In an every-other-year ritual that began in 1999, the Mississippi Heritage Trust reveals the state’s 10 most endangered historic buildings to raise public awareness and rally support so the sites won’t be lost to time, natural disasters or the wrecking ball.
MHT, organized in 1992, has put the spotlight on a total of 130 endangered sites over the last 30 years. The next list, the 14th, will be announced in October 2023. The big reveal draws media coverage to each site, which is exactly what MHT relies on to advance its mission of saving and renewing places meaningful to Mississippians and their history.
A jury of preservation professionals chooses the 10 sites from nominations that come in to the MHT. The lists have included the birthplaces of prominent Mississippians like James Earl Jones and iconic businesses including Barq’s Root Beer. The city of Oxford and the town of Carrollton have made the lists and so have schools, neighborhoods, the last remaining rural juke joint (Po’ Monkey’s) along with hotels, hospitals and water towers.
Structures or sites become endangered because of damage caused by natural disasters or over time from neglect if an owner doesn’t have the resources or the will to save it. “It’s not any one particular threat,” MHT executive director Lolly Rash said. “Sometimes it is a lack of awareness that something needed to be saved.”
She said each site selected for the list has a compelling story that resonates with people and becomes “a catalyst for action to save it.”
A couple of the selections, though, aren’t really places. In 2015, Mississippi’s Historic Tax Credit made the list to sound the alarm that the statewide program was out of funds, putting potential restoration projects in jeopardy. “We’d run out of funding in the previous legislative session and used our list to call attention to it,” Rash said. The fund, enacted in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, helped save 252 historic places in its first decade by offering a 25% historic tax credit. The Legislature restored funding in 2016.
The lists of endangered properties, along with information, photos and progress status, are available on the MHT website. “A lot of places on the list are moving toward progress,” Rash said. But some have made little or no progress and “are slowly lost to time.”
Rash said one standout success story is the Lundy House, just off the town square in Lexington. Built around 1860, the house was once a stagecoach stop and hotel. It was slated for demolition in 2019. “The town rallied and got a lot of attention and they ended up forming a nonprofit organization, Friends of Lexington Preservation,” Rash said. The bank that owned the building donated it to the nonprofit which is raising funds to restore the house as a resource for the community. “The listing helped galvanize support to save this building,” she said.
Some properties that made the Mississippi lists are among those that have gained national attention. With guidance from MHT, eight Mississippi sites were selected by the National Trust for the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places from 1994 to 2021. Those sites are the city of Natchez, Farish Street in Jackson, Vicksburg Campaign Trail, Historic Communities of the Mississippi Coast, Threefoot Building in Meridian, Isaiah T. Montgomery House in Mound Bayou, Sun-n-Sand Motor Hotel in Jackson and Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale.
MHT turned one recent listing into a statewide project. Mississippi’s Freedom Houses, which provided shelter for workers in several locations during the Civil Rights movement, made the most endangered list in 2019.
“We were able to get funding to stabilize a house in Indianola and put a roof on it to help the current owner save the building,” Rash said. Since then MHT has collected stories from those who owned or lived in the houses during the 1964 Freedom Summer.
Some endangered sites are prominent in a community, like Oldfield’s in Gautier, which was built in 1845 and racked by Hurricane Katrina. Once home to artist Walter Anderson, the house was saved from demolition when MHT bought it to restore with help from the community. Others, like the Freedom House in Indianola, aren’t architecturally significant but are important to the community’s history and identity.
Rash said the first step to saving a potentially endangered site is to nominate it for the MHT list. Nominations can come from individuals, groups or even entire towns.
“So often it’s that one person in the community who simply will not let it go and they dig in. They rally support and bring resources,” said Rash. "It is a success that everyone can be proud of.”
Send nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.