Too old to be ignored, not authentic enough to be preserved|[09/03/07]

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 3, 2007

Stately, old homes in Vicksburg can be found frequently on the open market garnering offers for their uniqueness and importance to the area’s historic fabric.

One not listed among the dozen or so 150-year-old structures available in Vicksburg is in a unique position: too old to be ignored but perhaps not authentic enough to be preserved.

For nine years, Ceres Plantation House was leased to Greenwood native Bob Fant and his wife, Janine, who lived in the two-story, six bedroom house and operated Fant Nursery in the adjacent barns. With signs on Interstate 20 reminding customers they could “get their flowers in Flowers,” the plant business was a success, dealing in everything from small plants to trees and shrubs.

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As part of the community, they also donated trees to the YMCA and were members of Keep Vicksburg-Warren Beautiful. During autumn, when pumpkins are plentiful on doorsteps and dessert menus, Fant invited customers to hike down to a four-acre pumpkin patch and size them up for whatever suited their fancy.

However, the property has belonged to the Warren County Port Commission, who obtained it in 1986 when the county bought the 1,290-acre tract that would become Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex. Terms of the lease the Fants signed in 1998 called for the port authority to collect a $900 monthly rent and maintain the right to yank the property back for industrial use if a commercial tenant expressed sufficient interest.

Maintenance of the house fell to the Fants, an arrangement that ultimately caused negotiations to rework terms of the lease and the nursery to close its doors for good in May.

Speaking by phone in June as he and his wife were in the process of moving to suburban Atlanta — to start over “from scratch” — Fant said he had only praise for the community that supported the business for nearly a decade.

“I’m very appreciative to the customers,” Fant said. “I’m not bitter. I understand things happen.”

While he acknowledges the roof has leaked since a powerful hail storm in 2004, Fant said he tried in vain to work with port commissioners to redo the lease and save the business.

Fant said he was willing to put $100,000 into repairing the roof and addressing other structural problems with the house. He said he offered to renew the lease early on more than one occasion, resulting in what he termed a “handshake agreement” to reimburse him fair market value for the repair costs. But, in the end, the commission didn’t budge from its stance that Fant bear the cost of all maintenance costs.

“It didn’t make reasonable sense to me to do it,” Fant said.

His decision to leave concluded a chapter in the house’s history that began with its construction on land granted to Uriah Flowers in the early 1830s, according to historical accounts.

It was a haven for women and children escaping a torn city after the Siege of Vicksburg, then was passed down to later generations of the Flowers family. In 1954, it passed to U.G. Flowers Jr. and was renovated most recently in 1978.

Local historic preservationist Nancy Bell, director of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation, said the house hadn’t been checked out by anyone in the organization “in a long time,” instead focusing on properties inside the city’s taxing district for old homes.

The house sits in the southwest corner of the industrial park retaining some of the unique features of houses built during the period, such as high ceilings and transoms above doorways that functioned as air circulators before central air conditioning.

“It’s a great house,” Bell said. “A beautiful barn.”

In the final months the nursery was open, a move afoot for years to have the plantation house declared a Mississippi Landmark by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was renewed. The designation prevents owners of such property from marketing it for any other use.

In a letter to port commissioners in June 2006, review and compliance officer Thomas H. Waggener acknowledged the structure’s renovations through the years — the last of which, in 1979, seemed to alter the building too much for MDAH officials at the time — and played up other attributes of the house outlined in Mississippi’s wide-ranging antiquities law to renew the state’s interest in preserving it.

“Ceres Plantation House is important as a rare surviving antebellum plantation house in Warren County, Although it has undergone alterations, it remains a locally significant example of a vernacular Greek Revival planter’s cottage, and retains sufficient integrity to warrant designation as a Mississippi Landmark,” wrote Waggener, who retired later that month.

After a public comment period yielded only a letter from port board attorney J. Mack Varner voicing the commission’s opposition to the decision, the topic was taken up by the permitting committee of the agency’s board of trustees.

Jim Woodrick, the current review and compliance officer for MDAH, doesn’t foresee any action soon on the matter.

“It’s been a curious thing,” Woodrick said. “But, it’s tabled indefinitely.”

Since the closing of the plant nursery, talk has circulated from the community about a truck stop on the site. Port commission executive director Jim Pilgrim acknowledged past talk of a truck stop being in the works for the location.

Pilgrim said no plan exists — truck stops included — for the house or surrounding barns and pool house until plans by the Mississippi Department of Transportation to rework all highway interchanges on Interstate 20 through most of Vicksburg and Warren County become clearer.

“There won’t be another commercial business in there,” Pilgrim said.

MDOT officials have promised a multimillion-dollar revamp of Interstate 20 for years and are still said to be at least a decade away. Still, the state’s long-term plans allow for new, up-to-standard exit ramps to replace outdated, short ones like the Ceres loop. Rights-of-way will be purchased, with land near the plantation house expected to be snapped up for the project. Funding issues stemming from fuel taxes and hurricane recovery remain a major hang-up, MDOT engineers have said.

While the commission sits and waits for either highway plans or industrial recruitment to fill the void, few offers have crossed the commission’s radar. Real estate broker Mary Jane Wooten approached commissioners in June with an interest in refurbishing the house, but found the current lease terms unworkable.

No matter the offer, whether industrial or private, Warren County supervisors have the final say on port commission decisions.

Board President Richard George sees historic preservation as the most plausible way to settle the fate of Ceres Plantation, specifying a more practical way to take it off the county’s hands.

“(The county) would be much better off declaring it surplus and letting someone move it away,” George said, adding industrial development should remain the mission of the port commission.

“The whole purpose of an industrial park is to have industries employ large numbers of people,” George said.