Nine lives: Memorial Hall has taken on many roles in its long history

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2008

If Memorial Hall were a person it would surely qualify for some type of lifetime achievement award.

Memorial Hall, on Pearl Street, has its own uniqueness, a history that is both lost and preserved.

Natchez’s city leaders first began to plan the buildings construction in 1850.

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Though the building was not completed for three more years it is unlikely that the city’s leaders knew how things would evolve, fall into disrepair and ultimately be resurrected.

Over the years the building has led a storied life as a school, opera hall, skating rink, library and museum and now functions as a federal courthouse.

Much of what is known about the building is passed on via word-of-mouth from an increasingly shrinking population of people who once used the building, through articles written in local publications or from the occasional student working on a dissertation project.

Phyllis Seawright an associate professor of theater at Mississippi College wrote her dissertation on Memorial Hall.

Seawright said trying to find information on the hall is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“It has such a full history but it’s just so hard to find the information,” she said.

Originally used as an auditorium for the Natchez Institute, a local school in the mid-1800s, the building soon began its metamorphosis around 1883.

In the latter part of the 1800s the building lent its basement to the public library where it remained until 1965.

Around 1887 articles in The Daily Democrat refer to the hall as an opera house.

Madrid born teenage opera star, Adelina Patti gave one of her last performances at the hall before returning to Europe in the late-1800s.

Performances like Patti’s were commonplace during the hall’s heyday.

“Natchez was determined to establish itself as a cultural center of the old Southwest,” Seawright said.

And not even the Civil War could slow down the use of the hall.

Seawright said the hall was used to host benefits for those wounded in battle along with orphans and widows from the war.

The hall was also used to host balls for the Union Army during Natchez’s occupation in 1862.

In the 1880s and 1890s the hall was also used for an indoor skating rink and indoor baseball diamond.

However the hall did not see some of its biggest changes come until the mid-1900s.

In 1921 the hall’s name was changed from Institute Hall to Memorial Hall to memorialize soldiers from World War I.

From 1932-1940 the building was home to Natchez’s famous Pilgrimage balls.

In 1940 when the new Natchez Municipal Audtorium was completed Memorial Hall was practically abandoned.

When the library left the building in 1965 it was used as a museum until 1987.

The Historic Natchez Foundation acquired the building in 1987 when city building inspectors condemned it.

Much of the ceiling had collapsed.

In 1991 HNF agreed to hold the building for use by the Natchez Opera Festival, but in 1999 the opera decided to go elsewhere and the foundation transferred the ownership of the building to the city to be developed into a federal courthouse.

And so on Oct. 23, 2007, Memorial Hall came back to life, again, as a federal courthouse.

Historic Natchez Foundation’s Preservation Director Mimi Miller said the credit for having the court moved from Vicksburg to Natchez goes to former Natchez Mayor Larry L. “Butch” Brown and Judge David Bramlette.

“They put a lot of work and a lot of years into that building,” she said.

Brown said he first brought up the idea of having the court moved in a conversation with Sen. Trent Lott in 1993.

“It’s not an easy thing to do, move a federal court,” he said.

But Brown and Bramlette did ultimately have the court moved after more than a decade of trying.

And having the court moved and

the building refurbished have truly anchored it in Natchez.

The court, unlike an opera house or skating rink, cannot go out of business.

Bramlette said while the amount of cases the courthouse hosts may vary, the court itself will not be going anywhere.

And it’s a good thing the building isn’t going anywhere because its amazing restoration would be missed downtown.

Walking through the front doors visitors to the court are greeted by the original grand staircase.

Bramlette said the staircase is one of his favorite parts of the entire building.

“It’s magnificent,” he said. “It was deliberately preserved to maintain the grandeur of the entrance.”

While the staircase is grand the rest of the building is not too bad either.

The entire building has been renovated in a way that preserves the structure’s essence while giving it a modern feel and modern amenities.

J. David Waggoner III, of Waggoner and Ball Architects, said the firm began a study on the restoration project seven years before its completion.

“A building is not meant to be empty,” he said. “This is going to be a great addition to Natchez.”

And that’s proved true so far.

“What has happened to that building is an excellent example of a terrific restoration,” Miller said.