Shared History - March 2017
Historic Tour of Old Town
Wend your way through Old Town taking in the Bay's historic gems with the paper - or the mobile - version of this popular tour.
- story by Rebecca Orfila, photos by Ellis Anderson
The original wooden Depot was built in 1876, and was destroyed by fire approximately 50 years later. The present structure was built in 1929, in Spanish Mission style. A park surrounds the Depot and includes a walking track, a duck pond and picnic tables, all under shade provided by large live oaks. The fanciful building served as a set for the 1965 movie, “This Property is Condemned,” starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, directed by Sydney Pollack. It was one of Redford’s first films.
Just a block away, at 398 Blaize Avenue, stands the real star of the movie, the “Starr Boarding House.” Most of the film centered around this building, but its star status didn’t prevent it from languishing for years and nearly being demolished. Saved in a dramatic last-minute community effort, the building was meticulously restored with the help of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History post-Katrina. It now serves as home to the Bay St. Louis Little Theatre.
Some other personal favorites on the tour:
Tercentenary Park, which memorializes Bienville’s entrance into the Bay of St. Louis over 300 years ago. The park is located on the point of highest elevation on the Gulf of Mexico - 31 feet. It’s the official starting point of the tour, but one can begin anywhere and enjoy the stroll.
The Palm House, close to the Depot (217 Union Street), is a West Indies Planter style house built in the 1880s. For many years, it was the home of Joan Seal, the wife of a circuit judge. Mrs. Seal was recognized as a generous philanthropist in this area and so devoted to her dogs that she left provisions for them in her will.
The Piernas House, at the corner of South Toulme and St. John Street, is a side gallery cottage, and former home Louis Piernas, a free black man who was a community leader. In 1889, he received a presidential appointment to serve as postmaster of Bay St. Louis. Piernas, who lived to be 98, also served as chairman of the Hancock County Republican Party for 65 years, even traveling to Chicago for the 1882 convention.
The Weinburg House and Cobbler’s Cottage - 112 South Second Street - was originally constructed by John Himes in 1868. Based on its hip or gable-on-hip roof and undercut gallery, the larger house is identified as a “Biloxi Cottage.” It’s now home to the popular Mockingbird Café. Next door, the eye-catching – and very diminutive – cottage served as the workshop of cobbler Manuel Maurigi for many years. One can imagine the delight of his ghost at seeing the cottage now, filled with artwork as the home of Smith & Lens Gallery.
The Railroad Street Houses are located at 125-129 Railroad Street. These Queen Anne Revival style homes were built by Eugene Ray, an African-American who was a respected local contractor and undertaker. The largest of the three houses was home to the beloved bishop who was born in Bay St. Louis, Leo Fahey.
100 Men Hall, located at 303 Union Street, isn’t on the tour’s official route, but is suggested as an “Off the Beaten Trail” destination. The blue and white clapboard building was built in 1922, and was such an important and popular site for music - and socializing - that it is included on the official Mississippi Blues Trail.
St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church (301 South Necaise Avenue) is a short hike from the 100 Men Hall and is also highlighted by the tour. The church was built in the mid-1920s, by local craftsman Joseph Labat. The “Christ in the Oak” mural behind the altar is a nationally recognized work of art.
The Old Town Biking/Walking Tour was conceptualized, written and photographed in 2008 by Ellis Anderson. Historian Charles Gray contributed stories of local lore (especially the more colorful bits) and helped with research, while graphic designer Jenny Bell of Adlib designed the brochure. Live Oak Alliance, a non-profit headed by Marcie Baria, backed the project and brought the tour to first fruition.
The first printings were completed with the help of a grant from the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area and funding from Live Oak and other local sponsors. Currently, printings are coordinated by the Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau and are sponsored by the Bureau, the Hancock County Historical Society and Ellis Anderson Media.
Myrna Greene, executive director of the Bureau, calls the tour brochure “the most effective and popular tool we have to introduce people to Bay St. Louis.” It’s updated periodically and is scheduled for a fourth reprinting in March 2017.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the tour however, is the people you’ll meet along the way. When you’re taking the tour, expect the warm and friendly nature of the neighbors along the way to make the experience even more memorable. I even had someone ask me for directions to the Hancock County Historical Society. I gave them the guide. You wouldn’t want to miss Kate Lobrano’s house on Cue Street!
Note: Since several of the buildings on the tour route are private residences, the tour brochure specifies on the opening page: “While we encourage exploring our public treasures here, please respect the privacy of our residential listings.”
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