Courthouse fits building’s long legacy

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 24, 2001

Natchez aldermen are continuing the process for establishing a federal courthouse in Natchez, and let’s hope community support will be on the side of this good idea.

In 1999, the U.S. Congress passed necessary legislation to allow a federal court to sit at Natchez but providing no money for the site.

Never mind, however. With the creative energy of some former and present city officials, the ball continues to roll. City, county and federal governments will cooperate to make the courthouse a reality.

In mid July, a public hearing will be held to discuss urban renewal bonds and a plan for purchasing property and converting it into the courthouse.

Property under consideration for the courthouse is the 1850s building known as Memorial Hall located on South Pearl Street adjacent to the city council chambers and a small attached building on the north side of the hall. The Historic Natchez Foundation owns Memorial Hall; the attached building is privately owned.

The old hall has sat unused for many years, and its fine outer shell and some important interior details have been under the watchful eye of the Foundation, which has spent many thousands of dollars on the building, installing new windows, putting on a new roof and, before that, stabilizing the outer walls.

Not only is the handsome building a fine sight where it sits on South Pearl Street in one of the most highly charged areas of downtown, it also has a fascinating history as worthy of preserving as the building itself.

Constructed as a school hall, the building first was known as Institute Hall. The old Natchez Institute school behind it was inadequate for meetings and large school gatherings.

The cornerstone was laid in 1852, and contracts were awarded. A news article notes in May 1852 that the brickwork would be $8,000; the carpenter work, $3,500; painting, $435; slating, $816; copper and guttering, $375; and plastering and cementing, $1,500 to $1,800.

Expenses pale in comparison with what will be needed for the restoration and renovation of the building today, but the long-range benefits to Natchez will be fruitful payback for today’s investment.

If walls could talk, the old hall, which in the 1920s was renamed Memorial Hall when plaques to honor Natchez veterans of World War I were placed on the building, would have many stories to tell.

Still, the people who may come in and out of the building on important legal business should know something of who came before them – the school children, of course, and then, when in the 1880s the building became the town’s only amusement hall, there were many others. The famous Faye Templeton came with her opera company. Katie Putnam starred in &uot;Lena, the Madcap&uot; and &uot;Little Barefoot.&uot; There were firemen’s balls, Mardi Gras presentations and a spectacle billed as &uot;The World in Six Acts and Eight Tableaux.&uot;

The public library was established at the hall before 1900. The first evening entertainment for Spring Pilgrimage was held there in 1932. The federal courthouse may become the loftiest use of the building, and orations of brilliance on a scale never heard there before may ring through the venerable spaces. Let the record show, however, the first 150 years are worth remembering.

Joan Gandy, special projects director, can be reached at 445-3549 or via e-mail, joan.gandy@natchezdemocrat.com