Historic Burns Bottom home in crosshairs of demolition

March 10, 2018 10:01:42 PM

Zack Plair - [email protected]


The city plans to tear down a house in Burns Bottom that is on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a tax-funded redevelopment effort in the neighborhood. 


But Columbus Redevelopment Authority, the property's owner, may not have followed all state law requirements before scheduling demolition. 


On Tuesday, Columbus City Council unanimously approved city workers removing vacant houses on eight lots in Burns Bottom within 30 days. Among those houses is one -- located at 406 Third St. N. -- built some time before 1850 and once owned by John Burns, a local butcher who lived there in the late 19th century and for whom the neighborhood is named. 


CRA acquired the house and lot from the William G. Cannon III family in June 2017. John Acker, CRA board chairman, told The Dispatch Friday the house is in significant disrepair, and he believes it sat unoccupied for years before that. 


"As far as the history of it, I have no idea," Acker said. 


CRA, which the city council created in 2015, is attempting to purchase roughly 70 lots in the Burns Bottom area, along a five-block stretch near downtown between North Third and Fourth streets that runs north-to-south between Second and Seventh avenues. As of late February, CRA had acquired 21 lots with sales of five others expected to close soon. 


Acker previously told The Dispatch most of the lots in the area are either vacant or include dilapidated or inadequate housing structures, some of which have long been unoccupied. The project's goal, he said, is to acquire the properties, then prepare the area to market for redevelopment -- ideally to a developer with a plan to build higher-quality housing. 


The council in November approved issuing $3.2 million in bonds for the project, which will fund property acquisition, structure demolition and infrastructure improvements so that the project area can be packaged and marketed to potential developers. A special ad valorem tax is funding the bonds, which Acker has said should be paid off in 12 to 15 years. 




A historic house, neighborhood 


The entire Burns Bottom neighborhood -- located just north of downtown and east of the Lowndes County Soccer Complex -- was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and the old Burns house is listed specifically as a contributing structure to the historical significance of the area, according to documents The Dispatch reviewed at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library.  


The city, however, does not include Burns Bottom among its designated historic districts and does not formally recognize the Burns house as a historic structure. 


Still, Ken P'Pool, deputy historic preservation officer with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said the state antiquities law requires public entities -- such as CRA -- that own historic property or property in nationally recognized historic districts to follow certain procedures before demolishing structures or redeveloping an area. 


Specifically, P'Pool said, MDAH representatives should have the opportunity to assess the Burns Bottom project for the impact it would have on historic properties and determine if any should be designated as state landmarks. He added the Burns house "would definitely have to be considered" for landmark designation. 


He could not confirm on Friday whether CRA had taken the necessary steps. 


If a public entity does not follow the procedure before tearing down a historic structure or redeveloping a historic district, P'Pool said it could be considered "anticipatory demolition" and could prevent the project from receiving federal funds, grants or permits -- for example, he said, if a Corps of Engineers study of a waterway was required in the project area. 


"Local governments should make an honest effort to preserve historic properties," P'Pool said. "Sometimes, a structure's condition may make that impossible or not feasible, but historical buildings should not be demolished without making an effort to find a way they can be saved."  


Acker, when asked by The Dispatch, would not comment on whether CRA contacted MDAH prior to seeking the city council's approval to demolish structures in Burns Bottom or if the authority had presented MDAH with its redevelopment plans for the neighborhood. 


"We have done our due diligence, and we believe we are legally in line with what we're supposed to do," Acker said. "If we're legally required to contact (Historic Preservation), then we will follow through with that." 


Jeff Turnage, attorney for both the city and CRA, did not return multiple calls and messages from The Dispatch by press time. 




The Burns home 


The Burns Bottom application for the National Historic Register describes the Burns home on Third Street North as two-story, Greek revival with a full-width undercut gallery and continuous two-story square columns. 


It was built well before the Civil War with an addition attached around 1930. 


The neighborhood itself, which developed into an area for millworker housing by the late 19th century, is described on the application as "the best remaining and most complete example of a turn-of-the-century mill village in the Columbus area." 


P'Pool said the Burns home might have been the very first built in the neighborhood and was a "big, very fine house for its time." 


Local historian Carolyn Kaye, whose late husband Sam worked for MDAH, said she believes the house was built in 1835 for Paschal Wade. In the 1840s, Isaac M. Knapp, who served as Columbus mayor, lived there. 


Kaye said former Union soldier B.B. "Buzzard" Eggleston lived in the house when he served as a revenue officer in Columbus during Reconstruction. Eggleston, she said, once unsuccessfully ran for Mississippi governor and was responsible for building a second bridge over the Tombigbee River in the late 1870s. He left Columbus shortly after the bridge was completed. 


Burns, who owned a butcher shop on Fifth Street, bought the house some time after that. P'Pool said the Burns family lived there for many years. 




Castleberry open to someone restoring home 


Another CRA board member, Mark Castleberry, echoed he believes CRA is "proceeding according to the law" with the Burns Bottom project, but noted the authority is "just now getting into the weeds of the historical stuff." 


Castleberry, a developer who has overseen multiple hotel projects in Columbus as well as The Mill at MSU hotel and conference center in Starkville, also would not comment to what extent CRA had discussed the Burns Bottom project with MDAH. But he said he does not oppose incorporating the Burns house, or any historic home, into the neighborhood redevelopment plan if someone is willing to properly restore them. 


"The board's direction is to eliminate blight and enhance the neighborhood with higher-quality homes," Castleberry said. "If that involves restoring a historic home, that would fit our goals."

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.