A conversation with Kane Ditto on Mississippi landmarks

With the future of the Sun-N-Sand hotel to be decided January 24, the Sun wanted to take a closer look at Mississippi landmarks, what they are, how they’re determined and what having the status means for buildings, sites and property owners. We spoke to Kane Ditto, president of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) board of trustees, who agreed to help us out. Ditto would not say whether he would vote to give landmark status to the Sun-N-Sand.

So, what is Mississippi Landmark status, exactly?

“It is when the board of trustees of MDAH declares a property, building or site to be a Mississippi Landmark. The criteria they need to reach is that they are significant for architectural reasons – whether they’re part of a style that is significant to the state or the local area, whether they’re the work of a prominent architect – but the building’s history can be just as important as its architecture. When you talk about sites, sometimes the building is not significant for its architecture, but for what happened there. A really easy example is the Medgar Evers House.”

How do sites get the status?

“There are two types of properties: public properties, which are owned by the state or a political subdivision of the state, or private properties. With public properties, Archives has jurisdiction over them and can declare any property owned by the state to be a Mississippi Landmark. It’s the staff and board’s job to make that determination. Some jurisdictions do not ask for the status. The state did not ask for the Sun-N-Sand to be designated, but the board has the ability to make it. Private property is always under the jurisdiction of the owner.”

How many landmark sites are there in the state?

“Just a little over 1,000.”

Why would someone want to have historic status?

“The reason a lot might want it is the Community Heritage Grant Program. In 2019, the state Legislature made $2.5 million available to spend on improving Mississippi Landmarks. It is a 20 percent matching grant and you have to be a designated Mississippi Landmark to be eligible.

“On the private side, owners might want to do it because they want to preserve their property in a historic, accurate way. Once the status is granted, an easement is placed on the property in favor of MDAH, so if someone wanted to buy and subdivide the property they (would have to get MDAH approval).” 

Do states or other government entities ever fight MDAH’s plans to grant historical status?

“Yes; we have had public entities that oppose us. One of the tough areas for Archives is public schools, because many times districts don’t have the resources to maintain their facilities (in a historic manner), or they have a new use for the property that they don’t think is compatible with landmark status. What we do is make a real effort to work with the owners and start out with what the landmark designation means. We want to work with people to embrace what they have in their communities. We don’t want to be in opposition. Also, when a public building is considered for the designation, there is a public comment period, just like there was for the Sun-N-Sand.”

Can a site lose its landmark status?

“There is a statutory provision that says it can be removed. The board has the authority to allow that. Landmark designation only means that when it’s a landmark, any work that is done on it, or if the owner wants to demolish it, they have to receive a permit from the board of trustees.”

You talk about owners having to get permission from the board to do work on or demolish historic sites. What happens if someone doesn’t maintain their properties once they receive landmark designation?

“We can’t require the owner to do anything to the building. We have had buildings deteriorate because of the financial stress (on the owner), or disinterest.”

Why would a building lose its historic status, or be allowed to come down?

“It gets in such bad shape that is no longer viable as a historic property. That is not where we want to go, but that does happen. There are cases where the buildings are not commercially viable or are so obsolete by design that they cannot be used by anybody. There are not many cases, but there are a few.”

How many people are on the Archives’ board, and how are they appointed?

“Nine members. They are self-appointed and approved by the state Senate for six-year terms.”

What are the qualifications to serve?

“There are no written qualifications. We look for people who are interested in the subject matter of the department. The board deals with much more than preservation. It is the governing body of MDAH, which has the Two Mississippi Museums, the Old Capitol Museum, the William Winter Building, the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, the Welty House, the Capers Building, the Windsor Ruins and others, and have oversight of the Governor’s Mansion.”

What’s going on with the Windsor Ruins right now? I spoke to (MDAH Executive Director) Katie Blount about them previously, who said the Archives was working to preserve them.

“We are working with project professionals and how they want to proceed with the preservation of two or three columns. We can’t do them all at once. That’s possibly one of the most visited sites in Mississippi, among our sites.” 

What’s wrong with the ruins, exactly?

“They’re deteriorating. The concrete is falling off the columns. The metal railing is deteriorating and falling. Each one needs to be waterproofed. Water is the big enemy - it weakens the material over time. It’s amazing how much debris has to be picked up after storms.” 

How are things going at the Two Mississippi Museums? How is attendance?

“It’s good. We had 180,000 in the first year. It’s come down some, but we’ve maintained it at a high level. One of the reasons is that we’ve developed special exhibits, like ‘Mississippi Distilled,’ which is about Prohibition in the state. It starts in February. It’s good when people come back and the museums have something new along with the permanent exhibits.”

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