S.O.S. Save our Schools (buildings)

By ELIJAH JONES,

After years of planning, promises, and then dashed hopes, new life is finally being breathed into the former Hattiesburg High School building on Main Street.  

Work has begun converting the landmark building into senior-living apartment homes.  

The new complex will be known as Preservation Crossing, and what a great day for Hattiesburg.  

This is what you call progress.  

The last senior class to graduate from the school was in 1959.  S.H. Blair High School, now better known as Hattiesburg High, has been the graduating high school for our city since, and is where I received my diploma. 

More than 100 years old, the original Hattiesburg High School building has had a couple of reincarnations since its closing.  

For several years, it served as central office for the Hattiesburg Public School District. When those offices moved to the former Camp Elementary School in the 1980s, for a relatively short period of time, the building was converted into an uninspiring antiques mall.  

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck Hattiesburg, causing severe damage to much of the city, including the high school building.  

Worse than the hurricane, in a deliberate act of criminal stupidity, vandals set the school ablaze in 2007. That fire reduced the once grand building to the sad shell we'd grown accustomed to seeing as we drove down Main Street into the heart of downtown.  

Like so many landmarks in our city, what was left of the former Hattiesburg High School building, thankfully, didn't fall victim to the wrecking ball.  

It's disappointing to think of the architectural masterpieces we've lost over the years.  

Those now-gone buildings include the old Hotel Hattiesburg, Citizens Bank downtown headquarters, and the original Main Street Baptist Church building (now Mt. Carmel Baptist Church). Most recently, the Forrest County Board of Supervisors approved demolition of the Pat Harrison Waterway District on U.S. 49, along with its iconic, one-of-a-kind tile mural.  

Hattiesburg is a city desperately in need of its remaining historic architecture.  

We surely can't afford to lose any more of these important buildings.  

I attended grade school at Eureka Elementary on East 6th Street, itself an important piece of Hattiesburg's history. That building has been lovingly restored, to serve as a Civil Rights museum.  

Speaking of history, in 1966, after decades of government-sanctioned segregation, Mississippi students could finally attend the schools of their choice, regardless of its historic racial makeup. I chose not to attend the 100 percent African-American W.H. Jones Junior High, located just off the Hwy. 11 bypass.  

I was a very overweight pre-teen and afraid of the older boys I would encounter at W.H. Jones. I figured my chance of not being bullied would be better if I attended a "white" junior high school, where most of the students wouldn't know me.  

I made what I considered the wiser choice, to attend Hawkins, further from our home on Fairley Street, but where I figured the then obese me wouldn't be bullied everyday.

My daily walks to school took me directly past the already vacated Hattiesburg High School building.  

At the time, I was only 11 years old, too young to appreciate its beauty. But even then, I marveled at its size, all four stories of it.

I'll never forget my first day at Hawkins Jr. High, now an elementary school. 

Compared to Eureka, the school was massive. I felt like I was attending the fictional Riverdale High from the Archie comic book series I read faithfully back in those days.    

Hawkins' focal point is its eye-catching rotunda, a circular anchor with a pair of classroom wings extending at angles from the rotunda. In fact, the building has been compared to having an angel-like design.  

The rotunda was simply elegant, with its twin terrazzo tile covered stairways, leading up to the second floor. (Mrs. Snell was one of my 7th grade teachers and our arts class occupied the rotunda's second floor.)

Today, I think Hawkins' rotunda bears a striking resemblance to Los Angeles' second-tallest building, the U.S. Bank tower. 

The semi-circular thousand-foot skyscraper in downtown L.A. rises 73 stories, climaxing in a crown-like edifice that looks very much like the Hawkins rotunda. Also known as Library Tower, the building was designed by world-renowned architect, I.M. Pei.  

Mr. Pei's tower was completed in the 1990s, while Hawkins Elementary dates back to the early 1950s.

Hawkins Jr. High was designed by Mississippi architect, N.W. Overstreet. It gets even closer to home, as Mr. Overstreet is a native of Eastabuchie, our tiny neighbor of a town just up Hwy. 11.  

Hmmm, could Mr. Pei's stunning design have been inspired by the equally stunning work of our own home-grown Mississippi architect?  

Hey, just a thought.    

Why all these musings about a school I attended over 50 years ago?  

