It is common knowledge that the Mississippi casinos are one of the top tourist attractions. But it might come as a surprise that an nearly equal percentage of tourists list the state’s architectural and historical attractions as their number one reason for a trip to Mississippi.
“History, heritage and culture are three of the biggest reasons people like travel,” said Sandy Bynum, spokesperson for the state Tourism Department. “Architecture is a major draw for all areas of the state, and we know historic homes — some of which are bed and breakfasts — are some of our most popular attractions. And Elvis Presley’s birthplace is a two-room house, but people come from all over the world to see where the King of Rock and Roll was born.”
Bynum said a 1999 survey showed that 23.1% of visitors surveyed listed visiting casinos as the top reason for their visit. Another 22.7% listed visiting historic sites as the top attraction. Shopping was the primary reason for visiting for another 17.5% of visitors.
Natchez, which has 500 properties listed on the National Historic Register, attracts a large number of historical and cultural visitors each year.
“Architecture is a primary reason why people come to Natchez,” says Walter Tipton, executive director of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The lure is an itch of people interested in architectural styles. Because of our Spanish, French and English heritage which is well displayed in the various antebellum mansions we have, you can really do an in-depth study of the architectural styles here in Natchez.”
Tipton believes the diversity of architectural styles offered in Natchez is a large part of the appeal. He said tourists are very interested in the details of different architectural styles, and learning about the different historical styles and then going back home to their own neighborhoods to see the influence of those styles on modern architecture.
Longwood, an octagon-shaped house, is a particularly popular attraction.
“That home alone is unique in the country,” Tipton said. “People come from all over just to view that one home. Of course, we also have Dunleith which has two-story high columns on all four sides of the home. I’m just pointing out two very unique properties, but every antebellum home we have has a unique architectural style and is very much a part of what people come here to see.”
Natchez has more antebellum homes than any other city in the U.S. More than 45 of the antebellum homes are on tour. And while most of the interest is in homes, Tipton said some commercial sites are also of interest. And historic churches like St. Mary’s Basillica, a Catholic Church built in Natchez in the 1800s, are also popular attractions not only in Natchez but elsewhere in the state such as in Port Gibson.
The Windsor Ruins near Port Gibson also get a lot of visitors. Tipton said a lot of tourists come through Natchez after initially being attracted to visit the Windsor Ruins because of advertisements from the state Department of Archives and History.
Vicksburg tourism spokesperson Lisa Nosser said the biggest attraction is the Vicksburg National Military Park followed by historic buildings in the area.
“We have a very active historic preservation society, and they are always working towards saving the older buildings in the downtown area,” Nosser said. “Our tour homes are very popular, and a discussion of architecture is a big part of the tours. Seven of the tour homes are pre-Civil War; and five others are from the late 1800s or early 1900s.
With the exception of several bed and breakfast establishments, the Mississippi Gulf Coast doesn’t have many historic homes or other structures open for regular viewing. But the 53rd-annual Spring Pilgrimage held April 6-15 provides tours of homes and other structures of interest. Some are historic, and others are modern. The tour includes a popular landmark, the historic Biloxi Lighthouse at the intersection of Porter Avenue and U.S. 90 which was erected in 1848.
Another Mississippi city where historic and cultural attractions are a big draw is Clarksdale. Mayor Richard Webster said the city and county have spent about $3.5 million recently to restore the old ICG railroad depot and freight terminal. The Delta Blues Museum, the most popular tourist attraction in town, has been moved into the former freight terminal. The terminal and depot are in the area known as Blues Alley.
“People come from all over the world because Clarksdale is known by those in the know as ground zero in the blues legacy,” Webster said. “Most people in Mississippi don’t realize the interest around the world in the Blues.”
The former depot has been renovated into a retail facility, and the city has purchased the old Greyhound bus terminal which was vacant for years and falling into disrepair. The City of Clarksdale and Coahoma County are restoring the terminal and plan to have it as the first stop for tour buses. Plans call for the terminal to have a welcome center and gift shops.
Also in Clarksdale a partnership between Delta State University and Coahoma Community College has led to saving Cutrer Mansion, which had previously been slated for demolition.
Across the state historic structures can be lost because of lack of maintenance or decisions to replace the buildings with something new. But active historical preservation societies have also had notable success in working to preserve many of the state’s most significant historic buildings. Considering the lure of architecture for tourists, preservation of historic structures can reap economic benefits that go beyond simply valuing the historical significance of the buildings.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.