Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery; it can be a profitable business opportunity for contractors and skilled laborers.
Throughout the state and across the nation, old buildings are finding new life through their preservation and adaptive reuse. Prime examples of such undertakings are projects in Jackson with the Standard Life Building, the King Edward Hotel, the Federal Court House at Court Street and the Farish Street Entertainment District.
Beyond downtown, Jackson has five locally designated historic districts (Belhaven HD, Belhaven Heights HD, Farish Street HD, Medgar Evers Neighborhood HD and Morris HD), according the city’s Department of Planning and Development. Additionally, 13 individual sites have been locally designated and several of these are also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Understandably, with new loft apartments, office spaces and entertainment options growing downtown, those who undertake those projects can find satisfaction from enhancing the area’s quality of life. The same goes for those who preserve homes in the historic districts.
Beyond that, there are local property tax abatement and state incentives in addition to federal tax breaks afforded those renovating historic residential and commercial structures. The key word in all of this is “historic.” That means the structure must be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, contribute to the significance of a National Register historic district or be designated as Mississippi Landmarks. If so, those incentives are there for the taking provided there is strict adherence to guidelines established by those entities.
“It can be lucrative,” said Marc Oliver, an architect for the Richmond, Va., firm Thomas Hamilton and Associates, who worked on the King Edward Hotel. “It has its challenges. You have to make sure you do it by the list of requirements. We do hire historic consultants. We photograph the buildings to match different molds there already.
“Places have lots of historic plaster archways. With the King Edward, by the time we got there, nothing could be saved. We had to match the molds.”
This is where the cost comes in for builders and opportunity comes in for people looking for a wide open niche market – replicating historic architecture. There is a market for it here and very few people to meet the demand.
“We have projects where if we replace a window, we have to replace it with one that approximates the profile of the one we took out,” said Charles Alexander, partner and senior project manager at Jackson’s Dale and Associates who also worked on the King Edward. “That means we have to find companies that recreate historical windows. Sometimes the cost can be extreme.”
The same goes for other facets of reconstruction such as replacing columns and other fixtures or masonry.
“Finding people who have such skill to put stonework in, and to put plaster in are hard to come by,” Alexander said “For one project we needed to fly in stone workers from England on the state office building because they had the experience to do it. We’ve had mason workers come from Texas to work here. I am sure a lot of us would love to have access to [in state skilled labor].”
Which is exactly what the Mississippi Department of Archives and History had in mind when it decided to partner with Copiah-Lincoln Community College to start a trade school that focuses on the preservation trade. Because of the dearth of skilled labor in these specialized areas it is not uncommon to see intricate work being done by crews from New England and the Midwest here on projects.
“We have big hopes for the trade school,” said Jennifer Baughn, chief architectural historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “These will be higher paid skilled laborers. Right now is it hard to find people to do the work anymore. Some older contractors still do that work, but there are not that many left. We’d love to see natives [of Mississippi] on these jobs.”
Which would help revitalize other communities across the state. For every success in Jackson there is a project that sits idle — like Meridian’s Threefoot Building. Last year, the 16-story art deco building, formerly the tallest building in Mississippi, was listed as one of the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. It has fallen into severe disrepair and changes in city administration and starts and fits by developers who were interested in turning it into a hotel have killed any progress on revitalizing it. Having the structure razed is a strong possibility.
Threefoot’s fate speaks all the more highly of collaborate efforts of Jackson’s public-private partnerships and its can-do attitude as it undergoes unprecedented growth in restoration of downtown. Such efforts are win-win propositions for all parties involved.
“We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Hal Thomas, with New Orleans-based HRI Properties, the company that revitalized the Standard Life Building. “We look at it that the more stuff that is [going on downtown], the better it is for all businesses in the area. We worked close with the city and their objectives. We consider community will power. When there is a will, there is usually a way. Jackson found a way to make their restorations work.”
Check out the 2011 Endangered Historic Buildings list (obtained from Mississippi Heritage Trust’s website: www.mississippiheritage.com)
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