The former Hunt High School was badly damaged in an EF-3 tornado that swept through Columbus on Feb. 23. Friday the Mississippi Department of Archives and History made the building a state landmark, which will allow Columbus Municipal School District to receive certain grants and other funding when repairing damage from the storm. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History Board of Trustees has elected not to designate the Taylor-Burns House, located on Third Street North, a Mississippi Landmark. The house sits in the historic Burns Bottom neighborhood, parts of which the Columbus Redevelopment is hoping to rebuild.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
April 20, 2019 9:59:30 PM
Mississippi Department of Archives and History has named the former Hunt High School a Mississippi Landmark.
MDAH board member Nancy Carpenter, who is also executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, confirmed to The Dispatch that the board unanimously voted to give the 20th Street school building state landmark status at its meeting Friday.
She said the board also voted not to give the same treatment to the Taylor-Burns House on Third Street North, a home built in the 1830s and located in the historic Burns Bottom district near downtown Columbus.
Mississippi Landmark designation is the highest form of recognition MDAH gives old buildings and properties in the state, and places restrictions on building renovations that may alter the historic nature of a structure. The designation also means developers renovating historic buildings to MDAH's standards can receive extra grants and funding for those renovations.
Carpenter said the board's decision was based on recommendations from staff of MDAH's Historic Preservation Division.
"The main thing too is that the owners of Hunt High School, which is the Columbus Municipal School District, were very much in favor of this recommendation," Carpenter said. "And when you've got the owner of a building ... in favor, that certainly plays in the final decision. With the Taylor-Burns House, that was not the case."
Hunt High School was the school for African-American students in the last years of segregation in Columbus, and until February the building housed the R.E. Hunt Museum and Cultural Center, which celebrates local African-American history. Now called Columbus Success Academy, the building also held after-school programs and the district's alternative school before a Feb. 23 EF-3 tornado ripped the roof off the building and damaged several classrooms.
While the district asked MDAH to consider Hunt for landmark status before the tornado, both Carpenter and CMSD board president Jason Spears said the landmark status should help financially as the district rebuilds the school.
"As we go into rebuilding the Hunt facility, there will be a lot of guidelines offered to us as we go forward," Spears said. "From my understanding, there may be grants and other financial assistance in addition to what we may be receiving (from insurance) to get that project underway.
"As far as getting the designation, I think it's long overdue," he said. "I'm glad to see the process is finally completed."
Hunt's landmark status comes almost a year after the MDAH board granted the same status to the former Lee High School on Military Road, which is currently being developed into apartments and retail properties. The school district sold the property to developer Scott Berry, who is overseeing the project, in June 2018.
CMSD Superintendent Cherie Labat said the fact that both former school buildings have been designated Mississippi Landmarks should be a source of pride for the community.
"Things like this are for everyone," Labat said. "I was happy to hear about the Lee facility and now the Hunt facility. I think the landmark designation is another way of unifying the community and looking at our past and being proud where we are today in Columbus."
Though the Taylor-Burns House was not designated a state landmark, the fact that it was considered has put on hold plans by the city to rebuild a section of Burns Bottom.
The house sits in a five-block portion of the neighborhood which the Columbus Redevelopment Authority has designated the project area. The CRA purchased the vacant house in 2017 and had plans to tear it down in March 2018. However, those plans were stalled to give MDAH time to survey the neighborhood before the house, and other nearby structures, could be demolished. The survey ultimately found that the Taylor-Burns House was contributing to the historic character of the neighborhood, and the building was placed on MDAH's list of properties to be considered for landmark status.
Had the house been made a Mississippi Landmark, it would have inhibited the city's abilities to tear it down and rebuild a newer structure in its place.
Carpenter said a dilapidated interior of the home contributed to the MDAH board choosing not to designate it a state landmark. The house has suffered from a fire and other structural damage.
"That's not even adequate, to say it's in bad shape," she said. "...I have viewed photographs from every floor and it's in incredibly bad shape."
She said that just because Burns Bottom is a historic neighborhood doesn't mean all the structures in the neighborhood contribute to that value. She added the Taylor-Burns House may have contributed to that value once, but it doesn't now.
CRA board president John Acker said the board doesn't have any immediate plans to tear down the house but that he imagines board members will discuss the house further at the board's next meeting on May 1. He added the board has been working with MDAH as they move forward with the entire project.
"My next question will be, 'so what now?'" he said. "... I'm sure MDAH will give us an official response and tell us what we can and can't do (in the neighborhood), and they usually do that in a letter.
"We're working with MDAH and whatever they give us clearance to do, we're proceeding and working with them," he added. "It's going well, it's just taking a little longer than I personally would like it to. But that's just part of the process."
Dispatch reporter Mary Pollitz contributed to this report.
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