The South Side Historic District in Columbus is a real gem. It provides a place where in a less than an hour walk you are carried through almost 200 years of architectural history. The neighborhood encompasses a delightful sampling of Columbus’ architecture, history and stories. An hour-long walk through the western part of the historic district presents more than 40 houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places, six houses included in the Library of Congress Historic American Building Survey, a Mississippi Landmark, a National Literary Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.
The walking tour would start at the corner of Main Street and Third Street (originally called Franklin Street), next to the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center. It was here, overlooking the Military Road Ferry, that the Town of Columbus began to grow up. The original Military Road which was surveyed in the summer of 1817 and, completed in 1820, ran down Second Avenue North. A community had formed on the river bluff overlooking the ferry by the summer of 1819. At that time the state line had not been surveyed and it was believed that the land east of the Tombigbee was in Alabama. The Town of Columbus, Alabama, was officially recognized in a Dec. 6, 1819, Alabama legislative act. In 1820, the state line was surveyed and in late 1820 it was discovered that Columbus was actually in Mississippi. On Feb. 10, 1821, the Mississippi Legislature chartered the Town of Columbus, Mississippi.
Though this walk along Second and Third streets is lined with historic and interesting houses, space constraints will allow me to only discuss a few. On the southeast corner of Main and Third Street South is the Tennessee Williams Home and Welcome Center. It was built as the rectory for St Paul’s Episcopal Church ca. 1875. In 1993 it was moved from next to the church to its present location. Its paint colors reflect typical Victorian colors of the 1880s. This first home of Tennessee Williams is a National Literary Landmark. It sits on the former site of two story log house built by William Cocke in 1818 or 1819. He was a former Chickasaw Indian Agent and a friend of Thomas Jefferson with whom he corresponded about Franklin Academy, the Columbus public school established in 1821.
Walking south down Third Street there is a two story brick building on your left which contains the offices of the Columbus Convention and Visitorys Bureau. It was about here that the first house in Columbus, a small log cabin, was built in the fall of 1817. By 1820, Spirus Roach was keeping a store and tavern there. Because Roach had a long pointed nose the Choctaw Indians who traded with him called him “Possum.” When going to Columbus they referred to going to “Possum’s town.”
On the northwest corner of the intersection of Third Street and College Street (originally named Washington Street) is a ca. 1880 house in the Italianate style. The house presents elements one would find in an Italian villa. On the southeast corner is the ca. 1825 Ole Homestead which is the oldest building known to have survived within the original town limits. It is a vernacular raised cottage and looks like a miniature version of Madam John’s Legacy, a 1789 house in New Orleans. The house was constructed facing the Tombigbee River and its original porch, now enclosed, faces Third Street. In 1835 an east wing was added and the house was reoriented to face College Street. Down the bluff, at the foot of College Street, is the old Tombigbee River steamboat landing.
A block south of College Street, at the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue (Lafayette Street), two historic houses face each other. On the northeast corner is the 1852 Greek Revival style Swoope home. Its original porch was totally different and the present porch with square two story columns may have been added as recently as 1940.
Facing the Swoope home from the other side of Third Street is Twelve Gables. It is a Greek Revival style used on a traditional house plan. It was built ca. 1837 and is the house in which the Columbus Decoration Day ceremony was organized. That was the event which inspired the creation of Memorial Day.
A block south, Third Street meets Fourth Avenue (Bridge Street) and we leave the original town limits of Columbus. The street was known as Bridge Street because in 1842 black engineer Horace King constructed Columbus’ first bridge over the Tombigbee at the street’s west end. It was a wooden covered bridge that came off the crest of the river bluff.
At Third and Fifth Avenue (Eliza Street), three classic houses grace the corners. On the northeast corner is a ca. 1914 brick house in the Prairie style. This was a style created by architects of what is called Chicago’s Prairie School and was made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. Across the street on the northwest corner is a ca. 1869 Italianate style home. On the southwest corner is a turreted Queen Ann style house. This is the classic style that most people think of as a Victorian house.
A block down on the corner of Third and Sixth Avenue (Margaret Street) stands Whitehall, a large 1843 Greek Revival house in the style of early Columbus architect James Lull. During the Civil War the basement served at times as a hospital.
We walk down the block and turned right on Seventh Avenue (Frances Street), going uphill to Second Street (Monroe Street). At Second Street we are greeted by White Arches on the Southwest corner and The Colonnade on the northwest corner. White Arches was constructed about 1858 as a unique mixture of Gothic Revival, Greek Revival and Italianate. This mixture of styles seems to occur more in Columbus than anywhere else and Ken P’Pool, of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, has called the style “Columbus Eclectic.”
The Colonnade is a Carolina side hall plan house with a Greek Revival facade. It was constructed about 1860. It was one of the last large Greek Revival style homes built in Columbus.
Walking north up Second Street, Lehmquen, a ca. 1838 Greek Revival raised cottage, is on the right side of the street. The house, though Greek Revival, has the flavor of a Louisiana Creole cottage. Crossing Sixth Avenue, two of the most impressive homes in Columbus face each other. On the east is the Pratt Thomas home and on the west is Riverview.
The Pratt Thomas home is a raised cottage in the Greek Revival style. It was completed in 1847 and is considered by P’Pool to be “the largest, most elegant, and most unusual of Columbus’ raised-cottage dwellings”. Among the residents of the Pratt Thomas home were two brothers, doctors William and John Richards. William was the doctor who delivered Tennessee Williams. John Richards was a physician for the Rockefeller and Roosevelt families in New York and in April of 1912 was called to tend to the survivors of the Titanic.
Riverview was completed by 1853 and is now a National Historic Landmark. The house was also probably designed by James Lull as it is a larger more ornate version of his personal residence, Camellia Place. Next to the house the original servants quarters and kitchen have survived. Riverview has possibly the most monumental interior plaster decorations of any house in Mississippi.
The north end of the block on which Riverview sits was the site the town’s first cemetery. It dated to about 1820 and was known as the Tombigbee Graveyard. The graves were moved after Friendship Cemetery was established in 1849. Half a block off Second Street, on Fifth Avenue and across from the site of the graveyard, is Buttersworth, an 1820s dogtrot log house converted into a Greek Revival house in the 1840s. Continuing to walk north along Second Street, we again pass Fourth Avenue. At the west end of the street the old footing of the 1842 bridge still survives as a flat earthen pad on the edge of the river bluff.
On the northwestern corner of Second Street and Fourth Avenue is what appears to be a Queen Ann Victorian House but buried within it is a smaller 1840s house. Turning east or right onto Third Avenue we find, in the middle of the block, Errolton, a ca. 1848 home that is another example of Columbus Eclectic. It was once moved about 50 feet to get it out of the city limits and avoid city taxes. Walking back to Third Street we turn left and return to our beginning point.
Columbus is simply enmeshed in history and loaded with architectural gems many of which will be open to visitors during the Columbus Pilgrimage, which begins Monday.
Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected]