State’s most-endangered historic places seek salvation

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Published: July 4,2005

When the Mississippi Heritage Trust (MHT) unveiled Mississippi’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places of 2005 in late April, it marked the publication of the fifth such list by the group, intended as a public awareness effort to garner support to rehabilitate and restore some of the state’s historic and architectural treasures.

“This event raises the awareness of the importance of our state’s historic resources,” said MHT executive director David Preziosi. “Without this awareness, some of the state’s most historic treasures might be lost forever. It is these historic places that people from around the world come to see and which drive tourism in the state and have a major economic impact on our local communities.”

But does inclusion on the list make a difference in the fate of the buildings so designated?

An examination of the properties included on the inaugural 1999 list would seem to indicate so. From the efforts of a new city administration in the Town of Carrollton (the entire community was listed in 1999) to more over $1 million in grants from the Community Heritage Trust to restore Mississippi’s historic public school buildings (also listed as a group), the efforts of preservationists, architects and contractors are paying off in the restoration of some of the most significant structures in the state.

From near-razing to renovation

The Cutrer Mansion is one of the trust’s early successes. Preziosi noted that the structure was perilously close to being razed by its owner, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church.

“The wrecking ball was ready to take the mansion down,” said Preziosi.

The Cutrer Mansion was built in 1916 by J.W. Cutrer and his wife, Blanche Clark Cutrer. A rare example of an Italian Renaissance villa in Mississippi, the home was not only important due to its architectural significance but also because of its literary importance — scholars believe that Tennessee Williams, one of American’s greatest playwrights, patterned some of his most memorable characters after Clarksdale’s prominent citizens such as the Cutrer family, revealing and mocking their lavish lifestyles.

As with most historical preservation projects in Mississippi, the owners — in this case, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church — couldn’t afford the resources needed to keep the building up.

“A lot of times, it’s funding,” said Preziosi.

The Cutrer Mansion was saved when a partnership between Delta State University, Coahoma County Community College and the City of Clarksdale determined to reclaim the property for educational needs in the area as the Coahoma County Higher Education Center.

Progress made

With $1.6 million in state bonds already spent, the exterior and the first floor of the Cutrer Mansion renovations and restoration is already complete and serves as meeting and exhibit space for the facility, according to Billy Moreland, vice president of finance for Delta State University.

Howorth and Associates of Oxford did the architectural work, with Belk Construction serving as general contractor.

Plenty of barriers

Other barriers to doing this kind of preservation work include disinterested owners, lack of motivation on the part of communities and the complexities of protecting the properties from encroaching development.

Such was once the case with The Cedars on Old Canton Road in Jackson, included on the MHT list in 2001. Site of one of the oldest residences in Jackson, the lot’s proximity to Interstate 55 made it a prime candidate for lucrative redevelopment. The site’s owners offered to donate the home to the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, a neighborhood revitalization group, with the stipulation that it be relocated so they could develop the lot. However, the development deal fell through, so the owners offered the lot and home for sale to the organization.

Camp Best, director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, led the charge to raise money to buy the property with the goal of meeting a matching funds grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Although the fundraising took almost three years, the actual renovation work ran only about six months, with the site dedicated on August 29, 2004.

Architect Robert Parker Adams planned the renovation and restorations, while the foundation acted as its own general contractor, said Best.

Now The Cedars is home to an art gallery and is used for community functions and fundraisers, particularly wedding receptions and business meetings.

State grants available

Various state grants are available for such restoration work, with differing programs using different mechanisms and criteria to award funding. The Building for the Arts program, administered by the Mississippi Arts Commission, pumped more than $14 million in grants into the construction industry over the course of three years by funding improvements to historical buildings used for community arts.

The Community Heritage Trust awarded over $3 million in grants during 2003 just to preserve historic public school buildings throughout the state. Mississippi Landmark Grants and even Mississippi Department of Transportation funds are also available for use on some projects that meet their criteria.

Only a handful of architectural and construction companies in Mississippi are known for their work in this field, leaving it wide open for more to enter the market, according to Larry Albert, owner of Albert and Associates of Hattiesburg.

Albert is aware that although his firm does do regular commercial and municipal projects, his passion for restoration work is well-known throughout South Mississippi, which is fine with him: “I tell people that it’s my heart — I love fixing up old buildings.”

It’s an attitude that more and more people are beginning to share, according to Best — just in the nick of time for some of the historic properties in Jackson.

“We have not been very kind to our historical properties in Jackson; we’ve lost a lot of them,” said Best. “What you’re seeing now is a lot of interest in the few properties we have left.”

Danger, danger

The 2005 edition of the Ten Most Endangered
Historic Places list includes:

• Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in Money, made famous for its involvement in the notorious Emmitt Till murder case in 1955.

• Flannegan-Lowry House in Jackson, one of the few antebellum structures left in the city.

• The old Jackson Municipal Library in Jackson, site of the protest by the “Tougaloo Nine” against its segregated facilities.

• Natchez College in Natchez, site of an African- American institute of higher learning established by the State Baptist Convention of Mississippi.

• Old Bridgeport Road in Bolton, one of the few roads in Mississippi not modernized, straightened or paved since its establishment in 1822.

• Old Pascagoula High School, used continuously since its construction in 1939 until made obsolete in 1997.

• Sun-N-Sand Motor Hotel in Jackson, home away from home for countless legislators since its opening in 1960.

• Tippah County Jail in Ripley, an Art Modern building used until a new facility was built in 2000.

• Wilkes House in Wilkesburg, a rare example of 1820’s Mississippi architecture.

• Woodmen of the World Building in Columbus, one of only two three-story antebellum commercial buildings still remaining in Mississippi.

— Mississippi Heritage Trust

Contact MBJ contributing writer Julie Whitehead at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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