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Washington County Courthouse’s Mysterious Belfry

Washington County Courthouse, Greenville, Miss., built 1890-91, is pictured here around 1900. The bell tower was most likely reduced in the early 1930s. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Last year, I heard an odd story: the Washington County Courthouse’s belfry tower was originally a “hanging tower” used to hang convicted criminals. The sources were adamant but could only say they had heard it from others.

My first instinct was this was recent bunk history–people seeing an unfamiliar and altered architectural feature and drawing a wild conclusion. For a building built in 1891, this is not ancient history. If the courthouse’s tower was really a “hanging tower”–a gruesome public spectacle–there should be amble written evidence.

After researching the problem, my initial instincts proved to be correct. Newspapers from the early 20th century describe executions in the yard of the county jail behind the courthouse….and NOT in the courthouse itself. However, I was a little surprised to find one source that did describe an execution in the tower. I’ll examine that later, but first some background on the courthouse and jail

In January 1890, the Mississippi Legislature authorized the Washington County Board of Supervisors to issue bonds, not to exceed $100,000, to build a new courthouse and jail. In July, the Board selected plans for a courthouse prepared by the McDonald Brothers of Louisville, Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Board selected jail plans submitted by L. T. Noyes, an “agent for the Diebold Safe and Lock Company” (Board of Supervisor Minutes, July 12, 1890). Initially, Charles Dollman of Memphis was selected to build the courthouse and John F. Barnes of Greenville to construct the jail. Barnes would ultimately build both.

The McDonald Brothers’ plans called for an 80 x 100 foot, two-story high building including “a tower about 180 feet high with an open bell niche” (Greenville Times, July 19, 1890). We now call the courthouse’s architecture, popularized by Henry Hobson Richardson, Richardsonian Romanesque. Washington County’s courthouse is one of only two in this style in Mississippi. It also has a striking resemblance to another McDonald Brothers’ project, the 1888 Washington County Courthouse in Salem, Indiana. Today, the courthouse still has an impressive tower, but the bell niche or belfry was likely removed in 1930 when Jackson, Mississipi architect James M. Spain remodeled the building.

Washington County’s Courthouse, ca 1940, with the tower lowered and belfry removed. Unseen is the 1891 jail behind the building. Lakeport Plantation Collection.

Added to the National Register in 2014, the Washington County Courthouse is impressive public architecture to be marveled over. In contrast, the 1891 jail is, at most, an afterthought. The jail appears in Sanborn maps, but 20th-century images of the courthouse give no indication of a jail lurking behind it. [Note: there are at least two 1890s images that show the jail, they are published in Washington County, Mississippi]. In 1950, a new jail was constructed north of the 1930 Annex and, it seems, the original jail was erased from the public’s imagination.

This brings me to a 1990 article published in the Delta Democrat-Times. The article celebrates the 100th anniversary of the courthouse and coaxes the building to tell its stories through oral histories housed at the Percy Library. The author tells us several of the interviews “spoke of hangings at the Courthouse,” but “they were not viewed by the public.” However, the author cites a 1977 interview with Lille B. Parker that does mention a hanging in the courthouse. Parker attended the execution of Eddie B. Weeks on the morning of May 12, 1932 and believed it to be the last in Washington County. “They hung him down where the Court House is at, up there where a big old clock used to be,” she stated in the interview. She continued, “they was boards up there, two by fours or something—you could see it a long time. They done tore it down now.”

Washington County Courthouse and Jail, 1905 Sanborn Map, Sheet 17

Not to disparage Mrs. Parker and her memory, but her account is not supported by the written accounts of Weeks’ execution in 1932.

The DDT on May 10, 1932 wrote, “The gallows have been completed for several weeks and are located in the rear of the Washington County jail.” Two days later the paper reported, “Eddie B. Weeks…was hanged at Washington county jail here this morning…” Weeks walked “from his cell to the rear door of the county jail and ascend[ed] the stairs to the enclosed gallows that were to take him to his death….Near a thousand members of Weeks[‘] race gathered around the jail yard on all sides.”

