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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some Cities are Better at Living in the Past

By Mark Hinson

One of my earliest memories is of walking up the highest hill on my family’s farm in Marianna and being put on my father’s shoulders so I could see the dome of the Jackson County courthouse — which was at least two miles away — poking up over the tops of the pine trees.

For most of the 20th century, the Greek Revival-style courthouse in downtown Marianna looked like your classic Southern courthouse. Like the one in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Like the one William Faulkner could stagger to from his house in Oxford, Miss. Like the one in nearby Monticello.

In the’60s, the ruling elite of my quirky hometown decided that the dignified old building had fallen out of fashion. The main drag through Marianna needed a makeover. They voted to tear it down to make way for the fabulous future. It was done in the name of progress.

The architectural firm of Barrett, Daffin & Bishop was hired to do the killing. Evidently, the city planners handed in a work order that read: “We need you to destroy the aesthetically pleasing structure at once and replace it with a block building — something that looks like a cross between an upside-down car battery and a Stalin-era electrical plant. Really stark. A flat roof that leaks would also be a nice touch. Every tourist who passes this way on their journey to the truly splendid Florida Caverns State Park should want to avert their eyes and say: ‘I’d prefer to gaze upon the casket of a child or the junk of an orangutan than this vile architectural abomination before me.’ We’ll pay you lots of money, too.”

And so it came to pass. The butt-ugliest courthouse in America was built. In retrospect, they should have parked a Badger Built mobile home and a boat trailer on the site rather than the cube of negative mass that now occupies the space.

The parade of progress in the ‘60s and ‘70s claimed one fine antebellum house after another as they were pushed down along Highway 90 — once known as “Silk-Stocking Row” — to make way for a Pizza Hut, a two-screen movie theater, a KFC, a gas station, an eternally empty restaurant and other stuff we thought we needed. The quirky Southern town of my youth was replaced by one that looked, basically, like everywhere else.

In the summers, my family piled into a barge-sized Buick to explore preserved Southern towns that still looked like themselves: Apalachicola; Eufaula, Ala.; Meridian, Miss.; Savannah, Ga. The winner of the Best Preserved Prize was Natchez, Miss., a sleepy burg on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. It must have more standing, pre-Civil War mansions than Atlanta did before ol’ firebug Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman gave Hot-lanta its nickname. No one played with matches in Natchez.

In the 1850s and early 1860s, rich planters tried to see who could outdo the other when it came to building the largest, most opulent, money-flaunting mansion. It was like the Civil War version of MTV’s “Cribs.”

A fellow with the Pynchonian name of Dr. Haller Nutt was on his way to becoming the mansions-of-glory champion but the pesky war got in the way. Dr. Nutt died in 1864, which also put a damper on things. His six-story, 30,000-square-foot, octagonal, Oriental Revival-style, Byzantine behemoth was never fully finished. It’s called The Longwood Plantation but everyone knows it as Nutt’s Folly.

If Nutt’s Folly had been built in Marianna, it would have met with the business end of a bulldozer in the 1970s so the children of Jackson County could exercise their right to enjoy a Pizza Hut Meat Lovers pizza the size of a tractor tire.

A few years ago, my wife, Amy, and I took a detour from New Orleans to Natchez to spend a few days. I wanted to see if the place was still stuck in a time warp.

It was early May when we checked into The Natchez Eola Hotel. The downtown hotel was built in 1927 and has the same haunted elegance of the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining.” The Eola is packed during the annual Spring Pilgrimage tour of mansions (which runs from March 6 to April 10 this year), but it was nearly empty during the week we stayed. I kept expecting some kid on a Big Wheel tricycle to come pedaling around the corner at any minute.

Ghosts are everywhere in Natchez. You can feel them watching you from the corners of well-appointed drawing rooms as you tour the mansions. They practically sit at your table while you’re eating prime rib at the King’s Tavern, a watering hole and livery stable at the end of the Natchez Trace where all sorts of bad stuff went down during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s where the notorious criminal Big Harpe killed a crying baby by smashing the child against a wall like a rag doll. Then he went back to his card game. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen at the Outback Steakhouse chain restaurant.

Yvonne Bean, who ran the King’s Tavern when I was there, told me a story about bumping into The Evil One. She wasn’t talking about reality-TV star Spencer Pratt, either.

“The Evil One is what everybody calls the man in the black hat and black suit who shows up,” Bean said. “I was in here behind the register one day, just before the dinner rush, and I looked up and there he was in the back of the restaurant. He was just standing there with his hat, dark suit and he had a beard and a string tie. He looked a little bit like Abe Lincoln, but I know it wasn’t Abe Lincoln, he just looked like him. Then, I swear to God, he just disappeared before my eyes. They call him The Evil One, but I call him My Abe Lincoln Man.”

Should you really evoke the name of Lincoln when you’re this far South?

The courthouse in Natchez, by the way, is a Greek Revival beaut. I know I’m being hard on my hometown’s architectural blunder but Tallahassee shouldn’t get off the hook, either. There was a plan in the late ‘70s to rip down the domed Old Capitol to make more elbow room for the 22-story, anatomically correct wonder we now call the New Capitol. Angry citizens with a sense of history raised holy you-know-what and saved the Old Capitol from the wrecking ball. The two architectural opposites now live side by side.

Tallahassee made its uneasy compromise with the past.

Contact senior writer Mark Hinson at 599-2164 or mhinson@tallahassee.com.

Editors Note: Mark Hinson is a senior writer and columnist for The Tallahassee Democrat and Tallahassee. He was born and raised in Marianna. Hinson’s weekly Sunday column, “For Amusement Purposes Only,” is one the Democrat’s most widely read features. This column originally ran in the Tallahassee Democrat on Feb. 28, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much! It is heartening to find an article that spells out the heart-ache of demolished old beauties, and does it in such a humorous way. Keep up the good work! Signed, We Wreck The Great Old Ones In Texas, Too