LOOKING BACK: More history of the Mississippi River Commission Building

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, September 6, 2023

By Nancy Bell, Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation

The Vicksburg Evening Post followed the construction of the new United States Customs House, Post Office and Federal Court, and filed this entertaining and informative report on the office of the Secret Service which would be located in the building.

“Not far from the centre (sic) of the public building and entirely surrounded by that portion of the first floor that will be devoted to the post office there is a shaft of masonry enclosing a chamber five or six feet square that runs from the basement floor to the top of the first story, it is entered by a small door in the basement and the visitor will find an iron ladder leading to its second story, for it does not go straight upward all the way, but after the first landing is reached it is continued upward by an offset of the same size.

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“The second story is the “business” part of the place, the first being only an approach and contains four peep-holes or crannies through which every portion of the post office may be seen. The outer openings of these apertures will be closed with glass and then an observer from the interior can watch the employees not only without being seen himself but without exciting the least suspicion of his presence. This watch-tower is designed for the special benefit of the Secret Service, though a similar one on the west side of the post office department will be finished for the postmaster, with one peephole, however, instead of four. Here the agent appointed to investigate the conduct of any employee may secrete himself and keep his victim in view all day long. If necessary.

“Provided with a key to the door of the tower he can enter it without the knowledge of any person in the building and keep a record of the doings of every employee. The feelings of the little child who with unconscious irreverence, after being informed of the all-seeing and omnipresent attributes of the Supreme Being, pettishly drove away her little dog, saying that it was bad enough to have God know everything she did without having him tagging around after her, will doubtless be appreciated by any person, however innocent and faithful, who may be thus subjected to inspection. However, the agent’s lot will not be a happy one, especially if he is set to watch some delinquent during a hot July day, for the ventilation in these contracted quarters will be limited and no stoker in the hole of an ocean steamer will earn his day’s wages at the cost of more personal discomfort.”

While the Historic American Building Survey lists William Freret Jr. as the architect, he would have had to start designing it immediately after Congress passed the bill for its construction in June 1888 because he resigned his position before the end of the year. Freret was born in New Orleans and educated in Baton Rouge and then in England, earning a degree in engineering. His father, William Freret, was a mayor of New Orleans and his cousin, James Freret, was an architect as well with whom he often collaborated. Freret Jr. entered the Confederate Army as a private in the Washington Artillery from New Orleans and in time was promoted to lieutenant colonel of engineers.

He served on Kirby Smith’s staff and was the assistant chief and acting chief of the Tran-Mississippi Department until the surrender. From 1866 to 1868, he was the state engineer for Louisiana. He was also in charge of constructing 16 schools paid for through the McDonogh fund. From 1887 to 1888, he oversaw the construction of federal buildings for the U.S. Government.

James Windrim, a Philadelphia architect who specialized in public buildings and was the supervising architect for the treasury department after Freret, has also been credited with the design of Vicksburg’s Customs House. In this position, from 1889-1891, Windrim was responsible for all federal construction and designed at least 16 federal buildings across the country that consolidated post offices, federal offices and federal courts.

On June 30, 1891, a telegram was received from Washington ordering the removal of the post office from its old location in the Hoffman block to the new public building. The post office staff wasted no time and began moving into new quarters by 4 p.m. on June 30. The Signal Office moved into their offices in the octagonal room in the tower, on July 1, under the direction of John Schlottman. The U.S. district and circuit courts moved in shortly thereafter and convened court in their respective courtrooms on July 6.

The building opened without air conditioning of course, but surprisingly did not have heating installed as it was felt that they would not need it for many months.  Bids for the “heating apparatus” for the building were opened in Washington, D.C. on July 6 with prices ranging from $6,770 to $9,184.

An article in the Daily Commercial Herald on September 6 reported that all of these bids were rejected because they were not within the amount available for the purpose. In the same article, the paper stated that Representative Catchings had requested the supervising architect to prepare estimates for the construction of a stone wall along the Crawford Street front of the site, a railing at the entrance of the building on the same street and a stone wall or iron fence on the Walnut Street side of the grounds.

The reason given for these additions was “supported by the evidence that the terraces have already been repaired three times at the government’s expense, owing to the depredations of cows and other animals, who are not restrained by city ordinance from running at large. It has been frequently said jocosely that the building should have been erected outside of the city limits, as cows are not allowed to run at large there, such being in fact the law.”

To be continued next week.