Historic Natchez Foundation celebrates 40 years of preserving Natchez’s story
Published 12:24 am Sunday, January 19, 2014
NATCHEZ — For 40 years the Historic Natchez Foundation has peeled back the layers of history to reveal the stories of a Mississippi River city full of Southern culture and charm.
From helping restore numerous businesses in the historic downtown area to saving dilapidated structures that were once considered community eyesores, the handful of dedicated HNF employees have one goal in mind with each project — preserve the places that tell Natchez’s story.
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“Stanton Hall is a great work of art, but it’s no different than a shotgun house in that they’re both important pieces of Natchez history,” HNF Executive Director Mimi Miller said. “They both tell a story of the fabric of our community.”
That story began long before the HNF was formed in 1974, but the purpose of the non-profit organization’s creation was to ensure the story kept being told for many years to come.
The foundation evolved in 1974 from the Natchez Historical Society, another organization created with the goal of collecting historical material about Natchez and Adams County.
In January 1974, Dr. Thomas H. Gandy appointed a committee to study the establishment of a revolving fund for historic preservation.
Miller and her husband, Ron, had just moved to Natchez from Delaware when Ron was asked to work for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) at Jefferson College and the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians.
While the Millers were just becoming embedded in the community, Mimi recalls the conservations of the state of historic preservation in the city.
“The discussions about preservation in general at the time were that the garden clubs had done a wonderful job of preserving mansion houses and that would be their domain, but what was happening was that downtown was suffering terribly and was disappearing,” Mimi said. “There was no protection for buildings that were post Civil War, and (NHS) wanted to do something.
“(NHS) wanted an organization that would not be in competition with the garden clubs and not in competition with the historical society, but still help protect the fabric of the community.”
Ron was one of the eight people who studied foundations from other historic cities such as New Orleans and Savannah. The members used those foundations to write objectives and apply for a charter.
“We got copies of all their bylaws, charter and papers of incorporation and molded ours on that,” Ron said. “We were able to get everything together, came up with the name Historic Natchez Foundation and got our papers of incorporation as a non-profit organization.”
The organization was setup to utilize a revolving fund to acquire structures or sites of architectural significance.
The revolving fund would be established through loans and gifts. The fund would perpetuate itself through the acquisition and sale of property and through low-interest loans to individuals or groups who wished to utilize that privilege when acquiring property from the foundation.
The property acquired by the foundation was to be placed under restrictive covenant to be incorporated in the deed of the property. The covenant would have as its purpose, the assurance of acceptable restoration and preservation of the property.
The foundation could also restore some structures before selling them, but most property would be sold to individuals or organizations for restoration and preservation.
The foundation existed on paper for nearly five years with a few projects here and there, Ron said.
“For a while there, we didn’t really know how to proceed,” Ron said. “We kept thinking what comes first, the money or the project, to get people excited about the work?
“Without a project, why should anyone give you any money, but without money you can’t do any projects.”
Foundation members turned to the National Trust For Historic Preservation for advice and were advised to hire a director and staff to help organize the foundation and line up projects.
Funds were allocated from the City of Natchez and MDAH to help pay the salary of a director for two years.
Ron was offered the job in 1978, resigned from MDAH and became the foundation’s first executive director.
The foundation settled on the first major project being to place downtown Natchez on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The purpose of that was twofold: to bring the attention of the people of Natchez to the historic value of our downtown area and to also make those properties eligible for tax incentives by the federal government for rehabilitation or renovation,” Ron said. “We applied for a grant from the U.S. government and started our storefront renovation program.’”
The foundation spearheaded a program to help businesses renovate their storefronts in the downtown commercial district.
Downtown Natchez, Ron said, was becoming more of a museum for aging and historic buildings than a place where local commerce should be booming.
And the eventual fate of many of these buildings could have been death by demolition.
