As the 20th century dawned, Mississippians’ hope for the future was often expressed in the buildings they built. There was a revival in the architecture of not only the ancient classical past, but also that of the earliest days of our nation’s history.
Beaux Arts style
The Beaux Arts style originated in Paris at the École des Beaux Arts. The finest building in this style in Mississippi is its State Capitol, completed in 1903. Beaux Arts is an eclectic form of Neoclassicism combining classical architecture from ancient Greece and Rome with Renaissance ideas. It is characterized by order, symmetry, formal design, grandiosity, and elaborate ornamentation. The style is most commonly used for public buildings such as museums, railway stations, libraries, banks, courthouses, and government buildings. Other prominent Mississippi buildings in the Beaux Arts style include Ricks Memorial Library in Yazoo City and the Meridian City Hall.
A slightly simpler interpretation of Beaux Arts is the Classical Revival, which can be seen in the Galloway Memorial Methodist Church in Jackson, and in the synagogues in Natchez and Greenville. Many houses were built in the Classical Revival style as well, among the best of which are the Garner Green House and the Merrill Maley House, both located in Jackson and built about 1910.
Colonial Revival style
The Colonial Revival style arrived in Mississippi around 1890. The style grew out of the 1876 centennial exposition held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to celebrate 100 years of nationhood. The style reflected American patriotism, and was based on an idealized version of the colonial architecture of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was popular for houses as well as public and institutional buildings. The John Dicks House in Natchez, constructed circa 1888-1889, is probably the earliest example of the Colonial Revival style in Mississippi. It was designed by Sidney Stratton of McKim, Mead and White, one of the nation’s most prominent architectural firms. A later example, circa 1913, is the Lampton-Wallace-McRae House in Jackson, which shows how the style evolved from an eclectic reinterpretation to a more historically correct style. The Levee Street Railroad Station in Vicksburg, 1907, and Hawkins Field Terminal in Jackson, circa 1935, are good examples of this style used for transportation buildings. During the Great Depression of the 1930s many post office buildings were constructed in a simplified Colonial Revival style, such as the Belzoni Post Office, 1937.
After World War II the Colonial Revival in Mississippi evolved into a style that emulated the great Greek Revival houses of the antebellum period. The revival was so widespread that some pundits have referred to it as “Greek Survival.” Most of Mississippi’s welcome centers and interstate rest stops are constructed in this style, as are many courthouses; for example, the courthouses in Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties, built in 1952 and 1963 respectively.
The Neogothic style, so called to differentiate it from the mid-19th century Gothic Revival, was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, between World War I and World War II. The various interpretations of the style run from serious interpretations and actual copies of major Gothic and Tudor period buildings, all the way to “storybook” cottage-style houses that were playful but not exact copies. The majority of Mississippi buildings in this style meet roughly in the middle of the interpretations. To illustrate the difference between these two approaches, one can compare the Laurel First Presbyterian Church, one of the state’s finest examples of the early 20th century Neogothic movement, built in 1924-1925, with the Crawford Street Methodist Church constructed in Vicksburg around the same time, but in a less academic interpretation.
Many houses were built in versions of the Gothic style, from Castle Crest, circa 1925, located in Jackson, to the Tudor Revival style home of Eudora Welty, circa 1925, also in Jackson. Mississippi’s first skyscraper, the twelve-story Lamar Life Building in Jackson, 1925, is constructed in the Neogothic style. Many schools were also constructed in this mode, such as the former Natchez High School, 1927.
Growing out of the arts and crafts movement of mid-19th century England as a reaction to the over-industrialization of art and architecture, the Craftsman style focused on craftsmanship and the honest use of materials. A Craftsman bungalow is an early 20th century house, usually modest in size, of one and one half stories, with a low-pitched roof with wide overhanging eaves supported by exposed rafter tails. A full-width front porch with battered wooden columns resting on brick piers or a low brick wall is most often seen in the bungalow. The windows are usually grouped into twos or threes and the upper sash is typically divided into multiple decorative lights. This style was built all over Mississippi from the 1910s until the late 1940s. An early and fine interpretation is the 1910 Clark House located in Tupelo. A later and more frequent interpretation of the style is seen in a 1925 bungalow located in Hattiesburg (see photograph).
Art Deco style
Art Deco was a popular international design movement beginning after the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art held in Paris. Art Deco buildings in Mississippi fall into two basic versions. The “decorative” form, which includes abstract decoration inspired by such diverse sources as ancient Egyptian and Babylonian architectural elements all the way to designs based on abstract geometric shapes as well as leaves and flowers. These elements were usually cast in brightly hued terra cotta. Mississippi’s three Art Deco skyscrapers, all 1929-1930, are the state’s best examples of this interpretation: the Threefoot Building in Meridian; the Plaza Building, located on Congress Street between Capitol and Amite streets, in Jackson; and the Tower Building, also known as the Standard Life Building, located on the northwest corner of Roach and Pearl streets, in Jackson.
