Artistic tragedy

By ELIJAH JONES,

 On my usual Saturday drive to Walmart on U.S. 49, I often find myself driving past the abandoned Pat Harrison Waterway District building. 

You've seen it a million times. The building was located near Mamie Street and the highway, at the main entrance to Forrest General Hospital. 

Dating back to the 1960s, it was built utilizing the clean, modernist style, popular during that period. 

You could be forgiven for not noticing the building right away, especially as you whisked by at 45 mph. What you couldn't help but notice, though, was the beautiful tile mural gracing the building's facade.

In fact, it was a pleasure, during the occasional traffic backup on U.S. 49, having the time to take in and appreciate the mural's whimsical beauty. 

One person described it as being a giant piece of folk art. You local tile artists and quilt-makers should know what I mean.

The PHWD manages the tributaries and rivers that make up south Mississippi's Pascagoula River basin, as they collectively wind their way to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The mural illustrated the waterways and counties they flow through. These creeks and rivers create a number of recreational opportunities for south Mississippians. 

For decades, the iconic district mural on U.S. 49 was a point of civic pride for Hattiesburg natives. 

The building, at one time, was also home to the Mississippi Highway Patrol and probably where most of us old-timers (guess I can count myself in that group now) got our very first Mississippi drivers license. 

Lots of history there for us, but have you driven by the site lately? 

Well, prepare for an unpleasant surprise. 

All you'll get now is an uninterrupted view of Forrest General Hospital and its adjoining mini-skyline.

The Pat Harrison mural was one of those rare examples of public art in Hattiesburg, a city in desperate need of more of the same. 

Not less. 

I was shocked then, on that Saturday drive to Walmart, preparing for my view of the mural to discover, instead, a bulldozer perched beside a pile of rubble. 

And just like that, in the course of a weekend, one of Hattiesburg's most outstanding works of public art was disposed of.

Forrest County was involved in a legal dispute with the district, which ended being settled this year for $1.3 million. The settlement included the county taking ownership of the district's U.S. 49 building. 

Forrest County's Board of Supervisors announced its intent to donate the now unoccupied building to Forrest General Hospital which, of course, included the mural, itself part of the property.  

Which brings me to a statement by Supervisor Chris Bowen, who posted a rambling and mostly confusing explanation for why the building and the mural had to be destroyed. 

Mr. Bowen began with an attempt to (suspiciously) pull at our heartstrings. 

In a tone bordering on defensive, he listed the many important decisions he and his fellow supervisors have to make on a daily basis regarding such necessary public services as volunteer fire departments, bridge repair and school buses, topping it all with the needs of Forrest General Hospital. 

Curiously, Mr. Bowen spent a great deal of time talking about how the building and its mural impeded access to Forrest General off U.S. 49. 

The Supervisor's defense for why the building and its mural had to be removed left me more dazed, than anything. While his assertions about the county's public services and quality of life were true, he appeared to gloss over the mural's contribution to Hattiesburg. Its very presence added to our city's beauty and, by extension, to our quality of life. 

I commend the County for its work on historic downtown landmarks such as the renovated Masonic Temple, now the Justice Court Building. 

And I look forward to placement of the deserved statute of local Civil Rights icon Vernon Dahmer. 

But those good works do not give the county a pass, making it acceptable to destroy such an important piece of our city's history. 

If there were ever a need for public discussion on an issue, this was it. 

Mr. Bowen's defense of the mural's destruction was almost cavalier in tone. This was simply too important a decision to make without public input.  

If, after honest public debate, the conclusion was reached that the mural could not be saved? Then so be it. 

Though still heartbreaking, it would have made the loss easier to accept. 

But where we ever consulted or asked for feedback? Our local government should not operate in a vacuum. 

This decision appears to have been reached behind close doors, with the mural summarily demolished over the course of a weekend. I guess they thought we wouldn't notice?

According to Mr. Bowen, after the county's legal wrangling with the State of Mississippi and PHWD, the mural was offered back to the state, which declined to accept it. 

Mr. Bowen also pointed out the mural's deterioration as additional reason for its disposal.

In the photographs I've seen, the damage was minimal and I'm sure, spearheaded by wiser heads in Hattiesburg, could have been repaired. 

Aided by our many talented local artists, this would have been a labor of love. 

I am convinced, the good people of Hattiesburg, especially the art lovers among us, would have worked diligently to save the mural. 

These works of art history are rare, and would cost a large fortune to replace. We should have explored ways to repair and relocate the mural, placing it in a location where its beauty could have been admired and appreciated by future generations. 

The urbane new District at Midtown would have been a pleasing spot, placed at pedestrian level with a plaque to chronicle its history. 

If not there, Town Square Park in downtown Hattiesburg would have been another ideal location.

Shame on the Forrest County Board of Supervisors for snatching this beautiful work of art away from us.  Their feigned "sadness" for our loss doesn't wash. 

To the mix, I must ask, where was the City of Hattiesburg on this one? Is there no communication between these two public entities? 

Earlier this year, I worked with a municipal commission, at the Mayor's behest, whose goal it was to focus on bringing more public art to Hattiesburg. 

Oh, the irony. 

The mural at PHWD was public art we already had in the city's bank and we (they) chose to reduce it to rubble. 

The Hattiesburg Tourism Commission should be questioned as well. 

Isn't part of their mission to make Hattiesburg more visitor-friendly? And yet, save for the public's current upset, we allowed this priceless civic asset to be destroyed, without even a whimper of protest or concern. 

Where was our city's leadership? Poor us.

Sadly, none of that matters now. I am so weary of seeing photographs of the architectural works of art we've lost. 

Hattiesburg's historic legacy has suffered greatly over the years, and continues to do so, as our leaders fail in recognizing its importance. 

Much of that history has been bulldozed and swept away with little regard for what we've lost. Do you think cities like Asheville, Austin, Tuscaloosa or even Oxford would allow such travesties? 

Surely not. 

But here in Hattiesburg, these mindless decisions are woefully common.

Oh, well.  I guess we're expected to now look on the bright side, right? 

As in, it'll soon be so much easier getting into the parking lots at Forrest General Hospital, with that annoying mural out of the way. 

A-h-h-h-h, progress.

Jones is a local writer who is a proud native of Hattiesburg and a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Photo courtesy of WAYNE ARCHER.

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