Well, with the overdue and well-deserved attention being paid to the former Hattiesburg High School building, I believe as much should be paid to Hawkins Elementary. Tucked away off Hardy Street, behind the Hattiesburg & Forrest County Public Library, the school does not enjoy a highly visible location.  

But if I were to name the ten most outstanding public buildings in Hattiesburg, Hawkins Elementary School would definitely be near the top of my list. The school's design is an architectural marvel, executed in the moderne/art deco style, truly ahead of its time for Hattiesburg.  

But here's the rub.  

During the 1980's, in an effort to conserve energy, large portions of the school's classic classroom windows were removed and covered with awkward, unsightly beige-colored panels. The girl's gym, along with the  school's whimsical library design, complete with its own "fins," also suffered from these architecturally confusing changes.     

Perhaps well-intended, the window replacements seriously compromise Mr. Overstreet's design.  

I stopped by the school building last week, peering into its rotunda. Its interior walls have been painted with a mural that looks completely out of place.  

When I attended Hawkins, the rotunda functioned as the school's grand foyer. Hallways extended out, leading to first and second floor classrooms. The rotunda also served as entrance to the school's impressive auditorium, complete with a balcony.  

Too much of Hattiesburg's architectural legacy has been lost to bad decisions. But here in the 21st century, as a wiser population, we should make every effort to save these priceless milestones of our city's architectural past.  

With all the attention being paid to our historic downtown (insert a big hooray) I'd say its time to restore Hawkins Elementary to N.W. Overstreet's original design. I can hear the cash registers going off in my head.  

Someone's going to ask, "but how would it be paid for?"

Hattiesburg Public Schools have had some financial issues in the past and restoration of the Hawkins building is certainly not one of their priorities. But what about a partnership between the City of Hattiesburg and Hattiesburg Public Schools, along with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History?   

Hattiesburg voters, just last month, approved an additional 1 percent tax on hotel and restaurants to benefit parks and recreation projects. The city got my vote on that one.  

That 1 percent is in addition to the 2 percent tax we're already paying, enacted 20 years ago to construct the Lake Terrace Convention Center, improve Hattiesburg's Zoo and rehabilitate the historic Saenger Theater, all to enhance Hattiesburg's appeal as a tourist destination.  

I voted for that tax, too.  

Besides the benefit to city parks and recreation improvements, part of the monies raised by the additional tax will be used for needed renovations at The University of Southern Mississippi's Reed Green Coliseum.  

Those renovations are calculated to make the Coliseum a more attractive venue for concerts and other events that will serve as local tourism draws. All well and good.

The new tax is projected to generate $4 million in additional revenue for the city. Reportedly, half of those monies are to be invested in the coliseum, state-owned property, as part of the  Southern Miss campus.  

Surely we can set aside a portion of future revenue from the new tax to restore Hawkins Elementary School to its original groundbreaking design.  

Parks and recreational opportunities certainly add to our city's quality of life. But let's not overlook the fact that so does fine architecture. Especially those buildings that anchor our city's history and identity.   

Hawkins Elementary is Hattiesburg's only true downtown public school.  

Let's showcase it.  

The school building, an architectural jewel, would be a point-of-pride in much larger U.S. cities. It would not be a reach to classify Hawkins as a world-class design.  

Along with the new Preservation Crossing apartments, the beautiful Hattiesburg & Forrest Country Public Library, adding a restored Hawkins Junior High School to the mix would give us an architectural trifecta.  Three impressive anchors for the north and west ends of our evolving downtown.

During that recent visit to Hawkins' campus, I took time for a close-up look at my junior high alma mater.  It's depressing to see Hawkins' once stunning, futuristic-designed facade showing signs of our neglect.  

We've been guilty of taking its beauty for granted, much like we did with the now-gone mural at the Pat Harrison Waterway building.

The historic Hattiesburg High School, being reborn as Preservation Crossing, is one of the most exciting projects downtown Hattiesburg has seen in decades.  

But let's not stop there.  

Just around the corner, another great school building is begging for better care, and to be, well, preserved for our future.  

Hawkins Junior High and Elementary School will be celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2021.  

What better time, what better gift for the school, than restoring this local icon to its former glory?

 In fact, what better gift for our city? 

 

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

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