rankin County, the fabulous St. Michaels Catholic Church (round with a clam shell roof) in Biloxi, and the oldest house in the Mississippi Valley, “Old Spanish Fort”/de la Pointe-Krebs House in Pascagoula.

Baughn said that the books in the series used to be hardback, and were more like reference works. That seemed puzzling to her, since reference books on such a specialized subject have primarily professional appeal. The new field guide format is a recent innovation, and Baughn considers it a more natural option, more appealing to a wider readership, people who might put the book in a car or backpack for a trip. Buildings of Mississippi is also the first book in the series to be all color.

“The criteria for inclusion were determined both by the SAH and our own knowledge and research,” Baughn said. “We generally focused on buildings that were on the National Register, or in the case of buildings from the 1960s through the present, we tried to identify those that were important for historical events or had won architectural awards. And once we started writing, as Michael Fazio said, the building had to have ‘a hook, a story’ that would make it an interesting entry for the reader.”

The buildings must still be standing, so there are no non-existent buildings included. They also must be accessible from a public right-of way or open to the public. “Unfortunately,” Baughn said, “that criteria excluded many rural houses that can’t be seen from a public right-of-way and aren’t public houses.”

“The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), considers this to have an international audience. Well, I don’t know international audiences,” Baughn said. “My audience is the average Mississippian who enjoys history and historic buildings, and who likes going out in the state, driving around their town, small or large. I thought if these people were happy with the work, then international visitors would be happy, too.”

Buildings of Mississippi is an important work that brings the research on our state’s historic architecture up-to-date. The scholarship supporting the text is impeccable. The format is accessible to armchair historians and weekend travelers as well as tourists, and the illustrations—particularly the photographs—are lavish and outstanding. This book belongs in the hands of all Mississippians intrigued with our past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ibbur

Sylvia’s annual acquiescence to the local ladies’ committee’s request that she show her historic house during the city’s pilgrimage (actually more of a command, since her house was easily regarded as one of the most iconic examples of the city’s 19th century architecture) was an ordeal for her, but she knew it had to be done, carried off with grace and style.

So every spring she hired a crew to clean the house from top to bottom, another to groom the grounds and provide colorful containers of thriving plants for conspicuous settings, another to fill the home’s pots and vases with fresh flowers and yet another to provide sweets and sandwiches as well as a punch to serve the afternoon her home was on tour. She also attended the beauty parlor that morning, and this year she even bought a new pair of persimmon pants, a matching pastel-patterned top and a silver necklace of pearl and crystal that she’d been admiring at that little boutique near her supermarket, but she wore her best pair of house shoes, since she knew she’d be on her feet for hours.

The tour extended from 2 until 5 on a sunny spring afternoon. The azaleas were in their full glory, blazing in every shade of red punctuated by brilliant whites. Tourists came in three groups of twelve or so, who followed Sylvia through the house while she recited a story (not hers) of the family who built it and lived in it during days when they were one of the wealthiest in the state. The house was of an Italianate design, which was unusual for the decade in this region, and by far its most spectacular features were two towers with abbreviated belvederes and a magnificent set of double stairs that swept upwards from the parquet floor like the wings of an earthbound angel aspiring to heaven.

“Daniel Bauer was a cotton broker,” she’d say. “His family immigrated to Charleston early in the 19th century, and his grandfather owned a grocery on Short Street, just north of Broad. This became the base of the family fortune. Daniel moved here after his marriage to a house on South Street, where their first children were born. He built this house in 1853.” Over time, Sylvia had learned that the question most people asked was why the house wasn’t burned when the federal army took the city. She always hesitated a bit before answering, because she knew the bit of drama would be appreciated.

“Yellow fever,” she said. “When the army came here three members of the family were sick, all but the youngest daughter, Rebecca. The house was quarantined, the family isolated. After her father, mother and older brother died, Rebecca was left alone in the house with the housekeeper Dotty, who was a free woman. The Bauer family never owned slaves. But she stayed with Rebecca, who died the year after the war was over. The house was sold then and turned into a boarding house, where Dotty worked as a cook until she died in 1900.”

