Friday, May 20, 2011

Mississippi's Disappearing Treasures

The following is a guest post from UPM author Mary Carol Miller

Twenty years ago, I was elbow-deep in an old filing cabinet at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, trolling for tidbits on Vicksburg’s antebellum architecture. One thin red folder, marked “Shamrock,” yielded a solitary 1935 snapshot of a remarkable mansion, obviously empty and only a step ahead of the wrecking ball. The tall shutters were splintered, windowpanes were shattered, and stucco was peeling in sheets from the tall Doric columns of its front and rear verandas. Two elegantly proportioned brick chimneys clung to the roofline like loose teeth. But behind the decay was a veneer of dignity that time and neglect had not erased. 

My questions about Shamrock went unanswered at MDAH. The professional historians could barely keep up with the demands of existing and endangered buildings throughout the state, and there was precious little time to delve into the demise of those that were only memories. I went back to the files, dove in, and have yet to emerge fully. The sad truth is that Mississippi’s pre-Civil War architecture disappeared at an alarming rate in the century after that conflict. Homes burned, churches and courthouses and college buildings were pulled down, and a lethal combination of neglect, weather, and progress relegated many an extraordinary structure to those sad red folders in steel filing cabinets. 

 Lost Mansions of Mississippi was published in 1996, featuring 59 houses throughout the state. To my surprise and satisfaction, it struck a deep chord of memory and regret with many people, including dozens who brought me their photographs and family stories. 

Over the next decade, I was working with photographer Mary Rose Carter on a series of books highlighting Mississippi’s extant architecture and was determined not to leave this comfortable niche for the difficult work of researching and writing another volume of vanished houses. I filed away readers’ family photos and newspaper articles, convincing myself that someone else would be willing to take that task on someday. 

A spring trip through Adams County was my downfall. It’s one thing to look at an old house in a faded photo, but quite another to walk the site where its builders saw their dreams realized and feel the life and beauty that was once there. As I stood on the gentle rise where Laurel Hill existed for almost two hundred years, I knew I couldn’t leave those stories in my own filing cabinets. 

Lost Mansions of Mississippi, Volume II demanded to be written, and, as with the first volume, the response from those who love old houses has made it all worthwhile

                                                                                  - Mary Carol Miller

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