“There was an enormous threat in the 1970s and ’80s of the demolishment of historic buildings,” Ron said. “The downtown program really made an enormous impact on how the downtown looked, so much so that after 20 or 30 years it’s actually helping bring people to Natchez and giving people a place to live and work.”
The program helped renovate 13 to 14 downtown storefronts.
Tony Byrne, who was mayor of Natchez from 1968 to 1988, recalls the program being a catalyst for change in the downtown area.
“It was a tremendous help because it brought some population back to downtown,” Byrne said. “It gave people a chance to see what you could do with a store front downtown and did an awful lot for upstairs apartment or condo living.”
Mimi joined the foundation in 1979 just before the storefront project and still enjoys looking at before and after pictures of the renovations done downtown. Mimi took over as executive director in 2008 after Ron retired.
The goal with each storefront, Mimi said clicking through a slideshow of photos of all the renovations, was to restore the buildings to showcase and highlight the architectural history underneath changes made over the years.
“We provided the architect and the oversight to help the restoration of so many of these buildings,” Mimi said. “The board decided the focus of the foundation was going to be downtown and residential neighborhoods, so it allowed us to focus on some areas of town and restore them.”
Apart from the storefront project, efforts to save the Linton House in 1986 was another memorable and pivotal point for the foundation, Mimi and Ron said.
The house on the 300 block of North Commerce Street was under a court order for demolition after it had caught fire and neighbors worried it would burn again, Ron said.
The foundation felt it was an important landmark for Natchez and decided to do whatever it could to prevent the demolition.
“It was important for twofold: because we thought the house could be renovated and become one of the historic houses to contribute to downtown,” Mimi said. “The other is that you preserve things for fear of what will come in its place.
“That residential area was in danger of being commercialized.”
Ron and a few others mobilized and sought out the owners of the house to offer a proposition.
“We went to New Orleans to find the older lady whose family owned the property,” Ron said. “We told her the house was going to be demolished for a cost of $10,000 or she could give it to the Historic Natchez Foundation, and that’s what she did.”
The foundation lost nearly $90,000 by saving the house, but the goal of saving an important landmark and stopping commercial expansion into residential zones was accomplished.
“It’s the one project that we lost money on and yet I’m so glad we did it,” Ron said. “The neighbors were not pleased, and we lost a lot of money, but it was worth every penny because it was such an important landmark in that part of town.”
Trusting Ron and Mimi to make decisions on behalf of the foundation for the preservation of Natchez’s history has never been an issue for the board that oversees the foundation, Chuck Caldwell said.
Caldwell, who has served as a board member, treasurer and president, said board members have and continue to put their trust into those running the foundation.
“We’ve had a great respect for Ron and Mimi from day one because they’ve known what they’re doing and have a great eye for building integrity and architectural integrity,” Caldwell said. “Our board, at any point in time, has certainly respected their ability, and it’s been a catalyst for all of us getting along so well.
“They don’t really tap themselves on the back that much, but they really have Natchez at heart and are just genuinely top-notch people.”
The foundation acquired The Natchez Institute building in 1990, which serves as the foundation’s headquarters.
Along with a change of office space, the move to the new building also allowed the foundation to expand its services to include housing a compendium of Adams County records and information.
When the foundation agreed to store and care for the records in its basement in 1992, Mimi said the foundation took a big step in a slightly different direction.
“It definitely changed us from just a preservation foundation, and we became an archives for a couple of centuries of records,” Mimi said. “And in the natural evolution during our 40-year history, we amassed our own archives of the things we were creating on a daily basis — photographs, designs and other things.”
Mimi said the foundation seeks to strengthen the sense of place that defines Natchez — a place that would be much different had the foundation not been created.
“We probably wouldn’t be getting ready to celebrate the Tricentennial had we continued to let historic buildings be demolished and the foundation not been created,” Byrne said. “You probably could have had a new city, but that’s not Natchez.
“They’ve been able to help keep our integrity, our core and our history together.”