The last group included Adelle Smith, the chairman of the pilgrimage committee, as well as her best friend, Mary Beth Langston, who trailed the rest, lingering in the foyer while the other ladies (and one gentleman in a seersucker suit) followed Sylvia into the parlor.

“Every year, she says she won’t do the tour unless she gets to tell what she calls ‘the whole story’ or ‘a better story’,” Adelle said to Mary Beth. “I don’t know how she makes this stuff up. The only documentation we have about the family, besides from the usual public records and old Daniel’s financial ledgers was a diary Rebecca kept starting when she was ten. She died six years later, so it’s mostly just the sorts of things you’d expect a girl her age to write about: birthday parties, visits from family and friends, new clothes, sewing and cooking lessons and schoolgirl crushes. She wrote little during the war years, most of that about everyone leaving and the food running out. She wrote nothing about the sickness and deaths; probably too painful for her, poor thing.”

“And Sylvia claims to know more?”

“Oh, Mary Beth,” Adelle said. “You know as well as I do that Sylvia never leaves this house; well, no more than she has to, anyway. Remember that fire she had three years ago? She burned her hands so badly she was in the hospital for two days. The firemen said it was started by a heater in a little room off the kitchen, and that room was the only room in the house that looked lived-in at all, and the cleaning people she has in before the pilgrimage say it takes them two days to get the dust and spider webs. Then she comes up with these crazy stories.”

“Like what?” Mary Beth asked. Adelle hesitated. “Mary Beth, how long have we known one another?”

“Since your cousin Randy married my sister Ruth,” Mary Beth said. “That was 1977. If you’ll remember, we met at the wedding at St. John’s. You were quite drunk.”

“And you looked like a fire hydrant in that red dress you were wearing,” Adelle replied. “It was also bad form for you to be flirting with the minister.”

“He married me, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Adelle admitted. “The reason was quite obvious at the time. Mary Beth, Sylvia has always been what our grandmother Ross called ‘queer’, though that meant quite a different thing then than it does these days. Ever since she was a little girl, Sylvia’s always heard things and seen things that nobody else did, and she would have these spells, days at a time, when she’d stay in her room and play with her dolls, and barely speak to anyone else. Their maid used to say Sylvia had a hole in her head, but Granny Ross told us that what she meant by that was that Sylvia had an open mind when it came to spiritual things. She was the only one of us who actually liked going to church. She’d even take her Bible to school and read it in study hall.”

“A real little Goody Two-Shoes, huh?” Mary Beth sniffed.

Adelle looked at her sharply. “No,” she said firmly. “It was more than that. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone.”

Then Sylvia led the group back towards the door, said hello to Adelle and Mary Beth, gathered them all before her and thanked them for coming. “We’re all in our city so very proud to still have this beautiful house for you all to visit,” she said, nodding at Adelle, who nodded back. “I want you all to go to the big reception they’re having over at the old Union Street Lyceum. You’re going to meet some wonderful people, and eat the best Southern food you’ve ever had in your life.”

After a scattering of applause, the group filed out the door. Adelle lingered, waving Mary Beth on with the others.  “Thank you, Sylvia,” she said. “The house is beautiful, and we so very much appreciate you opening it up for the public.”

“Adelle, you know I’m proud to do it, and I so hope that after I’m gone, you’ll take of it for me.”

“Me? Why Sylvia, I thought you were leaving the property to your nephew.”

“I’ve changed my mind. Adelle,” Sylvia grasped her hand. “Don’t let them tear it down. Don’t.”

Adelle stepped back at the look in her old friend’s eyes. Then she softened. “I won’t, Sylvia.” She hugged her and walked to the car where Mary Beth was waiting.

Once inside and the door closed, Sylvia heard a tiny, shaken voice from the top of the stairs. “Are they gone?”

“Yes, they’re gone, Rebecca. Until next year,” Sylvia said. “We have to do it next year.”