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Archive for historic preservation

sojourn . Old Salem School

Very often while I’m working in my studio, I think about this historic brick structure. It’s the “Old Salem School” off Highway 14 in Noxubee County, and I think of it because the work table I’ve made a habit of painting and block printing on came from the school. Mr. Cotton, the caretaker from the Noxubee County Historical Society, is a long-time family friend, and he gave the kids and me permission to go inside the very dilapidated building last summer. For years, every time we drove by it on the way to Busy Bee, I said I wanted to go inside and see the space. Last summer, we finally did it.

One reason the school is very interesting to me is that my grandfather went to elementary school there in the early 1920s. Not long ago, we were looking through an old lockbox from my grandmother’s house and found his diploma from Salem Consolidated School, promoting him to high school on April 17, 1925. The school is one of the earliest remaining public schools in Noxubee County, and was officially confirmed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The structure is basically a four room school house in a dog-trot type plan, with stairs in the center hallway and two large rooms on each side of both stories. On one side the rooms have been divided into smaller spaces connected through a series of doorways. My mother said that during some of the years the building was in use, one side was used as housing for teachers or caretakers.

Upstairs on the east side, the remnants of a corner stage area are still there, and as a child, my mom remembers going to community Christmas suppers held in the room with entertainment and even a visit from Santa Claus on the stage. After the building was no longer used as a school, it became sort of a community center available to the Salem community, including Salem Methodist Church and Concord Baptist Church. From the looks of the chalkboard we found inside, Sunday School classes and church meetings were sometimes held there, and my mom remembers going to birthday parties on the property as well.

During our visit, layers of peeling paint and cracked wall plaster revealed the bones of the building, and the aging patina of old chimney pipes, metal ceiling panels and cornices. And although it is in very severe disrepair, we could still see the remnants of wooden bead board chair rails, shiplap walls, movable classroom panels, and even the brass nameplates of families who donated money to install windows and other features. You can see from the angles in the shiplap photo below, that the building is just on the edge of being structurally sound. I’m afraid it may not last much longer, and I’m very glad we were able to visit when we did. It was interesting to see my children explore the space and to imagine someone going to school there. I hope I was able to impart to them the importance of historic buildings and remembering their significance to a community, especially as they listened to their grandmother talk about her own memories there.

After our visit, I nearly begged Mr. Cotton to allow me to rescue two of the last pieces of movable furniture I found there before they were overtaken with weather and falling down ceiling materials. Mom and I loaded an old six-foot wooden table into Dad’s pick-up along with a large chalkboard that was made to hang on sliding panels in the school classrooms. Underneath the graffiti writing of other explorers, the chalkboard still had names on a list titled “To-Day’s Record”, where Sunday School member attendance and offerings were recorded during years when the building was still in use. We brought the table home, cleaned decades of dust and insect friends from it, and added a little reinforcement to the legs to accommodate printmaking duties. It has become a treasured part of my daily studio activities, inspired by the knot holes and rusted nails as reminders of the heritage I imagine happened there. One of this summer’s projects will be to restore the chalkboard to hang in our entryway, and in the repainting, I plan to replicate that Sunday School secretary’s hand-writing as we create a space to document our own “To-Day’s Record.”

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go . Post Office on Jefferson Street

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Hundreds of little metal doors with tiny windows marked with hand-painted numbers in red and gold. I have to admit it’s why I love to walk in the post office in Macon, MS. I wander in there every now and then when I’m visiting my parents hometown because it’s filled with interesting shapes and textures. And those little decorative, but time-worn doors.  They are so fascinating to me for some reason.

The lobby is a tiny L-shaped space where folks still come to check their mail. I’m not sure when the structure was built, but it has the tall, chicken-wire laced windows and warm woodwork you don’t often see in more modern public buildings. Plus, the north wall contains a painting created by Douglass Crockwell through the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, dated 1944.

Mr. Crockwell became a fairly popular artist in the 1940s-50s creating advertisements and cover art for some notable companies as well as the Saturday Evening Post. The work was created more specifically under the jurisdiction of the US Treasury Department in its Treasury Section of Fine Arts designed to offer artists commission work to create paintings and sculptures for public spaces in the 30s and 40s. The painting depicts the “Signing of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.”

I imagine walking into the Post Office would be a lot like it was in the 1950s if it weren’t for the glossy posters touting first class mail and “forever” stamps. It still has hand-painted signs for the “office” part of the Post Office and the now-dissolved “Civil Service Commission”. The stained wood is still polished and pock-marked next to newer, more modern metal stands and the metal sliding door covering the postal counter.

Every time I wander in, I always wish for a tiny key to slip into box number 534 or some other sacred address to turn the lock and retrieve some treasured bit of correspondence.

[Macon Post Office, 201 Jefferson Street; Macon, MS]

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field trip . Reform Presbyterian Cemetery

Last Friday I decided to take a little field trip away from my project schedule. From time to time, my camera and I go on a letters-and-numbers hunt. It’s a little habit I started back in college, and I simply enjoy documenting the written word or cypher (whether chiseled or brushed) wherever I find it.

For this hunt, I decided to visit the Reform Presbyterian Cemetery here in Starkville. This small plot of circa 1840 is wedged in between the bustle of University Drive and MS Hwy 182 — to be more precise, between the Halfway House bar and a Texaco station. It’s an odd little pocket of history in the middle of college town central. And, although the cemetery is in disrepair and many of the monuments are broken down and markings faded, I was curious to re-visit it.

Cemeteries always offer a wealth of letters and numbers — specifically, poignant but concise commentaries. Pair that possibility with fading marble, the crunch of last year’s autumn leaves, and a cool October afternoon, and you have the makings of a ripe field trip. While I try not to frequent cemeteries that often, the simple shapes of this aged one offered the week an opportunity for cool and quiet reflection. So, I thought I’d give you a first glimpse of the details I discovered.

Since I know I’ll share images of letters and numbers in future posts, I’ll simply add one to this opening collection. This mark is actually a joint where two pieces of now-broken marble were meant to connect. I couldn’t help but see the equal sign and recognize that in this place, although the engravings may differentiate between persons, a cemetery itself is the great equalizer.

Peace on Earth

Small pond views are always a little wacky and endearing all at the same time. I love this photograph. I took it several years ago in Macon, Mississippi. Macon is a typical small Mississippi town, and I happen to know it well because my parents live there. The photo was taken from the second floor of the old Noxubee County Jail. The structure is on the National Register of Historic Places and was beautifully restored and converted to the county library. It’s quite an experience to visit the stacks inside the old jail cells and see the remains of gallows when walking through the hallways.

The back view of the lighted tinsel “Peace on Earth” spanning Jefferson Street captured from one of the jail cells’ barred windows is an ironic and poignant juxtaposition.

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