Parker’s memory is also in conflict with a 1978 interview not mentioned in the 1990 DDT article. Leonard Brown is a solid source. He was born in 1896 and, according to the U. S. Census, was a janitor at the courthouse in 1930. In the interview, Brown recalled his duties as a cook, groundskeeper, and transporting prisoners to Jackson. When asked about hangings at the jail, he described what is most likely the 1932 execution of Weeks:

“Well, I never witnessed but one…they built a scaffold right out in the corner of the jail…the day of the hanging we wanted to go in where we could see it, but they wouldn’t let us go in. We had to stand out…we could see that afterwards…”

Earlier accounts in the Greenville Times support Brown’s memory of executions at gallows constructed in the now forgotten jail yard:

  • 1907 — private hanging — “took place in an enclosure on the west side of the county jail” — Greenville Times, Feb 16, 1907
  • 1908 — public hanging — “paid the penalty for his brutal crime on the gallows at the county jail” — Greenville Times, Feb 23, 1908
  • 1909 — public hanging — “paid the penalty with his life on the gallows…He was led onto the scaffold in the jail yard….” Greenville Times., August 21, 1909

The primary sources clearly debunk the story of the “hanging tower” at the 1891 Washington County Courthouse. While it is debunked, the story very likely has more depth than I initially anticipated. The rumors, perhaps, came to life in 1932 as Weeks’ execution intersected with the courthouse’s remodel. Accounts of the 1930 remodel by architect J. M. Spain don’t specifically mention work on the tower, however, the DDT, Dec 27, 1929, stated, “the upper floor would be repaired [and] new plans will take in the upper floor of the structure.”  Mrs. Parker’s recollection seems to mention work being done on the tower in 1932: “they was boards up there, two by fours or something—you could see it a long time. They done tore it down now.”

Mrs. Parker was one of nearly a “thousand people” gathered at the courthouse and jail that morning. Many of them, unable to see the jail yard execution in the enclosed gallows, looked up at the boxed-in tower and assumed the execution was taking place in that public, yet obfuscated spot. With the original jail replaced in 1950 and the yard paved over, the only place for people to attach memories and stories of the 1932 hanging is the mysterious and altered tower.

While people love a mystery or “hidden secrets,” there is no good reason to keep telling the story of the “hanging tower.” It is just not true nor does it lead to deeper understanding of the history of the courthouse or Greenville. Primary sources like newspapers, oral histories, and county records tell us legal hangings in Washington County, from the early 1900s through 1932, took place in gallows constructed in the jail yard behind the Washington County Courthouse.

The real mystery:

The real mystery is when exactly was the belfry removed. For such a public building, it is strange that historians and preservationists have not been able to pin down the exact date when the tower was lowered. Bill Gatlin’s 2014 National Register nomination states: “The tower was reduced from its original height in the 1930s, presumably during a renovation project led by architect James. M. Spain.” Local historian, Princella Nowell, makes the same case in an article published in Life in the Delta: [J. M. Spain’s] improvements [in 1930] included plumbing, heating and wiring. He may have been responsible for removing the bell tower.”

This 1927 flood photograph shows the Washington Courthouse’s tower still intact (left-hand corner). Courtesy of Princella W. Nowell.

The lowering of the tower can be narrowed down to around 1930 when Spain led a renovation of the courthouse. Nowell has confirmed the tower was still intact in 1927, as one photograph from the 1927 flood shows. Newspaper reports of Spain’s 1930 renovations of the courthouse and the Board of Supervisors records are vague, but a 1929 article in the DDT (cited above) mentions the work “will take in the upper floor of the structure.” Mrs. Parker’s 1977 recollection of the events in May 1932 speaks of the tower being boarded up. Finally, photo postcards ca 1940 show the courthouse’s tower reduced.

It’s hard to believe that a major alteration to such a public building went unnoticed and largely uncommented upon. If you know of primary sources that mentions or shows a change to Washington County Courthouse’s tower, send an email to lakeport.ar@gmail.com.

Sources:

Brown, Leonard. Oral History Interview, September 20, 1978, Special Collections, Percy Library, Washington County Library System [also online at MDAH].

The Daily Democrat-Times, December 27, 1929; May 10, 12 1932.

Greenville Times, February 22, July 19, 1890; February 16, 1907; February 23, 1908; August 21, 1909.

Hall, Russell S., Princella W. Nowell, and Stacy Childress. Washington County, Mississippi. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.

