For a ‘small’ town, Hattiesburg has plenty of big city buildings

By ELIJAH JONES,

I've always been a lover of great architecture. That love grew out of my childhood fascination with skyscrapers. 

Way back in the day, when World Book Encyclopedia was the closest thing we had to the Internet, I'd spend hours sitting at my family's dining room table, combing through its pages reading about big cities, marveling at photos of their skylines. 

To this day, show me a photo of any major American city and I can immediately tell you the city, based on its collection of skyscrapers. 

Tall buildings will always be my favorite, followed closely by another form of towering structures, church steeples.

Whenever I visit cities like New York City or Chicago, though the modern glass and steel towers are impressive, it's the older, more ornate skyscrapers that thrill me most. 

I can't help but notice how the summits of early skyscrapers often resemble cathedrals. They exude a religious feel all their own, like churches for the business world.

Smaller cities, like Hattiesburg, aren't known for tall buildings. 

Those few multi-story buildings we do have are concentrated downtown, the University of Southern Mississippi campus and the midtown area, including Forrest General Hospital's medical center. 

We have no towering skyscrapers, but the towers of some of Hattiesburg's church steeples make up for it, providing impressive and spiritual eye candy as they reach for the sky. 

Downtown Hattiesburg has several of our area's most inspirational steeples. 

My personal favorite is Main Street United Methodist Church, one of the oldest in the city. I attended grade school at the  historic Eureka Elementary School. 

From Mrs. Lewis' 6th grade class on the second floor,  I could see Main Street Methodist's steeple. It was then, as it is now, a beautiful complement to our little downtown skyline.

I've always admired this local icon, as it echoes the Campanile bell tower of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, Italy. 

For me, Main Street United Methodist is one of the finest pieces of architecture in Hattiesburg. 

Bay Street Presbyterian Church, dating back to 1906, is the oldest church in the city. 

Its towering white steeple demands admiration as you approach, driving south on Main Street.

Having maintained its historic location for over 100 years, Bay Street Presbyterian was built in what was then considered, believe it or not, the "south side" of Hattiesburg. 

Sacred Heart Catholic Church, another Hattiesburg landmark, has also remained downtown.

The church and its grade school, for decades, have been important and appreciated anchors for our city center. 

Worth noting, Sacred Heart includes Spanish-speaking services, for Hattiesburg's growing Latino population. 

When First Baptist Church vacated its historic home on Pine Street, it joined the westward migration of several of the city's large, historically white congregations. 

Thankfully, Sacred Heart stepped in, keeping the building in the hands of a church. The former First Baptist campus now serves as home for Sacred Heart's high school. 

When I was a child, African-Americans were not welcome at First Baptist Church, nor, for that matter, at most of the city's white congregations. 

That didn't stop me from loving its magnificent steeple. My mother was a very spiritual woman. 

On her way cross town to Mary Bethune Elementary School, where she was principal for several years, she once shared with me how seeing the First Baptist steeple was her morning inspiration as she drove to work. I think of my mother every time I pass the church. 

Driving north on Pine Street, First Baptist's, now the Sacred Heart steeple, is reminiscent of Boston's historic Old North Church. The church spire provides a spiritual exclamation point for the entry into downtown Hattiesburg, poetically framing the skyline.

In Hattiesburg's newly minted midtown area, Westminster Presbyterian Church's steeple is another inspirational sight, approaching from either direction on U.S. 49. But the most dramatic view of the church would be driving east on Hardy Street. 

The fearsome tornado of 2013 trekked through the west side of metro Hattiesburg before leaping across I-59. 

On the east side of the freeway, the tornado caused serious damage to several buildings on the University of Southern Mississippi campus, and to that of Westminster Presbyterian's as well. Thankfully, no one was hurt as a result of the storm. 

Sadly though, a few of the stately oak trees on the Southern Miss campus fell victim to the storm, but ironically, we were left with a gift in return. 

Driving east on Hardy Street, approaching campus, we're now blessed with an uninterrupted view of Westminster Presbyterian's stately steeple, rising triumphantly above the tree line, in spite of the storm.

