Reading news accounts last week brought to mind the many landmarks that Columbus has lost. Just during my lifetime, far too many historic and irreplaceable buildings have been destroyed.
I wrote those words seven years ago after reading about the razing of one of Columbus’ once beautiful historic homes. Now once again beautiful and irreplaceable homes have been destroyed.
Some of our lost landmarks were too far gone to be saved, some could have been saved and some died as a result of ignorance or neglect. Whatever the reason they were destroyed, their destruction means an irreplaceable piece of Columbus’ heritage is forever gone.
On Friday I had a conversation with Gary Lancaster, Carolyn Kaye and Susan Jones about lost Columbus homes and buildings and childhood memories. It brought to my mind a story in Pauline Brandon’s “I Remember When, Recollections of Earlier Columbus.” It was an account by Mrs. W.C. Watson of the razing in 1908 of the 1839 Baptist Church, which was once described as one of America’s most beautiful churches:
“On the morning when the work was to begin on demolishing the old building, Mrs. E.T. Sykes, whom we knew best as “Miss Callie”, called my mother to ask, ‘Do you care if I come down there and spend the morning?’ My mother (Mrs. Willis Harris), knowing that Miss Callie was a devout member of the Baptist church, recognized at once the reason for the visit. Our house was just down the hill from the church and Miss Callie wanted to get closer to the old church.
“As my mother and Miss Callie sat together on the front porch the church bell began to toll. It was telling that the old building was about to pass away. Suddenly Miss Callie burst into uncontrollable tears. My mother was soon weeping, too. Unable to resist the feeling of loss, I (then a young girl), joined their weeping. Long after the tolling of the bell had ceased, we were still crying. Then, almost stumbling down the rough hill by Second Avenue North came Lawson Bush, the faithful sexton, who had just rung the bell in the old church for the last time.
“Seeing us on the porch, he stopped and asked, ‘Miz Harris, do you all care if I sits down here on the steps and cries with you?'”
I think of the lost landmarks of Columbus and in my mind I can see the 1860s Gilmer Hotel which was demolished only a few years before a national move to restore and promote historic hotels. The old four-story brick hotel had served as a hospital during the Civil War. Several cities in Mississippi including Starkville, West Point and Natchez restored their historic hotels.
A few years ago what appeared to be a mid-1800s small-frame house a block east of Military Road on Fifth Avenue was demolished. The framing covered what was a log house probably built by a Mr. Gray as a farm house around 1820. One of the oldest houses not only in Columbus but also in north Mississippi was replaced by a metal building.
My own family has not been immune to loss. The three-story Victorian home built by my great-grandfather, T.C. Billups, at 905 Main St. in 1889 was torn down around 1970 to make room for a bank. Around that time the beautiful J. Rigg Vaughn antebellum home, Flynnwood, on Seventh Street South was sold and moved to another city.
I recall a brick house between Franklin Academy and the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. It was built by Silas McBee during the early 1820s. It may have been the oldest brick house in Mississippi north of Vicksburg. McBee was credited with naming Columbus and in 1819 he represented Marion County, Alabama, in the Alabama Legislature. That was when Columbus was believed to be in Alabama. His historic house was replaced by a parking lot.
The old First Christian Church next to the courthouse was used by the Legislature when Columbus served as Mississippi’s capital during the Civil War. The wonderful brick church served as the chambers for the state Senate. It was destroyed so that another parking lot could be built.
Also I think of the strikingly attractive antebellum homes that once graced what is now a city parking lot at the corner of Seventh Street North and Second Avenue. They are now but a fading memory. And behind their former location the Lipscomb house was recently demolished. Someone once said that parking lots have destroyed more antebellum Southern homes than Generals Grant and Sherman combined.
Last week we lost Beckrome, the 1836 home of Dr. William Spillman, which apparently had started out as an 1820s log house. Not only was the house one of the oldest in Columbus but Dr. Spillman was a nationally known doctor and naturalist of the mid-1800s. The destruction of his home made statewide news in the historic preservation community.
When I think of the all the lost landmarks of Columbus I cannot help but think of a quote from a Collier’s Weekly article about Columbus written 101 years ago.
In 1917 Julian Street, a writer for Collier’s, toured cities across America including Columbus. Of Columbus he said: “Columbus may perhaps appreciate the charm of its old homes, but there is evidence to show that it did not appreciate certain other weather worn structures of great beauty. I have seen photographs of an old Baptist Church with a fine and not at all Baptist-looking portico and fluted columns, which was torn down … and I have seen pictures of the beautiful old town hall … The destruction of these two early buildings represents an irreparable loss to Columbus, and it is to be hoped that the town will some day be sufficiently enlightened to know that this is true…”
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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