Nowell, Princella W. Email and phone communications, April 17, 2017-February 26, 2018.

Nowell, Princella W. “Old Courthouses,” Life in the Delta [emailed to the author, February 7, 2018].

Ingram, Deborah, “If walls could only talk … Courthouse could share tales,” The Delta Democrat-Times, May 8, 1990, in “Courts,” Vertical File, Percy Library, Washington County Library System.

Parker, Lillie Belle. Oral History Interview, February 18, 1977, Special Collections, Percy Library, Washington County Library System [also online at MDAH].

Washington County Board of Supervisor Minutes, Book 4.

More pictures of the Washington County Courthouse at the turn of the century from Ann Rayburn Paper Americana Collection Postcards, Special Collections, University of Mississippi:

Thanks

Special thanks to Princella Nowell, Clinton Bagley, Bill Gatlin, Benjy Nelken, and the staff at the Percy Library for their help.

Blake Wintory
Lakeport Plantation


Lake Village Postcard shows Lakeshore homes ca 1950

We recently added this ca 1950 postcard to our collection at Lakeport. The mid-century scene clearly shows two homes along Lakeshore Drive.

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Roughly the same view of South Lakeshore Dr via Google Streetview (August 2016)

Looking closely, I believe I have identified both houses on South Lakeshore Dr., just south of downtown. The second home in the image is commonly called, the Reynolds House. “Lakeside,” as its owner officially christened it, was built for General D. H. Reynolds in the 1870s by Nelson Bunker. The home was significantly remodeled in the 1890s.

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Close up of “Lakeside,” ca. 1950

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“Lakeside” in 1990. Courtesy of Arkansas Historic Preservation Program

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first house (unnamed as far as I know) is also still standing, although modified a bit. The home is identifiable by the four sets of columns along the front porch.  Today the house has a brick exterior and the lattice work along the roof is gone; the dormer, now a window rather than a vent, is still a distinguishing feature for the early twentieth-century home.

The home was likely built in the first decade of the twentieth-century and appears on the 1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance map for Lake Village. D. H. Reynolds’ death in 1902 and the subsequent growth in Lake Village initiated new construction around the Lakeside homeplace. Sanborn Maps label the area, “Mrs. Reynolds Second Addition”

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The home is still identifiable by the four sets of columns along the front porch.

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Close up of “unnamed house,” ca. 1950

 

 

 

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The two homes appear in the 1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance map.

 

Updated November 22, 2016



Lakeport Legacies · Revising the Mississippi Capitol

Revising the Mississippi Capitol

presented by

Jennifer Baughn & Brenda Davis (Mississippi Department of Archives & History)

Thursday, July 28

Refreshments & Conversation @ 5:30 pm
Program @ 6:00 pm

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Designed by St. Louis architect, Theodore Link, the Mississippi State Capitol was constructed between 1900 and 1903. Currently the Beaux Arts-style building is undergoing a two-year, $7.4 million repair and restoration project.

 

Jennifer Baughn and Brenda Davis will present “Revising the Mississippi Capitol.” The pair will discuss recent findings that are forcing a reassessment of long-held “facts” about some of the building’s most prominent architectural features. Baughn, the chief architectural historian for MDAH, and Davis, curator of the state capitol, worked together on a revised architectural tour guide for the state capitol. It was during research for that piece that they first noticed inconsistencies in previous interpretations of the building’s history.

“Our presentation will answer questions like ‘is the stained glass made by Tiffany’ and ‘why does the eagle face south?'” said Baughn. “And are there really tunnels under the capitol?” added Davis. Baughn and Davis will also address claims that George Mann, the original architect for the Arkansas State Capitol, designed Mississippi’s Capitol dome.

The Mississippi State Capitol is undergoing a two-year, $7.4 million repair and restoration project that will leave the 112-year-old structure in its best shape in decades. Priorities are to address longtime water leaks, replace materials damaged by water and weather, and clean the exterior. The copper eagle atop the main dome has been regilded in gold leaf on site, and seventy-five exterior stained glass windows have been removed, cleaned, and repaired.

 

Please RSVP to this FREE Event
(by phone, email or online)
870.265.6031 · lakeport.ar@gmail.com

601 Hwy 142 · Lake Village, AR 71653

 

Lakeport Legacies (LL) meets in the Dining Room of the Lakeport Plantation house. LL, held on one of the last Thursdays of the month at the Lakeport Plantation, features a history topic from the Delta. For more information, call 870.265.6031.

