Public Architecture in the Deep South
Spanish moss festoon aged oak, cresting into a deep vignette of antebellum grandeur. This is the one point perspective of Oak Alley from the Great River Road — a panorama seared into our cultural subconscious due to cameos in films such as Interview with the Vampire and Primary Colors. Yet the architectural diversity in the lower Mississippi River Delta is staggering. A variety of influences, from the Native Americans who first inhabited the South to the Spanish, French, and British colonists to early and contemporary Americans — mark the architectural landscape with buildings that reflect and respond in various ways to their climate and historical impetus.
Setting out from New Orleans, I aspired to trace the mighty Mississippi, exploring public architecture in a region often overlooked for its design sensibility. Ascending north along local roads in Louisiana and Arkansas, I used Memphis, in West Tennessee, as a turning point to make my return trip south along the Blue Highway in Mississippi.
Few structures break the green canopy of the low-lying marshlands outside greater New Orleans other than the occasional highway overpass or smokestack. Until Baton Rouge that is. Occupying the first precipice north of the Mississippi Delta, Baton Rouge’s prominence as the capitol of Louisiana is reinforced by the clustering of the state’s petrochemical industry. As refineries filtered into the region in the 1930s government functions outgrew the Old Capitol Building. A significant investment in a new capital building during the Great Depression was shepherded by Populist governor Huey Long. The new Capitol, completed in 1932, would forgo the dome and wing mimicker for a distinguished art deco tower design by Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, notable for other public buildings in Louisiana. Rising 450 ft, the tallest of any state capitol, the tower is topped in an octagonal cupola and beacon design dominated by large windows and a wraparound observation deck. For the morbidity inclined, Huey Long, then serving a US Senator was shot in the capitol and is laid to rest in the formal gardens.
Leaving ‘Long’s Monument’ in my rearview, I entered an ecoregion defined by public intervention. The west bank of the Mississippi River in central Louisiana has historically been an ever changing landscape of floodplains, oxbows, and false rivers. With the pervasiveness of steamboat teeming the lower Mississippi in the 19th century, efforts to regulate alluvial channel patterns were initiated. I traversed an extensive system of locks, spillways, and low-sill structures managed by the US Army Corp of Engineers. Most astonishing was the road itself for drawing focus to the consistent risk of water inundation for Louisiana Highway 15 is laid out over a ten-foot levee, isolating brackish riverscapes from fertile fields.
As topography rises, the monotony of the Mississippi plains transforms to a hardwood coniferous forest. Capitalizing on this threshold, the city of Pine Bluff became an economic hub for forestry in the late 19th century and boomed again during the Second World War. By the mid 60’s, a civic center was needed to house all municipal functions and to provide a much needed stimulus for downtown development. Turning to acclaimed modernist and Arkansas native son, Edward Durell Stone laid out the three structure campus on a raised podium. The Civic Center enlists a formal colonnade and cast concrete panels, characteristics Stone advanced with the US Embassy in New Delhi and the Uptown campus of SUNY Albany. The deep overhangs, shielding users from high temperatures and humidity, are reminiscent of plantation verandas. Formal in presentation, the Civic Center breaks the traditional symmetrical layout with an askew communications tower. Much of the Civic Center is original but worn as Pine Bluff fell on hard times in the latter half of the 20th century.
Farther up the road it widens, merging into highways as you narrow in on Memphis, the largest city on the Mississippi. Long a logistical hub on the river, freight lines and interstates now crisscross the city, yet open green space still persists. A lengthy redevelopment of Shelby Farms spearheaded by master planners James Corner Field Operation, saw the penal farm transform into a recreation destination – complete with a bison herd. Designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects, a series of single story pavilions settle into the landscape. Each, its own study of elevation and pitch, share a simple material palette of mostly aluminum grating and cypress planking that form a crisp identity without feeling rustic. While within the city limits, Shelby Farms’ feels too agrarian to be considered an urban park as open fields and expansive lake front obstruct any semblance of city life.
Control over the river is still an ongoing concern. My planned stops along the road from Memphis to Vicksburg were thwarted due to higher than normal river levels, a repercussion of unseasonable heavy rainfall in the Midwest associated with climate change. Taking refuge on the bluffs of Vicksburg, the socioeconomic legacy of slavery was evident as wealth was and is concentrated on higher ground in contrast to improvised low-lying farmland. This underscores the town’s reliance on the river, as wealthy land owners utilized the river for fertilization, irrigation, and shipping. Tasked with improving navigation and instituting flood control after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the Mississippi Valley Commission took residence in a Romanesque structure that was formerly a post office and customs house in Vicksburg. The imposing red brick building was designed in 1894 by William Freret to include round windows with radiating voussoirs and elaborate high-reliefs depicting chimera—endowing the Commission with instant prestige.
Rounding out my journey, I made my way back to New Orleans. Managing to go toll-less for the first 1000 miles, I opted to pay to take the Pontchartrain Causeway. Few introductions to a city have such majesty as the Causeway. Bisecting Lake Pontchartrain, the Causeway is the longest continuous bridge over water in the world. Halfway through the 23 mile span and you will feel enveloped by a great inland sea. Then all of a sudden New Orleans appears like a mirage sprouting from a great sea.