Deep South Modern

Author

Jennifer Baughn

Affiliation

Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Tags

Newsletter, Regional Spotlight
Image details

Deep South Modern is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series. These four articles highlight different aspects of Mississippi's modernist heritage.

Thank you to Mississippi Heritage Trust staff and Jennifer Baugn of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for their contributions to this series. 

If you are enjoying this series, please consider supporting Docomomo US so we can continue to bring you similar content and programming. 

 


Mississippi's Modernist Landmarks

by Jennifer Baughn

When Michael Fazio and I began planning our book Buildings of Mississippi, to be published Fall 2020, we knew that average Americans picture Mississippi’s landmark architecture as white-columned antebellum mansions built by wealthy cotton planters. But Mississippi’s historically agricultural economy boomed with new industry in the 20th century, and that gave rise to a diverse and complex architectural landscape. Author guidelines for the Society of Architectural Historians’ Building of the United States series encourage inclusion of buildings from all eras of the state’s history up to the present, so we set out to ensure that Mississippi’s twentieth-century architecture, especially from the oil boom period of the 1930s through the 1970s, received full coverage. We wanted to highlight the architectural scene that was vibrant enough to be the subject of an Architectural Record article, “Architectural Practice in Jackson, Miss.” in September 1954. Modernist entries in BOM include buildings by nationally known architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Fay Jones, Bruce Goff, and Gunnar Birkerts, but we also enjoyed highlighting the designs of Mississippi’s first generation of native-born licensed architects, many of whom received a Beaux Arts education but taught themselves modernism by studying modern buildings through touring and architectural publications.

Mississippi was an early hotbed of architectural modernism, beginning in the 1930s when the Jackson firm of N.W. Overstreet and A.H. Town experimented with concrete construction as a cost-saving measure for PWA-funded public buildings. Today, their Art Moderne (what Town called conservative-modern) and International-style schools and other public buildings dot the state, little gems in small town Mississippi, including Vicksburg’s Bowmar Elementary (originally for white students) and Cherry Street School (for African American students, both completed in 1939); Columbia High School (1937) in south Mississippi, received international recognition in the French journal Architecture d'Aujourd'hui. N.W. Overstreet was the older member of the firm, but his training in architectural engineering gave him an understanding of the possibilities of concrete and a love for modernist design principles. In a lengthy 1940 interview published in Architectural Concrete, Overstreet confidently stated that “classic will be passe” and explained his interest in concrete construction: “Concrete is going to be applied to the modern type of architecture and I think the modern type of architecture is created in America for the American style.” Overstreet’s firm emerged from World War II as one of the largest in the state, and it led the way in transforming Mississippi’s commercial architecture into showpieces of modernist design. One of my favorites from this period is the Delta Electric Power Company (1957-59) in Greenwood, an early suburban office building set back on a lush green lawn.

Three younger architects became Mississippi’s most important post-WWII Modernists. Vicksburg native Jack Canizaro graduated from the University of Notre Dame, but his promising early career working in Chicago for Graham, Anderson, Probst, & White was cut short by the Depression. He scraped some money together to take a tour of Europe, and his journals from that year-long trip (now in the archives at Mississippi State University) show his inclination toward Modernist design as he made a point to visit newly built projects around the continent in addition to the expected Gothic cathedrals. When he returned to Mississippi in the late 1930s, he employed Modernist principles of geometric boldness and asymmetry in his Kenwood Apartments (1937) in Jackson, where he and his family lived for many years. For much of his career, Canizaro was Mississippi’s only Catholic architect, and some of his most beloved buildings are his churches. Facing the Biloxi beachfront and a survivor of both hurricanes Camille and Katrina, St. Michael’s Catholic Church (1964) fuses expressionism and modernism in a striking exposed-concrete building with distinctive undulating ”clamshell” roofs topping the round church and attached chapel.

