SCHC seeking Smithsonian stamp of approval|[03/24/08]

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 24, 2008

Already worthy of addition to the must-see list of Vicksburg’s history-driven tourism industry, the Southern Cultural Heritage Center soon will see if it can pass muster with those who maintain the gold standard of museums.

Officials with the Smithsonian Institution will visit the center in April as part of an ambitious, $376,000 makeover planned for the century-old set of buildings on Cherry, Adams, Clay and Crawford streets, director Annette Kirklin said.

A stamp of approval from the education and research complex would add a notch in the belt of a new marketing plan being developed, one that is looking to add more exhibits and musical performances to the center’s slate of programs.

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While recently including events like ballroom dancing and pottery classes, the plan is headed in a decidedly art, literary and musical-based direction. Prior to the arrival of Kirklin, a former special events coordinator for the Vicksburg Convention Center and Vicksburg Auditorium, a grant-funded restoration of the Cobb House allowed more art to be shown at the complex.

“Any standard they’d have is good if a place wants to show its wares,” Kirklin said, adding the possibility of tours resuming this summer at Pemberton Headquarters across Crawford Street could augment tourist traffic to the entire block.

Initial phases of its renovation will entail repairing masonry and gutters outside the auditorium, a project enabled by a $180,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History matched locally by the City of Vicksburg and Warren County.

Inside the building, home to St. Francis Xavier Convent and Academy for about 130 years until purchased by the city in 1994, lighting designed for reading, writing and arithmetic will give way to softer illumination more appropriate for displaying art — made possible by a $196,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“You’d be surprised what all these fluorescent lights can do to exhibits,” Kirklin said.

Factors such as room temperature and acceptable display styles for 3-D art are likely topics during the Smithsonian visit. Others will touch on items already under consideration, such as improved handicapped accessibility to the entrance and bringing restrooms up to federal standards relating to the disabled.

“There’ll be some modifications to the stairs,” said Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation board member David Clement, an architect. “As long as there’s a low impact to the historic fabric of the building.”

Kirklin awaits the changes with unique fervor.

“It’s all very exciting,” she said.

Southern Cultural Heritage Center is composed of Cobb House, the auditorium, academy building and the former Sisters of Mercy convent. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and its auditorium and classrooms are available for rent.