Photos by Michael Barrett
A quick show of hands if you know. Tell the truth now. How many Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses are there in Mississippi? Extra bonus points if you know the name of the one in the Woodland
Hills area of Jackson.
Now, who designed the spectacular Art Deco former WJDX/
WRBC building on North State Street, between Beasley Road/ Adkins Boulevard and Briarwood Drive? You know, the one that looks like a 1930s radio cabinet.
Mississippi is chock full of hidden architectural gems, if you just know where to look. We drive by them every day, hardly ever knowing, and seldom ever caring about their fascinating, and sometimes historic origins.
Most of them never appear in Architectural Digest, or in Famous Mississippi Buildings books, unless they have important names, often singular, such as Longwood, Rosalie, Dunleith or Stanton Hall.
Case in point: just a mile or so past the historic WJDX building on North State Street, you take a left and end up a few hundred yards later at the gates of Tougaloo College.
You’ve driven by it many times, on County Line Road to its south, and the I-220 bypass on its northern boundary. But I’d be willing to bet that most of you have never been inside the gates and taken a quick driving tour of the beautiful and historic tree- shaded campus.
And I can almost guarantee you’ve never seen anything as elegant and futuristic as the three buildings there that were the cutting edge of modern architecture when they were built at Tougaloo in 1972, Renner Hall, Branch Hall and Coleman Library.
Tougaloo traces its beginnings as one of the leading historical black colleges and universities in America to 1869, when it was established by the abolitionist American Missionary Association on 500 acres carved from the thriving 2000 acre Boddie Plantation in the southeastern corner of Madison County.
Fittingly, the Boddie family grew cotton, as the new school was founded to educate freed slaves and their descendants. The first class at Tougaloo was comprised of ten students, with a curriculum that combined the basic Three R’s — reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic — with a smattering of liberal arts. They were literally being educated on the land where they used to pick cotton as slaves.
Tuition was $1 per month, if you could pay it. If not, it was free. It is not difficult to see how, after generations of forced servitude, it became a source of pride for a family to be able to afford college tuition for those smart enough and fortunate enough to attend.
“Not many people are aware that Tougaloo was also first grade through twelfth grade,” says physical education instructor Norma Williams, one of three professors who have dedicated their lives to teaching at Tougaloo for a half-century or longer.
“I’ve spent my entire life here,” she says proudly. “I started in first grade — kindergarten really — graduated high school, then college, then I joined as a faculty member right after college, and I’ve taught here ever since. Tougaloo taught all grades until the late 1950s.”
Besides the core group of ten buildings that are on the National Register of Historic Places, which includes the antebellum mansion that was the centerpiece of the Boddie Plantation, there are the aforementioned library and residence halls, which are reaching the age where their importance in the overall history of American modern architecture will ensure that they are also included in that august group as well.
The genesis of Tougaloo’s Master Plan, which was projected to transform a small, southern black college into a futuristic showcase occurred in Columbus, Indiana, in the 1950s.
J. Irwin Miller, who joined his family’s successful Cummins Engines business in 1934, developed a fascination with modern architecture from its earliest days.
After much persuasion and financing several projects on his own, he finally convinced the city fathers of Columbus to entertain the notion of radically altering the design landscape of their fair city, utilizing the visionary talents of modern architects such as I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and others. Thus began the process of incorporating twenty-first century design into the city’s architecture, a process which Miller eventually expanded to include other towns and cities across America’s heartland. You might say that he saw himself as a sort of Johnny Appleseed of modern architecture.
With the national spotlight turned squarely on Mississippi in the early 1960s thanks to its focus as the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement, Tougaloo was a natural to be included in Miller’s plans.
James Meredith, who made history as the first African American to successfully integrate previously all-white Ole Miss and later with his 200-mile trek from Memphis to Jackson, during which he was shot and had to take time to recuperate before he could complete his journey, chose Tougaloo as the endpoint.
“There was all kinds of national media running around, and celebrities everywhere,” recalls Meredith. “Everybody wanted to be part of history. Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, you name it. But you know, they never got it right. I never called it a march. It was just a walk — a walk to prove that we all have the same rights, — even if it’s just to walk down the street, to walk the highways and byways of our country, don’t you understand. A march is a protest. I always tried to leave the marching and protesting to Dr. King and the rest. It wasn’t a march. It was just a walk, and I chose to walk to Tougaloo.”
