Maurice and Gloria Herriott enjoy their balcony at 204 South Fifth St. The couple had the balcony installed in 2007. In the early 1900s balconies were prevalent in downtown Columbus, then fell out of favor. Now, they are popping back up. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
August 23, 2014 11:34:39 PM
Old photographs in the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library archives reveal that balconies were once commonplace in downtown Columbus.
Black and white images from the dawn of the 20th century show Main Street lined with balcony after balcony.
But after World War I, the balconies faded. By the 1920s, they were gone.
"You go through periods of history where you try to modernize," said Kenneth P'Pool, the deputy state historic preservation officer with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and a former Columbus resident.
The early 20th century trend to put in sidewalks contributed to the vanishing balconies, P'Pool said.
"They were seen as being detrimental to pedestrian traffic," P'Pool said.
Many of the balconies prevalent in the early 1900s, were replaced by canopies constructed of wood or metal -- the goal was to eliminate posts rising out of sidewalks.
Today, balconies are making something of a comeback.
Beginning the trend
Last Wednesday, Maurice Herriott looked out over his balcony on Fifth Street South in downtown Columbus and saw a man walking south along the sidewalk.
"He's going to The Princess," Herriott remarked.
The man was probably 200 yards from The Princess. It was around 4 p.m. and a faint breeze blew through the seafoam green metal frames of the balcony at 204 Fifth St.
Sure enough, the man walked into The Princess.
Maurice Herriott laughed -- he seems to know the patterns of downtown traffic from his vantage point, the place he said he likes to read on the afternoon and watch the world pass by below. It's also the reason he wanted to buy the building in the first place.
A decade ago, Herriott's wife, Gloria, was looking for a place to open her store, Hollyhocks. She was looking at the building and called her husband into town from their farm to take a look. Maurice Herriott came and looked at the shop space and then went to look upstairs. He walked through the second-story rooms -- there were old documents, once owned by cotton merchants, and a human skeleton the Columbus Fire Department had known about for years -- and came to doors that led to open air where a balcony had once existed.
"I knew right then I was gonna buy the damn building," he said.
In January 2005, the Herriotts' bought the building and began reproducing the original building, which had been completed in 1882.
They hired the late Sam Kaye to be their architect. Kaye had a photo that revealed the balcony and eventually found three of the original panels from the balcony inside the building. They sent them to a foundry in Birmingham to have them reconstructed.
The Herriotts got permission to install the balcony from the city's Historic Preservation Commission, the city council and from the city building inspector office. The Herriotts also had the project approved by the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior -- that helped them receive the tax benefits of being a nationally registered historic site,
In 2007, the balcony was erected. The Herriotts watched the Christmas parade from their balcony that year. The following year, they moved in.
"It is real important to us to keep the historical integrity of the building," Gloria Herriott said.
The Herriotts' balcony was the first to be added back to the downtown area.
'Striving to keep our authenticity'
Building inspector Kenny Wiegel believes a rise in downtown living has contributed to the balcony comeback. There are five balconies downtown today (including one recently installed at 513 Main) and at least one more may be coming, Wiegel said.
The Gawyn Mitchell law firm has received approval from the Historic Preservation Commission and councilmen, but has yet to present engineering plans to Wiegel's office.
According to Barbara Bigelow, executive director of Columbus Main Street, there are 170 apartments in downtown Columbus and five more under construction. Balconies, she said, make apartment living more appealing.
"We strive to keep our authenticity and uniqueness to history," she said. "It is important that we follow these standards in order that we do not lose our 'historic' status."
The reason so many agencies must pass off on a balcony's construction downtown, is the city's desire to preserve its National Register of Historic Places status. P'Pool said to keep the classification, downtown must maintain its historic integrity.
"The Department of Archives and History certainly encourages the reconstruction of missing historic architectural features, such as balconies and galleries, when it can be documented that those features were, indeed, an original part of the building's design," he said. "Columbus is fortunate to have a wealth of early photographs of downtown that can be used in documenting the early appearance of the city's historic buildings."
The addition of balconies in cities across the country is sometimes referred to as the "Nearly New Orleans Movement."
In Columbus, though, it is more of a revival of what was once here, as opposed to an imitation of what exists elsewhere.
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