Few things make me happier than seeing one of Hattiesburg’s older buildings restored to its original splendor, especially those in our city’s historic downtown where we’ve lost way too many grand structures.
Thankfully, a wiser Hattiesburg has begun to realize the importance of our city’s architectural gems. A case in point is the former Hattiesburg High School on Main Street.
The building ceased being a school in 1959 as Hattiesburg High students moved into the spanking new campus at S. H. Blair High School on Hutchinson Avenue, my alma mater.
I never attended the old high school nor, for that matter, did any black students. It served as the city’s white high school during the segregated public school days. Despite that, the building holds a nostalgic place in my heart.
I was a member of one of the first integrated classes of Hattiesburg Public Schools, enrolling at Hawkins Junior High in 1967. It was the second school year following the U.S. Supreme Court decision, allowing students to attend the public school of their choice, race no longer a factor.
Along with my sister and a handful of friends from my old Fairley Street neighborhood, we’d walk from home to school. Our daily trek to Hawkins took us right past the old high school. The building, which appeared to be used then for storage, looked so big and tall to me. All of four stories high, it might as well have been a skyscraper to this country boy from south Mississippi.
Too young to appreciate its importance and beauty when I was a child, boy, do I appreciate it now.
The rear portion of the building dates back to 1911, but its Main Street facing view, added in 1921, defines the building. The school was designed by Hattiesburg’s most prolific architect of the time, Robert E. Lee, and is Hattiesburg’s largest and most sophisticated example of the Jacobethan style. Historically, Lee is better known for his neoclassical designs, buildings here in Hattiesburg whose names you’ll recognize immediately.
His works include the Masonic Temple on Main Street, to me, the most handsome building in the city. Lee is also responsible for the five-story Ross Building on Front Street, now the America Building apartments, executed in the Chicago commercial style. Hattiesburg’s City Hall, dating to 1923, is also a Lee design.
Unfortunately, City Hall’s Front Street face, which was originally the building’s focal point, was “remodeled” and “modernized” decades ago. In hindsight, the redo was a big mistake. City Hall, as originally designed, was much more impressive than it is today. But I digress.
Let’s get back to Lee’s Hattiesburg High School. When the building was abandoned and students moved into the new campus, the old high school sat vacant for years before later taking on a couple of new incarnations. First, it served as the main office for the Hattiesburg Public School District. After district offices permanently moved into the former Camp Elementary School, the old HHS building became, for a short time, an antique mall, a less than honorable role for our city’s grand lady on Main Street. After that business failed, the school sat vacant for decades, falling into crumbling disrepair, with each passing year.
In 1986, the building was designated a Mississippi Landmark and was added to the National Register of Historic Places the next year. Still, left uncared for, dark days were ahead for the former school building. In 2003, it was named by the Mississippi Heritage Trust as one of the most endangered historic buildings in the state. But worse was yet to come.
In 2005, it took a crushing blow from Mother Nature as Hurricane Katrina raked through the Pine Belt, causing considerable damage to hundreds of Hattiesburg’s homes and businesses. The old high school building wasn’t spared. Its already weakened structure suffered heavy damage as a result of the storm. In 2006, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History announced it was providing a $1 million grant toward restoration of the building. But the very next year, the unthinkable happened.
In 2007, the building was deliberately set afire in a heinous act of criminal stupidity. Initial reports suggested arson, an initiation rite-of-passage for a pair of misguided teens looking to join a street gang. Once the fire was extinguished, investigators discovered a door had been kicked in to gain access. Traces of an accelerant used to start the fire were also found. Metro Crime Stoppers offered a $10,000 reward, later increased to $12,500, thanks to contributions from local businesses, to apprehend the perpetrators. Later, two high school-aged students were arrested and punished for the crime. It was a small consolation, though; the damage was done.
The extensive blaze spread to the building’s top floor, causing its roof to cave in. The two young men responsible for the fire came painfully close to burning the building to the ground. It would take a miracle to save what was left. Fortunately, its romantic facade survived but, with what remained, it was, literally, a shell of its former self. For years, driving by, you’d spot long steel poles placed to brace what was left, keeping the frame from crashing in on itself. Meanwhile, Hattiesburg waited for that miracle. It was coming.
In 2017, the Hattiesburg Downtown Association sold the old building (what was left of it, anyway) to a private developer. The new owners, Intervest Corporation, announced plans to rebuild and re-purpose the school, converting the former Hattiesburg High School into a retirement community for seniors. We then all waited and later watched as the building was rebuilt from the inside out. And now, right before our eyes, the miracle has arrived. Preservation Crossing is a reality. The beautiful Hattiesburg High has been reborn. Apartments there range in size from 575 to 800 square feet with 56 one-bedroom units and 18 two-bedroom units. Rent is to be maintained at $200-600 per month. Amenities include, among others, a fitness room, business room and a pleasant community courtyard.
The building serves as a major anchor for an emerging new downtown Hattiesburg.
Each time I drive by, I can marvel and appreciate even more now Robert E. Lee’s design. And, the name, Preservation Crossing? Well, it could not be more fitting, serving as a reminder of how important it is for us to preserve and protect those buildings that define who we are.
At one time, it looked like one of Hattiesburg’s richest architectural landmarks was doomed. But look. Who says miracles don’t happen?
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.