“They saw Tougaloo as becoming the Harvard of the South,”says Dr. James C. Coleman, who was in the same Tougaloo graduating class as Norma Williams and has served his alma mater as teacher, administrator, coach, and now athletic director for over 50 years.
“The Master Plan developed by Gunnar Birkerts, the modern architect chosen to design the buildings, actually radically redesigned the entire campus. It was a crosshatched design incorporating modular pre-fabricated concrete sections, which were actually poured here on campus, down near where the baseball field is now, and transported to the site. The goal was to eventually connect every building on campus, so that a student or teacher could walk from one end of the campus to the other without ever touching the ground.”
“It was pretty radical,” he admits,”but as you can see, only the first three buildings were ever completed.”
“The pilings for each building were sunk 48 feet deep because of the Yazoo clay. Yates Construction built Coleman Library, and the two residence halls, Renner and Branch, were built by Burnett Construction out of New York,” he recalls.
“Burnett found the pre-fab plant in Hamburg, Germany, where it had been used to rebuild the city after the devastation left by World War II. They bought it, then had it transported here from Germany, where it was reassembled and put to use.”
Jennie Renner Hall has 2 stories, and 5 ‘houses’ with a total of 100 rooms that can accomodate 200 students, plus a counselor’s apartment, two lounges and two bathrooms for each house.
Addison Albert Branch Hall, named for Tougaloo’s longest- serving dean and acting president from 1955-1956, also has 2 stories, with 4 houses and room for 160 students, plus the other spaces.
The L. Zenobia Coleman Library, which was named for Tougaloo’s long-serving chief librarian, is 3 1/2 stories tall, beautifully appointed, and is considered one of the purest examples of modernist pre-fab concrete design. It also houses Tougaloo’s important Civil Rights Library and Archives.
“It was one of the most interesting projects I ever worked on,” recalls Latvian-born architect Gunnar Birkerts, who is still designing at age 91 in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
“It posed some very great difficulties for the black community there,” he recalls, “and I myself had to be very careful. There were reports that I was going to be threatened because of my involvement in the project. But it never happened.”
“The decision was made to build ‘The Harvard of the South,’ with the three initial buidings to be constructed, then additional buildings as the years went by,” he says. “That never came to pass, unfortunately.”
“We simply ran out of money,” says Dr. Coleman. “There was enough seed money for the first three, but with a 40-year mortgage, long before we established our Capital Campaign Fund, we were stretched.”
“That, and the basic upkeep of the buildings, which is extensive. They have flat roofs, so they leak in certain places, and some of the concrete pilings are starting to erode at the tops. All this requires constant maintenance.”
“The residence halls have their iconic stature on campus, but they do have what I would call basic design flaws which limit their flexibility, thus our ability to modernize and adapt their functions.” says Kelle Menogan, Sr., vice president and director of facilities at Tougaloo. “We’re currently considering adapting their use to either faculty offices or classrooms, but nothing is definite yet.”
“Coleman Library is still a very handsome building, with lots of very flexible space in it,” he adds. “There are renovations currently underway, with an eye toward repurposing some of the spaces for 21st century learning. We’re adding completely new labs, plus some cosmetic upgrades, which we hope will integrate it more into the campus fabric.”
“At least we can always use photos of the Master Plan model to attract student athletes from up north,” says Professor Jim Brown, who ran distance on the Temple University track team in the mid-60s, and is in his 50th year teaching history at Tougaloo.
“Now, I have been known to do that,” laughs Dr. Coleman. “I tell them this is what the campus is going to look like. I just don’t tell them when!”
Seldom has a college had a more appropriate motto than Tougaloo: “Where history meets the future.”
The same can be said for it’s name, considering its iconic stature in the Civil Rights movement and its role in the Freedom Summer of 1964. The word “Tougaloo” is of Cherokee/Choctaw origin and translates to “where two rivers meet.”
Oh, and the answer is two. N.W. Overstreet, Sr. And Fountainhead.
They’re literally all around you.
If you just know where to look. o