The other version of Art Deco is the “simplified, or stripped, classical mode.” Unlike the decorative form, this type uses monochromatic stone or brick and is built in a shape reminiscent of classical temples. Two of the best Mississippi examples of this style are the War Memorial Building in Jackson, circa 1940, and the Meridian Post Office of the late 1930s.
Art Moderne style
Art Moderne, the next architectural movement to make an impact in 20th-century Mississippi, is sleek and plain rather than highly decorated, in contrast to Art Deco. Art Moderne style originated with European architects who wanted to use the principles of pure classical architecture to design simple, useful structures that incorporated modern building materials such as structural steel, reinforced concrete, glass block, and aluminum and stainless steel windows and doors. In further contrast to Art Deco, Art Moderne usually has a strong horizontal orientation often incorporating flat roofs with no cornice or eaves. This helps convey a sense of speed or movement which is one of the reasons this style was so popular for structures associated with transportation. Mississippi’s best examples of this style are the former Greyhound Bus Terminal in Jackson, 1937, and the former Naval Reserve Building in Jackson, circa 1949.
Ranch House style
The most influential new house style of the post World War II era was the Ranch House. The Ranch House style began in the early 20th century in the southwest and California as an outgrowth of the colonial revival. The style was an attempt to revive the indigenous ranch house architecture of the southwest region. The one-story-house form, with its low-pitched hip or gable overhanging roof that is seen everywhere in post World War II suburban United States, owes its overall form and many of its details — board-and-batten siding, brick wainscoting, low foundation, etc. — to the ranch houses of the 19th century American West.
The International style, begun in the 1920s in Germany, also made its appearance in Mississippi following World War II. This style is known and named for its attempt to remove all historical and regional decorative elements from architecture and focus instead on the structure itself, how it was constructed and the materials used. Architectural decoration of the exterior is generally limited to the use of long rows of windows arranged in a “ribbon” emphasizing the horizontal plane of the structure, and occasionally the use of overhangs. Brick veneer was also used in contrast with stone or cast stone but neither material was given any decorative detail. There are several fine, architect-designed examples of this style in the state, many located in Jackson — two of the best examples are the former United Gas Company Building, now Mississippi College School of Law, built in 1954, and the original building for the University of Mississippi Medical Center, completed about 1955.
There are examples of the influence of the International style on the domestic architecture of Mississippi. One of the finest is the Weiner House, built in 1951 in Jackson. Often viewed as cold and unwelcoming, this style never really caught on for residential architecture in Mississippi.
Suburban sprawl; historic preservation movement
The unprecedented growth and prosperity following World War II led to sprawling suburban residential development. As part of this new development, a new retail form emerged, known today as a shopping center or strip mall. The first one built in Mississippi was the Woodland Hills Shopping Center in Jackson, circa 1946. The new retail centers were different from earlier commercial developments in that they were fronted by, and often surrounded by, large parking lots.
As cities spread ever outward across the United States, efforts to revive America’s downtowns began. These efforts, coupled with the desire to provide the quickest and easiest automobile route from downtown to the suburbs, inadvertently led to the loss of many of America’s historic downtown buildings. Moreover, many communities were quite shabby after years of neglect due to the Great Depression and World War II. The federal government responded with a concept known as Urban Renewal. Rather than renewing downtowns, this program instead caused the destruction of a large number of historic buildings and replaced them with suburban-type office blocks with large-scale parking space. For example, an area of downtown Jackson along West Capitol Street was demolished in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The destruction of the nation’s physical heritage caught the attention of the public and in 1966 led to passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. This act created the National Register of Historic Places and provided for a public role in the expenditure of funds that affected the nation’s historic resources. While this legislation marked the beginning of the government’s regulatory role in effective, local preservation that involved federal taxpayer dollars, it took many years before the program was fully understood and implemented. In some cases it was too late to save endangered historic properties. To further support historic preservation, the federal government amended the federal tax code to encourage the rehabilitation of historic properties through historic preservation tax credits, first made available in the mid-1970s. It would be 2006 before Mississippi passed a state historic preservation tax credit program.
The renewed interest in America’s architectural history not only encouraged a reinvestment in genuine historic buildings, downtowns, and neighborhoods, but it led to a revival of many of the architectural styles of the past. Many new subdivisions developed in the late 1970s and 1980s had design covenants requiring that the houses in the subdivision have architectural details inspired by the architecture of an earlier time. Often these subdivisions include public green spaces or parks and sidewalks, elements which had largely been forgotten in the automobile obsessed mid-20th century.
At the end of the 20th century, interest had developed in the historic preservation of the earliest of the post-World War II architecture, now often referred to as “mid-century modern.” This interest has led to the listing on the National Register of Historic Places some of the buildings and neighborhoods that so redefined our cities and towns after World War II.
Todd Sanders is an architectural historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
This is part two of a two-part article, Architecture in Mississippi. Part I covers Mississippi Architecture: From Prehistoric to 1900.
Statewide Inventory Files (Historic Preservation Division), Mississippi Department of Archives and History.