 



Press Release — Lakeport Legacies — June 23 — Clean Lines and Open Fields: A Look at Mid-Century Modern Architecture in the Arkansas Delta

For immediate release 5/14/2016

Lakeport Plantation’s monthly history talk, Lakeport Legacies, will feature Mason Toms. In his talk, “Clean Lines and Open Fields: A Look at Mid-Century Modern Architecture in the Arkansas Delta,” Mr. Toms will explore the region’s most interesting Modern architecture. Structures like the old Dermott State Bank (now Simmons) and St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in DeWitt exemplify the optimism and booming economy of the decades after World War II. Today Modernist architecture is gaining the appreciation of both historians and architecture buffs for its clean lines, functional planning, and futuristic detailing.

 

McGehee Bank. It was not uncommon for banks to build grander examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture in smaller, rural towns. The architecture signaled trust and stability through "modern and up-to-date" practices. The Modernist-style McGehee Bank, built in 1960, was designed by Little Rock architect Edward Brueggeman

McGehee Bank. It was not uncommon for banks to build grander examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture in smaller, rural towns. The architecture signaled trust and stability through “modern and up-to-date” practices. The Modernist-style McGehee Bank, built in 1960, was designed by Little Rock architect Edward Brueggeman

Mason Toms currently serves as the Main Street Arkansas Exterior Design Consultant and Preservation Specialist. As such, he works with building owners in historic downtowns to preserve their facades and storefronts, while still making them visually appealing to a younger generation of consumers.  Mr. Toms also works closely with the National Register Department to research and survey Mid-Century Modern architecture around the state. Through these surveys, as well as social media efforts, lectures, and tours, Mr. Toms hopes to raise awareness of the unique and innovative Mid-Century architecture that Arkansas possesses. Mason is a graduate of the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas with a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies, a minor in history, and concentration in architectural history.
St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, DeWitt. Lutherans in rural south Arkansas constructed several Modernist houses of worship in the 1960s. Photographed here is the framework eaves and stained glass at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in DeWitt. The church was constructed in 1966 and designed by architect Scott Farrell. In nearby Gillett is St. Paul's Luthern Church, a 1966 design by architect Raymond Martin. In Crossett, Huddleston-Emerson-Stiller Architects of Shreveport designed the 1968 St. John's Lutheran Church.

St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, DeWitt. Lutherans in rural south Arkansas constructed several Modernist houses of worship in the 1960s. Photographed here is the framework eaves and stained glass at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in DeWitt. The church was constructed in 1966 and designed by architect Scott Farrell. In nearby Gillett is St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, a 1966 design by architect Raymond Martin. In Crossett, Huddleston-Emerson-Stiller Architects of Shreveport designed the 1968 St. John’s Lutheran Church.

Mid-Century Modern3

Dr. H.W. Thomas House, Dermott. Modernist residences in the Delta, like Dr. H.W. Thomas House in Dermott, emerged in the post-World War II ear. Built in 1954 by an unknown architect, the design is heavily influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The design is low and somewhat “hugs” the ground. The heavy use of natural materials in the exterior cladding ties the building to the earth in Wrightian fashion.

For more information and to RSVP, contact Blake Wintory 870.265.6031.

Clean Lines and Open Fields: A Look at Mid-Century Modern Architecture in the Arkansas Delta
 
presented by
 
Mason Toms (Arkansas Historic Preservation Program)
 
Thursday, June 23
 
Refreshments & Conversation @ 5:30 pm
Program @ 6:00 pm

 

Lakeport Legacies is a monthly history talk held on one of the last Thursdays at the Lakeport Plantation during the spring and summer. Each month a topic from the Delta region is featured. The event is free and open to the public. The Lakeport Plantation is an Arkansas State University Heritage Site. Constructed ca. 1859, Lakeport is one of Arkansas’s premier historic structures and still retains many of its original finishes and architectural details. Open to the public since 2007, Lakeport researches and interprets the people and cultures that shaped plantation life in the Mississippi River Delta, focusing on the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods. Arkansas Heritage Sites at Arkansas State University develops and operates historic properties of regional and national significance in the Arkansas Delta. ASU’s Heritage Sites include the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center, Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, Lakeport Plantation, the Historic Dyess Colony: Boyhood Home of Johnny Cash, and the Arkansas State University Museum.

