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Today is May 30, 2020

A sense of place

Preserving cherished landmarks and rich architectural legacy

By Sharon Morris

A sense of place

Listed as endangered in 2011, the Lewis House (Oldfields) in Gautier was purchased by new owners who plan to restore the storm-ravaged landmark.

The strongest building blocks of a community are all laid by one source: the people who call that community home. For Mississippians, the connections to a place are deeply steeped in memory and emotion. The church building, the local market, the schoolhouse where generations of families attended class all hold a revered place in one’s heart and mind.

Over time, however, many of these sites begin to decay. Whether it is due to a thinning population, damage from a natural disaster, a desire for a new development that means sacrificing the old or an absentee owner who lacks the will or funds to restore and preserve a particular site, buildings become abandoned and communities lose important visuals of their stories.

In an effort to change the course of this destiny, the Mississippi Heritage Trust was formed in 1992 by a group of dedicated preservationists, each committed to assisting communities in their efforts to preserve and protect their cherished landmarks.

 “The architectural legacy of each community is a blend of emotional ties and personal ties that create the connection we have to a special place in our lives,” said Lolly Rash, executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust. “The Mississippi Heritage Trust exists to support communities in their efforts to save the historical buildings that are so tightly woven in the fabric of these connections. While I simply find historic buildings to be beautiful, each community has its own reasons for wanting to keep certain buildings, and there are citizens who want to have a say in what happens to those sites in their own backyards.”

The work of the Mississippi Heritage Trust spans the state, from the Cutrer Mansion in Clarksdale and the Old Corinth Machinery, to the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou and the Millsaps Hotel in Hazlehurst, to the old Hattiesburg High School and numerous points beyond. It also educates local citizens about preservation efforts and provides support as communities seek to protect sites they have identified as significant.

“Ultimately, advocates from the community identify buildings of importance and begin the long, tough journey of protecting those buildings,” Rash added. “If the community hasn’t done the basic, local legal work to protect historic sites, it is difficult to save places. Through our educational programs, we can help communities understand what is involved.”

Though the work is not always easy and is not always successful, the work must begin with getting a local historic preservation ordinance passed, establishing historic districts, having an active preservation commission and identifying local elected officials who value the historic preservation work. Through programs including the Preservation Toolkit, Preservation Curriculum for school children, and 10 Most Endangered Places in Mississippi, the Heritage Trust offers numerous resources designed to raise awareness about the importance of protecting historical sites and their purpose in communities across the state.

This year, the 10 Most Endangered Places program is celebrating 20 years since its first list. The 2019 list will be unveiled during a festive gathering held October 24 at the Morris Ice House in Jackson. The building, itself a historical site that is home to the last remaining ice house in Jackson, is an ideal venue for the landmark announcement. The story behind the building, which was erected in 1924 and was operational until 1988, is a familiar one when researching why buildings become abandoned. In this case, the advent of technology and the convenience of in-home refrigeration and freezers meant families and businesses no longer needed weekly deliveries of ice blocks.

The event, which has in the past featured places including the King Edward Hotel in Jackson, the L.Q.C. Lamar House in Oxford, the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center in Ocean Springs and the Tippah County Jail in Ripley, among others, is an opportunity for communities to come together in a collaborative spirit and share a vision for the future. To date, the event has shone a much-needed spotlight on more than 100 endangered places across the state. And a highlight of the 20th-anniversary event is a photography exhibition featuring images from places named on past lists.

“After the list is announced, the real work begins,” Rashn shared. “Some places from past lists have been saved, some have been lost and some are still in the works. Sadly, some of the sites are in an active plan to be demolished and may be gone even before the list is announced. We continue to advocate for each place, and provide a venue where people can talk about the impact of losses and the impact of saving the sites and what can happen in a community when either of these outcomes is achieved.”

Nominations for the Top 10 Most Endangered Places list are received from residents within the communities. The Mississippi Heritage Trust organizes a group of preservationists to discuss the threats to the location, as well as the importance of the location on both a local and national scale. As with all progress in any form, a local champion is needed to identify and rally for any particular building.

“We hope people will look at the list and think about an opportunity in their own communities,” Rash said. “Regardless of the outcome, we hope a real dialogue can begin within a community and we can work with them to find a good solution, to set goals for an agreed-upon outcome and to unite a community to be successful for this or other issues in the future.”

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