“All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.” —William Faulkner
They came. They saw. They conquered. And then they built. The designs were many: Greek Revival, Italianate, Neoclassical, Federal, Gothic Revival, Romanesque, Victorian, Empire, Prairie, Carpenter Gothic. The materials were equally diverse: Italian marble, slave-made brick, native stone, imported mahogany, homegrown clapboard. And the results? You can see those for yourself in cities and historic neighborhoods and even in the verdant countryside across the Mississippi Hills. There are no cragged city skylines here, no stooping to scale the heights of those anonymous and vertiginous glass boxes. Instead our architecture covers a breadth of stylistic territory that reaches all the way back to the rich and colorful past of the early nineteenth century, when the settlers who migrated to the Hills came with big dreams and sometimes a few schemes. Even in those early days, when land speculation was not unheard of, a newly minted fortune often meant a fine home could not be far behind.
The native peoples these new Hills inhabitants replaced had enjoyed their own building heritage; they were, after all, the “mound builders,” constructing magnificent burial mounds to honor their departed. By the early 1800s, Indian villages of thatched mud and plaster huts (never tepees) had given way to log cabin homesteads much like those of the white settlers. The Choctaw Chief Moshulatubbee lived in a two-story four-room log home that a white builder has constructed for him and that he sold for $100 when he went west with his tribe after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was signed.
Order in the courthouse
While the ultimate fairness of that treaty and others would be subject to debate, the lawfulness of it was important both to the natives and the white settlers, who also showed their respect for law and order with their grandly designed temples of justice.
The massively dignified courthouse is a common architectural feature across the Mississippi Hills. Often Greek Revival in design and always impressive in scale, these historic structures watch over their towns like benevolent giants, eternally steadfast even, as in the case of the Jacinto Courthouse, when their constituents are not.
One of the nation’s finest examples of the Federal style, the Jacinto Courthouse was constructed with walls two feet thick, yet its demographic foundation was crumbling even as the building was going up. Passed over for a railroad, the town would lose its status as county seat soon after and eventually became a ghost town. Yet the Courthouse would endure and adapt, and at the last moment avoid the wrecking ball when concerned citizens stepped in to restore it.
Architectural rescues are another continuing theme of the Mississippi Hills, in places like Grenada where the magnificent 1920s Masonic Temple was saved from a developer bent on demolition, and Oxford where John Grisham’s donation of the historic Burns Church, known as the Belfry, will create an African American cultural resource. Historic character is something we not only preserve, we treasure, and our downtowns are all the more vibrant for it.
Often anchored by one of those grand courthouses, the town square is the hardy perennial of the Mississippi Hills. Charming, picturesque, endlessly ingenious in its functionality, the town square stands at the heart of our way of life, flourishing economically even as it offers visitors and residents alike daily adventures in shopping, dining, business and social opportunities.
Beyond thriving downtowns, historic neighborhoods spread their porticoes and pediments with luxurious abandon. Antebellum mansions, Victorian gingerbreads, 1920s bungalows—historic homes in the Mississippi Hills have both style and substance.
Stairway to heaven
A front porch column so large a man can hide inside to escape capture by an enemy army….A grand double staircase that defies the laws of gravity to float above the floor….A gold-dusted exterior…A pair of fairy tale towers. Delight is in the details, as you will see when you tour any of the remarkable historical residences of the Mississippi Hills.
In Holly Springs, each of the city’s antebellum jewels seems to have its own colorful story, whether it’s of a doomed love affair or a secret passageway. In Aberdeen, cotton and commerce came together at the port on the Tombigbee River, and dueling fortunes sparked a frenzy of palace-building; today the city boasts five separate historical districts, including the famed Silk Stocking Victorian row. Many of the historic homes in Oxford have either been immortalized by Faulkner or lived in by him or members of his family. Columbus was home to another famous writer, Tennessee Williams, whose family lived in a Victorian rectory surrounded by elegant antebellum homes, many that have survived to this day in pristine condition.
Each year, in Aberdeen, Holly Springs and Columbus, hoop skirts and horse-drawn carriage rides punctuate the pilgrimages that have become regional institutions. Yet in these same towns, the architecture also tells of a broader, richer story, a story of more than “silk stocking” luxury. In Columbus, homes like “The Haven,” a two-story residence built in 1843 by “freemen of color,” and the Theodoric James home built in the early 1900s by the city’s first African-American physician, show the little-known side of an African American culture flourishing in spite of tremendous obstacles and oppression. The sanctuary of the oldest African American congregation in northeast Mississippi, the Missionary Union Baptist Church, built in 1871, is also open for tours during Columbus spring pilgrimage.
Sacred architecture of all denominations makes for another inspiring highlight of any architectural tour of the Hills. Within the historic city churches, there are certain echoes—Gothic Revival was a popular style, R.H. Hunt and James B. Cooke were sought-after architects, a few Catholic sanctuaries were built in homage to another beloved church—yet the echoes serve only to deepen the richness of an exploration of these elegant structures. Outside the cities, it’s still possible to see the “vernacular” expression of sacred architecture, the white clapboard structures, pristine in their simplicity, that have sustained generations of Hills residents.
Some of those old country churches have disappeared. It’s a difficult balancing act. But here in the Mississippi Hills, we’re intent on saving as many treasures as we can.
They built. We preserve. Now you must see.