Rebuilding Heritage Mississippi

With all the attention on the plight of post-Katrina New Orleans, the destruction in Mississippi is sometimes overlooked. But not by the World Monuments Fund.

According to Morris Hylton III, Initiatives Manager for the NY- based World Monuments Fund, the state of Mississippi is often overlooked when the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina is discussed. After initial media coverage, New Orleans received the most attention, and volunteer support and aid poured into the city. Mississippi, however, is dealing with great loss, and the World Monuments Fund is there to help.

"There have been many buildings in New Orleans that have been severely damaged, and the situation in some areas is dire, but in Mississippi, buildings are just gone; complete national registered historic districts simply no longer exist," he says. It is estimated that 1,200 landmark structures are destroyed and another 2,300 are in danger.

Three landmark residences were used for the demonstration and restoration projects in Mississippi. The first, beginning in December 2005, was the Hecker House in the small waterfront community of Bay St. Louis. A fallen oak tree demolished the home, but the tree acted as a dam and collected all of the building when it washed out into the gulf.

Because the structure had been altered over time, nobody knew how old it was. As it turns out, it is probably one of the oldest surviving structures in Bay St. Louis, dating back to 1780. The house has been in the family for three generations and the Phillips' house next door, whose restoration began soon afterwards, had been the family's home for six generations.

Both homes illustrate an amazing continuity and recognition of the past that is not often seen in other parts of the US. The third cottage to be restored was owned by a renowned American artist, Walter Anderson, who was known for painting vibrant watercolours of Gulf Coast landscapes. His cottage was washed off at the foundation, so a demonstration project showed how an old house can be restored to its foundation instead of being demolished.

As Hylton explains, "What our project is demonstrating is the important role conservation and the recovery of heritage plays in the healing process of the community, their shared identity and shared history. It is a very apolitical, neutral context that can bring a lot of different groups of people together."

WMF recently was offered a grant by the New York based Nathan Cummings Foundation, a family foundation that focuses on social justice issues. For Hylton, it reaffirms that cultural heritage and its preservation really does play a role in facilitating social problems.