Lakeport Plantation • 601 Highway 142 • Lake Village • AR • 71653 • lakeport.astate.edu • 870-265-6031



Scott House Designed by Architect James Willis

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The Scott House, also known as the Buffington House, in Lake Village was built in 1951 for Clyde and Leslie Scott. Clyde, a gifted athlete for the Arkansas Razorbacks and an Olympic medalist, married Leslie Hampton of Lake Village in 1946. The couple built this Mid-Century Modern home as a summer house in 1951. Local lore attributes the house to E. Fay Jones (likely because he was a friend during the Scott’s time in Fayetteville); However, the home does not resemble any of Jones’ work nor is it listed in any of his projects. According to Leslie Scott, the architect was James Willis, who was with the Little Rock firm of Wittenburg, Delony and Davidson from 1949-1955. Later Willis formed the Pine Bluff firm of Reed & Willis with D. A. Reed.

The Scotts owned the house for about five years and then it was sold to the Marvin & Louise Buffington. Marvin Buffington, a local historian, wrote several histories of Chicot County institutions.  After Marvin’s death in 1994, Mrs. Buffington sold the home to Charles Turnage. The home is currently vacant.

Courtesy of Arkansas State Archives

Architect James P. Willis (center) with partner D. A. Reed (right) in Pine Bluff, 1958. Photograph by Ernie Deane and Courtesy of Arkansas State Archives

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Sources:

Cashion, Scott.” Clyde Luther “Smackover” Scott (1924–),” in Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culturehttp://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=2761 (Accessed June 15, 2016)

Fay Jones Collection, Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, https://libraries.uark.edu/specialcollections/manuscripts/FayJones/projects.asp (Accessed June 15, 2016)

Hampton, Leslie. Phone interview, June 15, 2016

Williamson, Elizabeth (Buffington). email correspondence, July 13-14, 2017

Willis, James. Obituary in Find a Grave.com, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=96807198 (Accessed June 15, 2016)

 

 

updated July 14, 2017

 

 

 



Lakeport Legacies · Clean Lines and Open Fields: A Look at Mid-Century Modern Architecture in the Arkansas Delta

Clean Lines and Open Fields: A Look at Mid-Century Modern Architecture in the Arkansas Delta

presented by

Mason Toms (Arkansas Historic Preservation Program)

Thursday, June 23

Refreshments & Conversation @ 5:30 pm
Program @ 6:00 pm

Framework eaves and stained glass at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Dewitt. Designed by Scott Farrell and constructed in 1966.

Framework eaves and stained glass at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in DeWitt. The church was constructed in 1966 and designed by architect Scott Farrell.

 

Drawing from examples across the Arkansas Delta, Mason Toms (Arkansas Historic Preservation Program) will discuss the region’s most interesting Modern architecture. Structures like the old Dermott State Bank (now Simmons) and the Jay Lewis House in McGehee (designed by architect Edward Durell Stone), exemplify the optimism and booming economy of the decades after World War II. Modernist architecture is gaining the appreciation of both historians and architecture buffs for its clean lines, functional planning, and futuristic detailing.

Mason Toms currently serves as the Main Street Arkansas Exterior Design Consultant and Preservation Specialist. He works with building owners in historic downtowns to preserve their facades and storefronts, while still making them visually appealing to a younger generation of consumers. Mr. Toms also works closely with the National Register Department to research and survey Mid-Century Modern architecture around the state. Through these surveys, as well as social media efforts, lectures, and tours, Mr. Toms hopes to raise awareness of the unique and innovative Mid-Century architecture that Arkansas possesses. Mason is a graduate of the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas with a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies, a minor in history, and concentration in architectural history.

Please RSVP to this FREE Event
(thru online, phone or email)
870.265.6031
lakeport.ar@gmail.com

 

Lakeport Legacies (LL) meets in the Dining Room of the Lakeport Plantation house. LL, held on one of the last Thursdays of the month at the Lakeport Plantation, features a history topic from the Delta. For more information, call 870.265.6031.



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