Tom Biggs was a young neighbor of Jackson architect R.W. Naef, and that relationship inspired him to attended Georgia Tech, where he graduated in 1933. Naef’s influence also probably helped him get a job as a draftsman with Mississippi’s Historic American Building Survey (HABS) documentation team, overseen by Jackson architect A. Hays Town. During World War II, Biggs served in the Army Corps of Engineers—one of the projects he worked on was the construction of the Pentagon—and he took to military life so much that he continued to serve in the Reserves after his active duty ended in 1946. Biggs, who for most of his career was in partnership with his friend Harry Weir, enjoyed the rigor and logic of planning complex buildings, and he excelled in both commercial and religious architecture. My favorites are a group of churches in Jackson that range from modern interpretations of the Gothic in Covenant Presbyterian Church (1963-65) and a Spanish mission in Northminster Baptist Church (1971-73) to the Brutalist St. Richard’s Catholic Church, where the warmth of the indirect lighting in the nave offsets the imposing windowless exterior. Biggs’ firm also designed Temple Beth Israel (1965-67) in Jackson as a modern take on the tent erected as the original Temple in Jerusalem.

Only a year younger than Biggs, Chris Risher Sr. attended Auburn in the 1930s—a classmate of Paul Rudolph—worked a summer on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama, and after World War II established his practice in the small east Mississippi city of Meridian. Risher, who architect Sambo Mockbee said “was always in touch with his muse” could work in both traditional and modern styles, but his best designs are in a modernist mode: sophisticated, delicate, humane, and personal. He filled the front wall of Temple Beth Israel (1964) with sections of stained glass from the 1906 synagogue, and at Crestwood Elementary School (1965), he inserted glass boxes within the classroom wings to create small enclosed courtyards for the young children. His longest-lasting commission was the Masonic Children’s Home (1962-1977, now Hope Village), where he stepped rectilinear group houses up a gently sloping hill, each with a semi-private patio enclosed with masonry screen, and connected them all with a 300-foot-long steel canopy.

Mississippi’s Modernist period corresponded with the foment of the Civil Rights Movement, and it was in this context that buildings by and for African Americans came into their own. As African American veterans returned from overseas service in World War II, they began to demand change in Mississippi’s entrenched discrimination toward black citizens and and segregated public facilities. Responding to this new activism and to Brown vs. Board of Education and attempting to preserve racial segregation in education, Mississippi undertook a $100 million program to equalize schools in the state. While these schools were all designed by white architects, they represented a major leap forward in facilities for their communities, and they were uniformly Modernist in design. Coleman High School (1950) in the Delta town of Greenville was designed by N.W. Overstreet & Associates and reflects an evolution from the firm’s work in the 1930s, with more emphasis on glass and horizontal articulation. Down in the Piney Woods of south Mississippi, John L. Turner & Associates of Jackson brought order to a sprawling two-story building that housed all of Laurel’s African American students, separating students of different age groups into opposing classroom wings connected by a prominent auditorium.

African American architects during this period began getting more and more commissions from black institutions, especially churches. DeWitt Dykes of Knoxville, Tennessee trained as a mason in his youth and attended divinity school. He began supervising construction for the United Methodist denomination, and after taking night classes in drafting, he served as architect on several projects, including St. Stephen’s Methodist Church (1959) in Yazoo City where he used masonry techniques to created drama on the otherwise blank gabled façade. Dykes’ protégé, Clair Jones of Memphis, received his B. Arch degree from Hampton University, and in the late 1950s, he also joined the United Methodist Church Division of Architecture. His St. Paul Methodist Church (1962) in Laurel is a modernist homage to the verticality of Gothic design, and it was the site of one of Martin Luther King’s last speeches before his assassination in 1968. Architectural historians have noted the preference of African Americans for buildings that eschewed the classicism of the antebellum period, and a pointed example of this is the home of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers in Jackson. The low-slung Ranch house with attached carport was designed and built by African American veteran Leroy Burnett and is situated in a small subdivision of similar ranches developed as a black professional enclave. It was here that Medgar and Myrlie Evers hosted civil rights activists from around the country and it was in this carport where Medgar Evers was shot and killed by a white supremacist sniper in June 1963.

Mississippi’s Modernist architecture reflects the complexities of this Deep South state, and by including these and other landmarks in Buildings of Mississippi , I hope to encourage the preservation of these architecturally and culturally important places.


About the Author

Jennifer V. O. Baughn is an architectural historian for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and co-author of Buildings of Mississippi, to be published in the fall of 2020. 

Deep South Modern Part Two: Green Before Green Was Cool