November 3, 2012 8:57:33 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - email@example.com
"We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." ~ Winston Churchill
More than a century ago, Chattanooga, Tenn. architect Reuben Harrison Hunt designed the building that would become the crown jewel and pièce de résistance of Mississippi University for Women.
Since that time, Poindexter Hall has shaped innumerable lives through the musicians whose careers began in this stately structure and the musical talent they have carried out into the world.
But even the most beautiful works of art are not immune to the ravages of time, and Poindexter was no exception. Friday, MUW officials reopened the facility amid considerable fanfare, inviting the public to view the end result of a three-year, $9.5 million renovation.
Though the work was necessitated by a modern need -- a requirement to meet code standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act -- it was also a good opportunity to return the aging building to its former glory.
Chris Morrow, of Pryor & Morrow Architects in Columbus, remembers beginning discussions with MUW in 2003 about the project. Friday, as he stood outside on the new, broadly sweeping wheelchair ramp, he talked about the challenges of retaining the structural integrity while satisfying the rigorous requirements of multiple parties.
MUW officials needed the building to meet federal requirements, but academic concerns were equally paramount, so two acoustical consultants were brought in to make sure it would continue to serve students and instructors for years to come.
The ADA required the building to be accessible to those with disabilities, hence the wheelchair ramps and two elevators, which posed their own challenges. Though people joke about how easy it is to get lost in the building's meandering labyrinth, it was no small feat to cope with its three-story north wing and four-story south wing -- the floors of which were mismatched to allow for extra space without compromising the exterior aesthetics with an uneven roofline.
The state Legislature, which funded the project through bonds, wanted a fiscally-responsible, budget-friendly renovation.
And, of course, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History wanted Poindexter -- one of the two dozen campus buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- to retain its historical integrity.
A beautiful success
Those who toured Poindexter Friday declared its renovation a resoundingly beautiful success.
Ken P'Pool, director of the MDAH Historic Preservation Division, couldn't stop raving over what he considers "one of the most beautiful spaces in America."
At one time, he had a field office on campus, and he was a frequent attendee of Poindexter's chamber music performances.
From the six giant order Ionic columns that grace the entrance, inspired by the 1890s Chicago World Exhibition and a nation suddenly enthralled with classical beauty, to the oval auditorium's ornate pilasters and cornice with egg and dart molding, it is a unique space.
"I think they did a superb job," P'Pool said of the renovation. "This institution has always been very strong in its music department and in the high quality of music instruction it gave its students. When you look at this building, there's no way not to have it hit you upside the face that what goes on here is important."
The results could not have been possible without the help of the state and the generous donations of private donors, MUW President Dr. Jim Borsig said.
Two of those donors, alumnae Nancy Smith Kennedy and Connie Sills Kossen, were on-hand to reminisce and view the rooms named in their honor.
Kossen, for whom the auditorium is now named, remembers how music majors such as herself more or less lived in Poindexter, spending hours each day practicing under extraordinarily talented and demanding professors.
Walking through the building once more, seeing the results of her generous donation, was an overwhelming experience and honor, said the Class of 1964 alumna.
Kennedy, who graduated in 1956, was equally enthused. When she was in school, there was no air conditioning, no elevators and no carpet. The seating was uncomfortable, but it didn't matter. Back then, as now, the building was a cherished part of so many people's memories.
"It's unbelievable," she said of the renovation. "But it's always been a beautiful auditorium."
Something old, something new
Weenona Poindexter, who retired in 1945 after 50 years of service to the music department, would be smiling if she were alive to see the building that has borne her name since 1947, said 1930 alumna Elizabeth Gwin, who spoke at Friday's grand reopening.
She loved Poindexter so much that in 1953, when nearby Shattuck Hall caught on fire, she rushed into Poindexter so that if the blaze spread to her beloved namesake, firefighters would be forced to rush inside to save her -- and her beloved building.
"Miss Poindexter was always so proud of this building," said Gwin, now 102 years old. "She would never believe that we are about to see. I think (MUW) will develop this into a premier music department in this great state."
In addition to the state-of-the-art acoustics, refurbished auditorium and electronic keyboard lab, Poindexter also includes new spaces for rehearsals, receptions and a student lounge. Crews salvaged as much of the foyer's heart pine flooring as possible, though some of the wood was too rotten to save.
Other renovations include structural stabilization, waterproofing, roof and window replacement and asbestos and lead paint surveys and abatement.
Friday's ceremony kicked off a two-day celebration which included a Decorative Arts and Preservation forum and antiques show, a concert by Millsaps College baritone James Martin, a cocktail-attire dinner and free seminars by experts in gardening, creative design, American art and history.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.