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Museum envisions Rogers-Green House as community arts hub

Laurel — In 1903, when Laurel was booming as the sawmill center of the Pine Belt, Nina and Wallace Rogers built a Prairie-style redwood mansion on Fifth Avenue. Wallace Rogers managed one of Laurel’s largest lumber companies.
Their son, Lauren, was five years old at the time and it was expected that he would grow up and become, like his parents, a community leader. When Lauren died at the age of 23, his parents and grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. L.C. Eastman, decided to build a museum and library in his memory.

The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art (LRMA), which opened in 1923 as Mississippi’s first art museum, stands across Fifth Avenue from the home in which Rogers grew up. In 1950, the house passed to Eleanor and Gardiner Green Sr. who were cousins of the Rogers. When the Greens began to consider what to do with their mansion when they died — their children had their own homes and weren’t interested in living there — they decided that the obvious solution was to leave it to the museum.

In 2003 — a hundred years after the house was built — it became the museum’s property. Today, the LRMA is in the midst of an ambitious renovation of what is called the Rogers-Green House, funded by corporate, group and individual donations, grants, fundraising events and renting the house for weddings, receptions, parties and other social and community activities.

“This is essential, because there’s no endowment for the house,” according to George Bassi, LRMA’s director. “And the museum board established the house as its own entity, as a limited liability company (LLC).”

Bassi emphasized that the Rogers-Green House gets no financial support from the museum. The funds aren’t mingled at all, he said, and the Rogers-Green House has its own checking account.

“We could have sold the house,” he said. “But the board looked at things thoroughly and felt that the Laurel Historic District needed this kind of facility.”

The Rogers-Green House stands on an acre and a half, one in a row of mansions along Fifth Avenue that were built by the owners of the large sawmills. These are really small estates in the center of Laurel, only a block from the courthouse and the downtown business district. The house is some 7,030 square feet in the first and second floors, with 2,800 square feet in the basement and 1,800 square feet in the attic.
On the property are a two-story garage, pool house, swimming pool and cottage.

The museum envisions that the Rogers-Green House will become a community arts hub for the greater Laurel area. When renovations and improvements are completed, it’s anticipated that the house will be a showplace for the arts and art education.

These renovations and improvements include: conversion of the two-story garage into a studio for education in arts, where students will be able to leave out the pottery they’re working on when they’re finished for the day, unlike the present pottery classroom. Utilizing the carriage house will also allow the museum to expand the range of courses offered.

Bassi said that the cottage will become living quarters for an artist-in-resident program. Every three months, LRMA plans to have a visiting artist in residence for a week or two. The artist will offer art classes in schools and do such things as help students paint murals on buildings.
The swimming pool, which has already been filled in, will be converted into a courtyard for concerts, events, programs and sculpture exhibits.
The basement will become space for art classes. Photography classes are already being taught in the basement and there’s a new darkroom.

Four staff members have moved from the museum and have offices on the second floor of the house.
The basement and attic will provide storage space for museum materials such as non-collectible articles, easels, furniture and pedestals.

The grounds and first floor are now available for public rentals for weddings, receptions, parties and meetings.
Some $100,000 was raised for initial renovation soon after the museum acquired the house, Bassi said. This was used for minor exterior renovation, such as replacing damaged wood, installing central heat and air-conditioning, painting the interior, converting the kitchen from a conventional one into a catering kitchen and for converting part of the basement into education space.

“The next focus will be a new roof and new shutters,” Bassi said.

When the museum decided to raise money by offering the opportunity to name one of the Rogers-Green House’s rooms, community response was immediate.

Donors for the large downstairs rooms include the Laurel Arts League, Community Bank, John and Billy Wallace (in memory of their parents), an anonymous gift in memory of Bob Gaddis (late president of Trustmark Bank in Laurel) and another anonymous gift.
These, and smaller bequests, will be acknowledged in a decorative listing in the house’s front hall.

Recently, LRMA was awarded a $144,900 Building Fund for the Arts grant by the Mississippi Arts Commission. The grant requires matching funds of some $100,000 and Bassi indicated that is now under way.

To help pay for the artist-in-residence program, the museum has applied for a grant from the Institute for Museum & Library Services, a federal agency that funds museums and education programs. The museum will learn if it has been given the grant in September. If it doesn’t receive the grant, Bassi said, the artist-in-residence program will be phased in slowly.

Some 35,000 people visit the LRMA each year to see the visiting exhibitions and the permanent collections. Now, visitors will also be able to experience and benefit from Lauren Rogers’ childhood home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a prime example of the Belle Epoch period, with its original Tiffany light fixtures and leaded glass windows.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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