For years, Fondren has affectionately referred to its south central hub of businesses – galleries, retailers, restaurants and others – as a historic district.
With the help of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and a generous development group, the historic moniker has finally been made official.
The “Downtown Fondren Historic District,” “roughly along North State Street, Old Canton Road, Duling Avenue & Fondren Place,” has been named to the National Register of Historic Places. This according to the National Park Service, the administrator of the register. The designation was effective on September 10, 2014.
“It is a unique district in the state, a suburban core that demonstrates the transition from traditional downtowns, seen in the Fondren Strip, to automobile-oriented shopping centers, such as Morgan Center, the earliest in the state,” said Jennifer Baughn, Chief Architectural Historian for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “It also documents the high quality of mid-century modern design prevalent in the downtown area, including Morgan Center, Kolb’s Cleaners, Cups and the Everday Gardener building.”
Jason Watkins, a majority partner in the Whitney Place Development Corporation, along with partner David Pharr, funded the initial naming process with a smaller focus.
“It started with discussions with Archives and History about whether they would support placing The Capri on the register,” Watkins said, noting the highly-anticipated theater redevelopment project. “What they told us was, ‘We would, but we’d like to see Fondren being designated as historic district.’”
Whitney Place hired retired MSU professor and preservationist, Michael Fazio, who began a study, researched properties and boundaries and facilitated the nomination through the state.
Part of the designation, Watkins said, was to give thought to an overall plan for Fondren, to recognize the architectural and historic value of the downtown district. “The other part,” he added, “is a marketing component that gives us a legitimate historic district.” A third factor is that contributing buildings can now renovate using historic tax credits.
“It gives a chance for all of these structures to get a facelift,” Watkins said of The Strip on North State Street. “Not just that, but it’s interiors, too. We’ve seen these credits used to modernize buildings, from heating and cooling to plumbing and electricity work. It’s significant.”
Jim Wilkirson, executive director of Fondren Renaissance, the non-profit organization whose mission it is to empower the efforts of those like Watkins and Pharr, applauds the news. “The work that Jason and David have put into this process goes to show that we are a neighborhood that, together, accomplishes big things,” Wilkirson said. “The entire business district will benefit from it and we couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Watkins says the recognition couldn’t have come at a better time. “In having to rebuild so much of an aging landscape, it’s hard to keep up,” he remarked. “I believe the historic designation gives Fondren a chance to be on a level playing field with newer developments and to establish more thriving businesses, particularly creative ones. To folks who don’t understand tax credits, it might be hard to quantify. But in tax credit development, this is a big deal.”