Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi Gulf Coast had one of the largest and densest concentrations of historic beachfront architecture in the United States. Because the Mississippi coast is comparatively low (about twenty-eight feet above sea level at Bay St. Louis, the highest point) and prone to storm surges, most of the older homes were elevated, some as much as eight feet above the ground, and thus had endured countless storms. Until Katrina, the greatest single loss of historic architecture had come as a result of Hurricane Camille (1969), the most powerful hurricane to strike the US mainland until that time. The storm destroyed scores of beachfront homes in a comparatively narrow band between Biloxi and Pass Christian.
Following Camille, the Gulf Coast began to become more of an architectural hodgepodge, a trend that escalated after the advent of dockside casino gambling in the 1990s, when theme architecture (including such additions as a glaringly fake pirate ship) and high-rises began to proliferate. Nevertheless, dozens of historic districts remained intact in 2005, and many new homes followed the prevailing architectural styles. The most impressive concentration was along Pass Christian’s tony East Scenic Drive.
Katrina first made landfall on the eastern edge of the Louisiana coast, then delivered its full impact on the Mississippi coast, raking the beachfront with winds up to 150 miles per hour and a storm surge as high as 30 feet across a swath perhaps 150 miles wide. Thousands died across the coast and in New Orleans. In the aftermath, it became clear that the storm had caused what was arguably the greatest loss of historic architecture from a single cataclysmic event in US history.
The worst damage took place along the Mississippi coast, where in some areas no buildings were left standing for miles. Across the state’s three coastal counties an estimated 65,000 buildings were completely destroyed, among them more than 800 historic structures, 250 of them listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Several entire historic districts were lost. The frenzied cleanup that followed saw the razing of another 200 National Register–listed buildings that had been damaged by the storm.
Among the buildings that were destroyed were the Spanish Customs House (ca. 1790), the Breath House (ca. 1820), and Elmwood Plantation (ca. 1805) in Bay St. Louis; the imposing Grass Lawn Mansion (1836) and the Robinson-Maloney-Dantzler House (1849) in Gulfport; the Tullis-Toledano Manor (1856) in Biloxi; structures dating to the 1820s in Ocean Springs’s Shearwater Pottery compound; and numerous historic churches and commercial buildings. Also severely damaged was Gulfport’s Turkey Creek neighborhood, characterized by modest homes built by freed slaves.
The few survivors included Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1852), which was severely damaged and lost its library and other outbuildings; the iconic Biloxi Lighthouse (1848); and the La Pointe–Krebs House in Pascagoula (ca. 1720).
Amid the miles and miles of empty lots, where lonely porch steps are all that remain of countless historic homes, the survivors have since sparked a determined preservation effort. Soon after the storm the Gulf Coast Field Office of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, collaborating with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Mississippi Heritage Trust, and the Mississippi Mainstreet Program, began advising property owners about saving damaged historic buildings and processing grants through a forty-million-dollar congressional appropriation earmarked for historic structures. The State of Mississippi also published a handbook on Gulf Coast architecture, encouraging builders of new homes to make use of traditional styles.
The only surviving section of the US 90 route that still evokes the old Mississippi coast is a truncated, one-mile stretch of Pass Christian’s East Scenic Drive, where Greek Revival–and French Provincial–style mansions, Creole Cottages, and coastal vernacular homes represent the region’s architectural archetype. An estimated 80 percent of Pass Christian’s beachfront homes were lost to the storm and subsequent demolitions, but because East Scenic Drive occupies comparatively high ground (about twenty-five feet above sea level), more buildings survived there than elsewhere.
A coastwide architectural vision articulated during a series of poststorm public meetings was largely discarded in the rush to recover, and high-rise condos, casino complexes, and fast-food restaurants have set the tenor for much of the new construction. Likewise, the concepts embodied in new residential construction vary widely, encompassing historically sympathetic replications, steel-reinforced concrete fortresses, and structures that are clearly designed to be disposable.
Many buildings, including some higher-profile properties, remain in limbo, caught between competing visions of the Gulf Coast’s architectural redevelopment. On one side are those who believe in a mixed-use development showcasing historic architecture; on the other are proponents of a clean-slate approach who believe that damaged properties should be cleared for whatever new development might come along.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution (25 September 2005)
- Alan Huffman, Lost (September 2006)
- Alan Huffman, Preservation (January–February 2006, September–October 2007)