This is part 2 of a three part trip through the Jefferson and Claiborne County areas of Mississippi. Here’s part 1.
About 6.6 miles north of State Highway 553 and its intersection with U.S. Highway 61 is Church Hill, the location of Christ Church, which was the first Episcopal congregation in Mississippi.
The Mississippi Historic Preservation site describes the church:
Christ Church is the “cradle of Episcopacy in Mississippi” as the congregation built the first Christ Church on Church Hill around 1820. The current Christ Church is the third Christ Church on Church Hill. Obscure Natchez architect/lawyer J. Edward Smith designed Christ Church with N. L. Carpenter constructing the church in 1857 and 1858. Smith designed perhaps the purest expression of Gothic Revival architecture in antebellum Mississippi. The National Register nomination form states, “Christ Church is one of the few Gothic Revival buildings in the state having a functional hammer-beam roof. This late-medieval construction form is also ‘honestly’ expressed on the exterior. Christ Church is built of brick, stuccoed and scored to imitate ashlar masonry…The integrity of the original structure and decorative fabric of Christ Church is remarkable…Pews, chairs, and the marble font are also original furnishings. Although inoperative for many years, the original pipe organ, reported to be of Scottish manufacture, remains in place. Alterations to the exterior structure have been limited to the removal of the paired chimneys, which served an original furnace below the nave, and the disappearance of all corbels from which the drip stones and hammer-beam representations sprang.”
The last sentence of this has me confused, and my attempt to make sure I understood the terms only served to confuse me further.
A corbel is apparently a piece of masonry jutting out from a wall to support another element sticking out of the wall. A drip stone is also called a hoodmold and is an element sticking out of a wall over a window to deflect water. You can see in the picture below the arched drop stones over the windows, each of which appear to me to be supported by a little corbel. A hammer-beam is part of an open-timber interior (a “hammer-beam roof”) of the sort where beams project partly from the wall and support an arched beam over them. Hammer-beam roofs are halmarks of English Gothic architecture. The hammer-beam is the short beam parallel to the floor, and it is supported by corbels both on the interior and exterior. A picture probably best illustrates this.
I think I’m seeing what I understand to be corbels under the drip stones on these windows, and am not sure where to look for the ones that would have supported the hammer-beams. I’m mildly curious what I’m supposed to be seeing.
I’m in way over my head here.
I could not go inside, something that is a regular frustration on outings like this,* but was able to peer in the windows a small amount and could see the beautiful and small pipe organ on the East interior wall of the church, and to get some idea of how the sanctuary looked.
Here’s another view of the church.
…and the historical marker beside it.
The other building at the intersection that makes up Church Hill is a country store that was (or is?) apparently the town’s post office.
From there, we got back on Highway 553 and went North/Northeast another six and a half miles, roughly, to the Natchez Trace. From there to just south of Port Gibson at the intersection with Highway 61 is just over 17 miles. Just before the Trace, we saw a historic marker and the long oak-lined drive for the entrance to Springfield Plantation, which is most famously the place where Andrew Jackson and Rachel Robards were married.**
After reentering Highway 61 from the Trace, after a couple of miles, you are on Church Street in Port Gibson.
My family is from Claiborne County and lived continuously in that area from the 1790s until the 1930s (and my paternal grandparents returned from the mid-sixties until the early nineties). I grew up going there and have particularly strong roots in the Southwestern part of Claiborne County along the River, the Westside community.
My main stops in Port Gibson (and all the photos below) were on Church Street. In 2009, Church Street in Port Gibson was on the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s list of ten most endangered sites in Mississippi, because of a plan by the Mississippi Department of Transportation to widen Church Street, which is also U.S. Highway 61 in New Orleans. This would have removed the live oaks lining the street, and had other disasterous consequences to a beautiful road. Thereafter, MDOT changed leadership and backed off the plan, announcing a resolve last Spring to investigate bypass routes west of town. While I was at Church Street recently, I saw “SAVE CHURCH STREET” signs still up, though. I also noted the semi-trucks and other traffic typical of a U.S. highway. Moving that traffic west of town would be a very good thing.
There are several beautiful churches on Church Street. The folks at Mississippi Historic Preservation did a good job of showing the Catholic Church recently. I was focused on the one that is clearly unique: The Moorish revival style Temple Gemiluth Chassed synagogue, which was built from 1890-1892 by a congregation that had formally established itself in 1859 and that survived more-or-less into the 1960s.
There’s an excellent history of the congregation of this synagogue on the website for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Here’s the South-facing side of the building.
While the building certainly is a unique example of its style in Mississippi, details like the windows remind me of other buildings in Mississippi built in roughly the same era.
Here’s the historic marker from the synagogue.
Next door to the synagogue to the North is a Federal cottage that belonged from when it was built until the 1980s by the Engelson family. The last family member who lived in the house (and left no heirs) was a close friend of my grandmother. I spent a lot of time in the house in the 1970s and 1980s. What was most remarkable about it was that the family who built it in the 1810′s seem to have kept everything they ever brought into the house– there was a portrait of the woman who was the original occupant in the front room, and, under it in a silver dish was the jewelry she was wearing in the portrait. I particularly remember a couple of vibrant quilts, one an antebellum crazy quilt containing silk ribbons won at school. Sadly, when Mrs. Engelson died in the 80s, the house went in one direction (to the local Episcopal church) and the contents another, to family members of hers with no roots in the area. It was all broken up.
This picture is from the yard of the synagogue.
The Engelson house’s grounds (on the North side of the house) are said to contain the oldest formal garden in Mississippi. I know that there are paths lined with early 19th century ale bottles.
Catercorner across from the Engelson house is the First Presbyterian Church, which famously has a gold hand atop pointing toward heaven, a trademark gesture of a founding minister of the church. I am particularly partial to the interior of the church, which is unusual in its quiet seriousness.
I turned from Church Street onto Carroll Street. Just before Main Street, I stopped at the Blues Trail marker for the Rabbits Foot Minstrel. It’s by the building that housed the gas station owned by F.S. Walcott, who owned the minstrel show, and is one of the best of the blues markers. One thing not on the marker that relates to both Walcott and that location is a famous F.S.A. photograph of a window in which Walcott had painted the contents of a letter he’d received from President Roosevelt.
From the Rabbits Food Marker, I headed West on Carroll Street, which dog legs after about a block and becomes Rodney Road, headed toward Westside.
Go to Part 3.
*Have I seen the building if I haven’t been inside? At Jefferson College, the newer West Wing building was open, but the East Wing building was locked, which meant that the one designed by Levi Weeks was inaccesable. While I have been inside the Gemulith Chassed synagogue before, I wasn’t able to go inside on this outing.
**Google Maps seems to locate Springfield Plantation about 11 miles to the East of the historic marker I saw (although Google maps labels the oak-lined drive I saw as “Springfield Road”). This map of historical markers in Adams County places the Springfield marker (and, presumably, the entrance to the drive to the house) where I saw it.