The first thing you notice in Biloxi and other places on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is the empty space. Driving on Route 90 along the shore, there’s a strange mix of vacant lots, big trees and new, not especially good buildings. And then you realize you’ve entered the Katrina zone. While most of the outside world’s attention ten years ago was focussed on New Orleans, Biloxi (75 miles away) was hit with the same storm surge. It didn’t kill as many people, and it didn’t inundate as large an area (as Biloxi is not below sea level, as is most of New Orleans), but it pretty much wiped out the blocks nearest the Gulf. We passed many historical markers, but couldn’t see the subjects to which they referred – they turned out to be markers for historic buildings which were no longer there. Waterfront property is a valuable and limited commodity, but In Biloxi and adjacent Ocean Springs, there’s still plenty available.
Away from the Gulf, the historic core of Biloxi survived, but it appears that it had previously succumbed to waves of economic abandonment, demolition, and ill-conceived urban renewal schemes. Biloxi resembles Vegas or Atlantic City on a smaller scale, where the gambling construction moved to a different location, and the older downtown was left to shrivel up. There are a few good buildings remaining,
but most of the rebuilding has been by institutions or corporations with deep pockets. The casinos have been rebuilt, and they constitute a world apart, right on the water with their own parking structures, and not much connection to the city further inland.
In an attempt to bring back the tourists and the economy, some new institutions have been built, such as Gehry’s Ohr-O’Keefe Museum (which I’ll detail in a later post), and a Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum (not to be confused with Fernandina’s Shrimping Museum. I’ve never seen so many museums dedicated to specific industries as in the South.)
The important historic houses were salvaged and have been rebuilt. Most significant is the Charley-Norwood house in Ocean Springs, which is thought to have been designed by FL Wright while he was working in Sullivan’s office, It is a remarkably pristine and rigorous house for its period, one which shows influences from the Shingle Style, but which is rigidly symmetrical and utilizes pure, stripped-down forms.
The other major house restoration is that of Beauvoir, the last house where Jefferson Davis lived, and where he wrote his memoirs. It is the centerpiece of a large complex, which is owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who operated a Confederate veterans home there until the last veteran died. When we entered the property we encountered a small group of
Civil War War of Northern Aggression reenactors, who invited Greta to fire their cannon.
The house itself was badly damaged by Katrina, with water rising 18 inches above the floor of the raised living level, and the outbuildings were destroyed. All has been restored, and the tour we were on was among the most comprehensive and professional we’ve encountered. The house is of the raised plantation type, with a deep verandah on all sides, a central hall, and high-ceilinged parlors and bedrooms off the hall, with painted trompe-l’oeil detailing.
The building that housed Davis’s archives and library was also destroyed, and it has been replaced by a new museum and library, which is amongst the most pretentious and ghastly buildings we’ve encountered in six months. It is hard to imagine a less coherent collection of random motifs and irreconcilable forms. The state of architecture in the South is even worse than I’d imagined – I expected banality, but nothing this aggressively awful. It appears that all the good buildings in the area have been designed by outsiders.
Public bathrooms strangely raised up above the flood level, with the world’s longest ramp to access them. (If your city is being once again destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane, we don’t know why it is important to make sure the bathrooms survive.)
All of this had the look of federal money being spent on restoration and economic revival after Katrina. In fact, the South is full of federally-funded establishments everywhere you look. More military bases than anywhere else, and all the major pieces of the space program, strewn from Florida to Texas. So fittingly, as we were about to depart Mississippi for Louisiana, Roadside America came through with another winner – a lunar module trainer used by the Apollo 13 astronauts, and now installed in a rest area on I-10.