Woodland Presbyterian Church is another one of my personal favorites, located at 40th Avenue and Lincoln Road. 

I'm lucky enough to be inspired by its beauty daily, the church being an elegant focal point for my neighborhood.  

Woodland is relatively new, compared to those older church sanctuaries downtown. 

It was designed by local architect Larry Albert, who also designed the Library for Hattiesburg and Forrest County on Hardy Street.

Here's an interesting aside to the church's history. Woodland was established by families from two downtown churches, Bay Street Presbyterian and the historic First Presbyterian Church, now home to Truelight Baptist Church on Main Street. 

Mr. Albert incorporated design elements from the older churches into his new design.  

Woodland Presbyterian is presently undergoing a major remodel. 

The steeple and sanctuary, postmodern beauties, are being completely reworked, adding the warmth of brick to its exterior.  But oh, that inspiring steeple. 

Originally coated in an off-white stucco, the steeple paid homage to its older sibling, Bay Street Presbyterian. 

The steeple has been reclothed, adding the warmth of brick. Punctuated by nighttime illumination, its new brick skin tastefully marries the natural scenery, those majestic and towering pine trees (our other "skyscrapers") that define Hattiesburg. 

I can't talk about church steeples without mentioning the one atop my home church, Mt. Olive Baptist Church, on Country Club Road. 

My grandfather and namesake, Rev. Elijah L. Jones, was pastor at Mt. Olive for many years. 

A carpenter by trade, Rev. Jones helped construct the church's older sanctuary. 

As the church continued to grow, Mt. Olive has built a larger, more modern sanctuary, added on to the older building.

When Mt. Olive's new sanctuary was in its planning stages, our congregation did not want to leave the church's historic roots in south Hattiesburg.

That feeling was echoed by our pastor, Rev. Arthur Siggers. In fact, he once shared his dream with me:  that when busloads of children were riding to school or walking past the new church during its construction, it sent a message to them. 

The Hattiesburg area has experienced phenomenal growth over the past few decades. But Rev. Siggers and our congregation wanted those children to see physical and spiritual growth, taking place right there in their own backyards. 

When I lived on Fairley Street in east Hattiesburg, in my mother's house, one thing was understood.  (There was no discussion.) 

You knew Sunday mornings meant getting up, donning your church clothes and walking to Sunday School.

That's when you could still get to church walking on foot.  (Maybe some of you remember?) 

In those days, churches were built into actual neighborhoods, rather than being backed up against asphalt, surrounded by shopping mall-sized parking lots, like they are today. 

I grew up at the historic Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, the oldest African-American congregation in the city, when it was still located on Mobile Street. 

On Sunday mornings following services, church members would spill out onto Mobile Street. 

The adults would mingle and talk while we kids joked with each other before our afternoon walks home for dinner and playtime. Back then, Mobile Street was alive, filled with businesses owned and operated by African-Americans. 

It was like our own little downtown.

Hattiesburg seemed like such a big city to me back then. 

Oh sure, I had my World Book Encyclopedia to read when I got home, admiring the skylines of much bigger cities. But from the sidewalk in front of Mt. Carmel, where we gathered after church on Sunday mornings, I could forget about those big-city skylines. From the corner of Mobile and 7th streets, I could see Hattiesburg's own little skyscrapers.

There was the former Forrest Hotel, Ross Building, Carter Building and the now-lost 5-story Citizens Bank "tower."  (Hey, it was a tower to me.) 

Our handful of tall buildings were skyscrapers enough for this country boy from Mississippi.

I've lived in and visited much larger cities since my childhood, so I've seen plenty of real skyscrapers.  But long before those towers of commerce were built, churches, with their steeples, were the tallest buildings in many American cities, Hattiesburg being no exception.

Our city's churches where then, as they are now, towering inspirations of their own, as their steeples reach for the sky.

But wait. 

Since they are churches, let's say as their steeples reach - for Heaven.

Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Send him an email at: edjhubtown@aol.com.