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Written in the rails: history revitalized with depot project

Hattiesburg — Much of this city’s history is written in its railroads and train depot, but the depot, built in the early 1900s, fell into a state of decline as its significance waned over past decades.

A few years ago, people in Hattiesburg decided to save their depot — which is on the National Register of Historic Places — from further deterioration and to restore it to its former glory. Fund-raising efforts were begun and Phase I of the project, the building’s roof, has been completed to design and specifications by Albert & Associates Architects of Hattiesburg.

Now, Phase II, restoring the depot’s interior and exterior, is starting as the city advertises bids for a contractor.

“Phase II will cost a little more than $6 million,” according to Bennie Sellers, Hattiesburg city engineer. “And the bids now being advertised are actually a basic bid and three alternatives. The basic bid is for restoration of the depot, inside and outside. Alternative one is to extend the wooden canopy under which passengers wait for trains to the south. Alternative two extends it to the north. And alternative three is to do additional work on the Great Room.”
The Great Room, some 4,000 square feet, is the former passenger hall.

The money comes from The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, through the Federal Transit Authority.
Intermodal means more than one form of surface transportation. At the Hattiesburg depot, there’s now Amtrak and two other railroads.

Sellers says that the Hub City Transit Company, Hattiesburg’s mass transportation system — small buses — will relocate in the restored building. The city is negotiating with Greyhound to move to the depot. A turn-around for big buses will be built on Newman Street, in front of the depot, as part of Phase II.

“Greyhound has some concerns about delays because of having to cross the railroad tracks. We’re talking about that and about the possibility of constructing overpasses and underpasses.”

Sellers added that the city also hopes that Hattiesburg’s taxi companies will move into the building.

“The main feature of the depot is the passenger hall of Italian neoclassical design,” Marshall said. “Design features have survived decades of neglect. They only need to be restored.”

Actually, Marshall said, the passenger hall is the only part of the depot being restored. The rest is being rehabilitated. This includes brick cleaning and the rehabilitation of windows and doors.

The depot must also be brought up to code. New wiring and plumbing will be installed, as well as heating and air-conditioning.

“Phase II includes the site around the depot, called the envelope,” Marshall said. “That’s five acres and we’ve prepared the plans for that, also.”

Adding to what the city has to offer

The site will include what Marshall calls a “water feature,” the exact form of which hasn’t yet been decided. But it will be based on a concept reflecting a goldfish pond which was once located at the depot.

There will also be well-thought-out landscaping, Marshall said.

“This has historical significance for downtown Hattiesburg. It will add significantly to the repertoire that the city has to offer.”

The next step in this project is building a new facility for Norfolk Southern Railroad which, when it sold the depot to the city, reserved the right to continue using it “perpetually.”
Hattiesburg will construct the new facility on property owned by the railroad, just across the street from the depot.

“It will be a functional building and work won’t take long,” Marshall said. “Albert isn’t involved in this construction.”

The city is now advertising for bids for the Norfolk Southern building. The new facility, a 3,200-square-foot steel building, will cost $120,000. Construction is expected to take 120 days.

When bids for the depot are awarded, Phase II should get under way within 30 days. Sellers said that work can be done around the railroad offices until they move. The depot is expected to be completed within 15 to 18 months.

Phase II also involves the curving of Newman Street so that a ramp can be built to make it possible for the handicapped to go directly from a vehicle into the station.
When work is completed, the city hopes to lease retail space, and Sellers mentioned a novelty shop as one type of business that would probably do well.

“We could also lease part of the Great Room for an up-scale restaurant. And there could be catered events there. We’re installing a kitchen.”

Planning for the next phase?

Sarah Marshall indicated that Albert has also prepared a conceptual master plan for what has been called the “depot district park,” but that it’s not part of the current project.
Sellers calls this Phase III. He said that in front of the depot is a two-block area that the city hopes to purchase.

“We’ve already bought four parcels of that area. If we can buy the rest, it will give us the opportunity to reconfigure routing, provide secure parking for Amtrak passengers and construct a well-lit area for some old engines to be displayed. The area will be landscaped.”

Sellers added that the city hopes that Phase III can get underway in the foreseeable future.

“The depot area is where Hattiesburg started,” Sellers said. “Some homes from that era are still in existence. Restoring the depot is vital to preserving the history of that area.”

The original roof had red tiles but, some years ago, the tiles were replaced by shingles. Under Albert’s design, the original roof was replicated with flat red clay tiles. “The dormers were also reinstalled,” Marshall said.

“The cost for the roof was about $600,000,” Sellers said. “Of that, $480,000 came from the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) and $120,000 from the city. Skylights were also restored and all damaged rafters were repaired or replaced.”

In 1888, the Southern Railway was built through Hattiesburg to New Orleans and helped the inchoate lumber industry grow. But it was when the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad ran though in 1897 that a lumber boom began. These were among the railroads that helped give Hattiesburg its name as the Hub City.

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

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