Findings from a survey of historical structures in the Burns Bottom area have Columbus Redevelopment Authority representatives hopeful the neighborhood could be removed from the National Register of Historic Places.
David Schneider of Anniston, Alabama firm Schneider Historic Preservation conducted the survey in July and submitted his report to the CRA board last week. In the report, Schneider finds an overwhelming majority of the structures that contributed to the area being listed on the National Register in 1980 are either gone or greatly deteriorated.
The report calls the historic character and fabric of the neighborhood “seriously eroded,” which Schneider said warrants consideration for Burns Bottom being de-listed from the National Register.
CRA, which is purchasing lots in the neighborhood to prepare and market it for private development, commissioned the survey at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s request. The board will now present the survey findings to MDAH for further review.
CRA, established as a city council-appointed board in 2015, wants to acquire properties in the area of mostly vacant lots and low-value housing, demolish existing structures and market the neighborhood for a higher-value housing development.
The city has issued $3.2 million in bonds for the project, which will be paid through a special property tax the council began levying in 2017.
CRA ran afoul of MDAH requirements earlier this year after the city agreed to demolish eight of the homes in Burns Bottom — including an antebellum home where the neighborhood’s namesake once lived — without notifying MDAH or following historic preservation procedures.
Both CRA Board President John Acker and CRA Attorney Jeff Turnage said they did not know the district was on the National Register at the time.
MDAH became involved shortly after, delaying the homes’ demolition, and CRA has since cooperated with state standards.
Burns Bottom is one of three distinct neighborhoods making up the Factory Hill-Frog Bottom-Burns Bottom National Historic District, according to information in its nomination for listing. Located blocks from downtown, the district is one of Columbus’ earliest residential neighborhoods, which boomed into workers’ cottages for local industry by the turn of the 20th Century.
That neighborhood includes the CRA project area — five blocks between Third and Fourth streets that run north-to-south from Second Avenue to Seventh Avenue North and is bordered to the west by the Lowndes County Soccer Complex.
While the neighborhood is on the National Register, it is not a city-designated historic district.
Specifically, the survey report says 42 of the 83 properties or “resources” in the registered area are either torn down or replaced with modern buildings, while 18 resources are “noncontributing.” Of the 23 surviving resources, Schneider says many are now abandoned and deteriorating.
“The attrition of resources has resulted in the creation of small clusters of resources that are interspersed with modern recreational development and vacant, often overgrown lots,” the report says. “As a result, the visual relationship between the smaller clusters has been largely lost.”
The report specifically notes The Burns House, located at 406 Third St. N., has suffered fire damage and extensive vandalism.
Built in the 1830s as one of the first homes in the area, The Burns House was occupied post-Civil War by a Union officer who ran unsuccessfully for Mississippi governor. Some time before 1900, local butcher John Burns bought the house.
Other properties in the project area are fire- and vandalism-ravaged, Turnage said. Some have damaged or partially collapsed roofs. Doors even have been missing from many of the structures since before CRA purchased them, according to Turnage.
“Somebody stole all those doors,” Turnage said. “We didn’t take them off.”
Removing a property or historic district from the National Register “doesn’t happen very often, and for good reason,” MDAH Deputy Historic Preservation Officer Jim Woodrick told The Dispatch.
In the case of Burns Bottom, MDAH Historic Preservation staff first will review the Schneider survey findings and present recommendations to the National Register Review Board — a slate of history, architectural history and archaeology professionals appointed by the MDAH board. The review board will then submit its recommendations to the National Parks Service, which will ultimately decide whether to de-list the district.
The de-listing process is often reserved for natural disasters that destroy or critically damage the historical integrity of listed properties, Woodrick said, but he indicated deterioration or attrition could also be considered as a reason.
Meanwhile, MDAH is still researching whether any Burns Bottom properties will be designated as state landmarks, Woodrick said. The National Register decision will have no bearing on the landmark process, he said.
While listing on the National Register only affects whether CRA could receive grants and other federal funding for development, state landmark status actually protects properties from being destroyed or altered without a permit from MDAH.
If any of the Burns Bottom properties obtain landmark status, Acker said it may hamper CRA’s prospects of finding an interested developer.
“If that’s the case, we’ll keep moving forward,” he said. “We would sell it to the developer, make (the developer) aware of the stipulations and then it will be up to the developer what happens next.
“I love history,” he added. “But in my opinion, none of the homes down there are in repairable shape.”
As of June, CRA had purchased 28 of 69 privately owned lots in the project area.
Since then, Acker said it has acquired a handful of the 19 vacant lots and six tenant-occupied homes it’s been pursuing.
CRA also is trying to purchase 10 owner-occupied homes, three unoccupied houses and three church properties.
The MDAH issue is one of many that have delayed the project’s progress, both Acker and Turnage said.
Negotiations with owner-occupied homes and estates are bogged down with multiple heirs, some of whom live out of state.
Realtors Kaleena Richardson and Sherry Lipsey of the Real Living Hearts and Home agency represent CRA.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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