Historic preservation in Mississippi began in the prehistoric era with the continual care of ceremonial mounds by native Mississippians. Contemporary preservation is still best seen though stewardship of the historic environment by individuals and the public sector.
In 1899 the Vicksburg Military Park was established when the federal government set aside almost eighteen hundred acres to commemorate the Civil War Battle and Siege of Vicksburg. Civil War battlefield preservation remains an important component of historic preservation, with continued involvement by governmental entities with important partners from the private sector.
Natchez is one of the state’s oldest and historically wealthiest regions and possesses some of its finest early architecture. Economic hardships in the area, beginning after the Civil War and continuing through the depression, affected many homeowners’ ability to maintain these large architectural treasures. Several iconic homes were in danger of being lost in 1932, when the women of the Natchez Garden Club established the nation’s second-oldest home tour. The profits of the Natchez Pilgrimage have been continuously used to restore some of Natchez’s most endangered buildings.
With the 1936 publication of Gone with the Wind and the upcoming centennial of the Civil War, interest in antebellum architecture increased. New industries were coming to Natchez, and the city began to suffer from some of the schizophrenic traits affecting most of the New South—reverence for the past and a mania to modernize. In 1951 a master plan designated a small, one-block-wide, U-shaped residential historic district that wrapped around three sides of the downtown. In 1952 a weak city ordinance was passed requiring the City Planning Commission to review plans for exterior alteration in the small district. This measure was the nation’s third ordinance that granted the local government the right to protect the historic architecture for the common good of the public.
Recognition of the destructive effects of massive federal projects conceived and executed with little or no regard for historic properties led Congress to enact the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This legislation established a coordinated governmental historic preservation program to be administered by the federal and state governments through state historic preservation offices—in this case, the National Park Service and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). Created in 1902, MDAH is the second-oldest state archives in the nation. The Historic Preservation Division was established to help lessen the destructiveness of federal programs by having historians and archaeologists review these programs at the state level. The National Register of Historic Places was created to serve as a master list of those properties that had been recognized by the federal government as being historically significant and especially worthy of preservation.
During the early history of the National Register program in Mississippi, architectural historians and archaeologists looked only at buildings and sites that had national significance, such as the site of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, Beauvoir, Rowan Oak, and the I. T. Montgomery House. In 1972, however, the Natchez Bluffs and Under-the-Hill Historic District became the first historic district to be listed, signaling a move toward recognizing the importance of neighborhoods and commercial districts in addition to individual buildings and sites.
In the 1970s interest in historic preservation experienced a resurgence as the nation began to prepare for the Bicentennial, and historical societies and civic organizations targeted buildings in their community for preservation. Citizens formed several local nonprofit organizations—among them the Woodville Civic Club, the Historic Natchez Foundation, and the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation—and they continue to lead the preservation movement at the local level.
The Mississippi Landmark program was established in 1970 to protect historic properties against changes that might alter their historic character. The program primarily protects public buildings, although some individuals have requested Mississippi Landmark status to ensure the perpetual preservation of their historic private property. Through this program and subsequent grant programs administered by MDAH, a number of courthouses, city halls, university buildings, and local history museums have been restored.
Amendments to the National Preservation Act have strengthened the federal-state-local government partnership to foster individual investment in preservation. Since 1976 the Federal Investment Tax Credit program has encouraged reinvestment in historic neighborhoods and districts and emphasized the importance of the National Register. A 1986 amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act established the Certified Local Government program to provide grants and technical assistance to enable communities to add a preservation component to their planning process. Only a handful of communities previously had the local expertise to implement a local preservation program; however, the technical assistance provided through the Certified Local Government program has allowed the number of preservation programs in the state grow as more cities and towns pass preservation ordinances to protect the historic buildings that define their community.
The Mississippi Main Street Association is an economic development program based in historic preservation. The association has facilitated the economic revitalization of historic downtown districts through an incremental and comprehensive community-driven process that looks at organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring.
The Mississippi Heritage Trust was established in 1992 as the nonprofit, statewide voice for historic preservation. The trust has raised public awareness of the importance of Mississippi’s historic resources and worked to preserve the irreplaceable throughout a variety of preservation programs.
In the early twenty-first century, the historic buildings, landscapes, and sites that define Mississippians are being recognized as important touchstones. Public and private investment in the protection of these places remains important to the local and state economy. Historic preservation in Mississippi has become a major planning tool, a large component of the tourism industry, an important part of the construction industry, and a defining element in communities throughout the state.
- Diane L. Barthel, Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity (1996)
- James M. Fitch, Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World (1990)
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Historic Preservation Division, website, http://mdah.state.ms.us/hpres/
- Norman Tyler, Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice (1999)