Art Deco Architecture

The world first encountered the Art Deco style at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Art Deco has many facets, especially in the United States, where it arrived later and thus merged with industrial and streamlined elements and manifestations such as those introduced during the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. This combination formed a pastiche of Art Deco: Zig-Zag Moderne, PWA Moderne, Federalist Deco, Streamlining Moderne, Industrial Moderne, Miami Deco, and other expressions of the style, mixed with obvious elements of Bauhaus and International Modernism. The proper terminology for the eclectic subcategories of Art Deco remains quite fluid.

Art Deco in Mississippi cannot be divorced from the Works Public Administration (WPA), created in the 1930s as part of New Deal efforts to alleviate unemployment. The architectural branch of the WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA), stimulated the economy by building civic structures. The lack of funding in Mississippi meant that even after Art Deco went out of style, the state’s WPA/PWA treasures were not torn down and replaced, and they have garnered a new appreciation since the late twentieth century.

Almost all aspects of Art Deco architecture exist in Mississippi. The elegant, high style of Art Deco (the closest to the 1925 exposition) is found in the Mary Buie Museum (1939) by Steven and Johnson on the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi and Meridian’s Threefoot Building (1939) by Lindsley and Fort. The Oxford City Hall by Canizaro (1938, destroyed 1976) was a fine example of Streamline Moderne, with its recessed entrance, ribbon windows, metal capping, and facade clock.

To keep costs low, Art Deco often bore minimal ornamentation: even mass-produced sculptural panels were expensive. However, some of Mississippi’s Art Deco buildings contain sculptural elements. Senatobia High School has design elements (frozen fountain imagery, transportation imagery, and bombastic human figures) that reference the Zig-Zag Moderne, Miami Deco, and Streamlining/Streamlining Moderne aspects of Art Deco, and Tupelo’s Church Street School (1938) by N. W. Overstreet has similar design elements. Clarksdale’s Civic Auditorium (1939, dedicated 1943, according to the two building plaques) by Malvaney has a large relief sculptural panel that contains a personification of Mississippi holding a Deco skyscraper, signifying a revitalized future through the PWA, while at her feet lie symbols of the past—a Native American Indian war bonnet, a conquistador helmet, and a bale of cotton.

Because of the expense of ornamentation, many architects, designers, and builders used what was on hand—primarily red brick—in creative ways, such as fabricating Deco wave designs or combining it with small quantities of the more expensive white stone (for example, Milam Junior High by Bem Price [1939]). Though no longer extant, Booneville High School (1937) by Steven and Johnson was a showpiece of value engineering through brick placement in banding and wave motifs, glass block, cantilevered awnings, and the use of faux masonry and a few precious prefabricated Deco stylized floral medallions.

Art Deco architecture in Mississippi gradually moved toward extinction until the mid-1990s, when public consciousness of historic preservation came to encompass the buildings of the 1930s and 1940s. Two exceptional examples of PWA Art Deco building rehabilitation are in New Albany—the Union County Jail, now an office building, and the New Albany Post Office, now the headquarters for the Union County Development Association. An example of preservation from the private arena is the domestic architecture of the Parkhaven neighborhood in Hattiesburg, an eclectic mix of architectural styles connected to Art Deco. Current residents are working to preserve it.

Further Reading

  • Victor Arwas, Art Deco (1992)
  • Patricia Bayer, Art Deco Architecture (1992)
  • Tom Dewey II, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Modernism: A Guide to the Styles (1983)
  • Michael W. Fazio, Overstreet and Overstreet, a Legacy in Architecture (1993)
  • Karyn Larlee Ott, “Civic Art Deco Architecture in North Mississippi” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1994)
  • Richard Striner, Winterthur Portfolio (Spring 1990)
  • Elayne H. Varian, American Art Deco Architecture (1975)
  • Eva Weber, Art Deco in America (1985); Valerie Wells, Mississippi Magazine (1 May 2002)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Art Deco Architecture
  • Author
  • Keywords Art Deco Architecture
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 14, 2018