Burns house, Hunt school up for landmark status

March 13, 2019 10:46:50 AM

Amanda Lien - [email protected]


A home in Burns Bottom the city once slated to tear down and a school campus a recent tornado badly damaged are now being considered for state landmark status. 


The Mississippi Department of Archives and History is running a legal ad in The Dispatch today officially opening the 30-day public comment period that will help determine the future of the Taylor-Burns House, at 406 Third St. N., and the former R.E. Hunt High School on 20th Street North. After the public comment period ends April 11, MDAH's board will take the feedback into consideration when deciding whether to grant either structure landmark status. 


"It's one of the ways we highlight local significance," said Marlin King, MDAH division director of Historic Preservation. 


Landmark status also is a way to protect structures deemed historic by requiring owners to obtain a MDAH permit before making any changes -- such as renovation or demolition. 




Taylor-Burns House 


In the case of the Taylor-Burns House, landmark status would alter the Columbus Redevelopment Authority's plans to rebuild a five-block portion of the Burns Bottom neighborhood from scratch. 


CRA purchased the vacant home from the William Cannon III family in 2017, and citing its dilapidated condition, scheduled it and seven other homes in the project area --which runs north-to-south from Second to Seventh Avenue North and from east-to-west between Third and Fourth Street North -- for demolition in March 2018.  


However, the entire neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, with the Taylor-Burns House -- built in the 1830s, occupied during Reconstruction by a Union officer and later by the Burns family who is the neighborhood's namesake -- was listed as a significant historic contributor. Since the CRA is a public entity, with board members appointed by Columbus City Council, it was legally required to allow MDAH to survey the entire neighborhood for landmarks before demolishing any of the structures it owned. 


Ultimately, surveyors dubbed the Taylor-Burns home as one worth preserving. 


"That was the primary structure we considered, I believe," King said. "I can't say what the board will decide, but if it is granted (landmark status) they cannot tear it down like I believe they intended to." 


CRA representatives, though, hope the public comment period will validate the board's claim the house is too damaged to save. 


Before CRA acquired the home, it had suffered extensive fire damage and other structural deterioration. Even since last spring, the home's condition has worsened, CRA attorney Jeff Turnage said, and would take, at minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore. 


"I'm assuming we'll hopefully have some members of the public who don't want the house landmarked because it's just too far gone," Turnage said. "That's just my opinion." 


CRA is hoping to purchase roughly 70 lots in the project area, most of which are empty or contain vacant, dilapidated houses -- though some homes in the area are still occupied. Once CRA acquires all the lots, it plans to prepare and market the property for a private developer, preferably to build higher-quality homes there.  


The city even has issued $3.2 million in bonds -- to be repaid through a special property tax levy -- to fund CRA's land acquisition, site prep and marketing efforts in Burns Bottom, and CRA has purchased more than half of the needed lots. 


Having a landmark there CRA cannot remove poses an "obstacle" to the project, Turnage said. It would leave the board to decide whether to sell the Taylor-Burns home to an individual interested in restoring it separate from the overall development, or hope a large-scale developer would be interested in Burns Bottom in spite of having to renovate the home according to historic standards. 


"Both seem like viable solutions if it comes to that, but I'll leave that for the board to decide," Turnage said. "The fear with selling the home separately is the buyer might think it will take $600,000 to restore it. If it ends up taking $1 million, that buyer might not be able to finish it. 


"I would tend to think anybody willing to buy the whole tract would be more willing to spend more than what is reasonable to fix the house up," he added. 


In any case, CRA plans to see the project through. 


"We've spent too much money to walk away," he said. "There's no way that's going to happen." 


CRA board president John Acker did not comment on the matter before press time. 




Hunt High School 


The Columbus Municipal School District board of trustees asked MDAH to consider the Hunt building for landmark status before a Feb. 23 tornado ripped off a large portion of the school's roof. 


Most recently home to the Columbus Success Academy (alternative school), some after school programs and the R.E. Hunt Museum and Cultural Center, the campus was one of the only black schools in Lowndes County during the last days of public school segregation. 


MDAH already has granted landmark status to the former S.D. Lee High School on Military Road -- the white campus before integration -- to assist a multi-million dollar mixed-use development underway there. 


At Hunt, CMSD board president Jason Spears said the tornado and subsequent flooding damaged the roof, floors and other parts of the building, all of which must be repaired to historic preservation standards if the school is landmarked. Most of the second story will have to be torn down, the roof, ceilings and floor tiles replaced, and the original woodwork and molding restored. 


But with landmark status, Spears said, the rebuild would be eligible for grants and other funding avenues. 


"There will be certain specifications for the rebuild," he said. "We'll be working closely with (MDAH) and the secretary of the interior's office on restoration. ... There's some craftsmanship you just can't replace. But with us working to restore as close to accurate as possible, we'll lean on MDAH to help with those aspects." 


Once Hunt is repaired and restored, Spears hopes CMSD can get back on its path to expanding the use of the facilities to include not only the return of Columbus Success Academy students, after-school programs and the Hunt Museum, but also a workforce development program that Superintendent Cherie Labat has been developing with East Mississippi Community College, as well as provide some office space for lease in the building's annex. 


"We've been working on being a financial generator, not just a financial consumer," Spears said. 


Spears expects that the restoration process will slow repair work down but said the building is too important to the community to not maintain. 


"It's a valuable part of continuing to improve our neighborhood," he said. "The building and the facilities are valuable to both our students and to residents in the area." 


Now that Hunt has finally entered the 30-day comment period required to be considered for landmark status, Spears is hopeful that people will use that period to encourage MDAH to make it a landmark or provide "constructive comments." 


"We would certainly champion people using the comment period to express their support," he said. "But we also welcome other comments. Those are often the ways we can hear other ideas. Everyone has their different opinions and a different way of seeing things."