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My interest in preservation grew out of my interest
in construction -- and it began at an early age. As a youngster growing
up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, my walk to school took me through my
neighborhood's mostly forested creek bottom. The property along the
creek was owned by my neighbors, who were kind enough to allow me to
play in their woods. And it was that play that developed into my first
ventures into construction -- using scrap materials to build small cabins.
Unfortunately, the creek was subject to flooding, rendering my little
cabins terribly muddy and inaccessible during certain seasons of the
year. Determined not to let Mother Nature ruin my fun, I turned my sights
skyward and started building tree houses. By the time I was thirteen,
I had created a three-story structure in and around five tall, straight
willows -- a tree house complete with a rope ladder which, upon climbing
to the first floor, I could hoist up and protect myself from imaginary
At the age of 14, I started working as a house painter. Because my boss
worked on the premier residential construction projects in the Mississippi
Delta, I was exposed to beautiful top-of-the-line homes. I kept my painting
and light carpenter skills alive through college at the University of
Virginia and through my courses in the United States Army Engineer School.
In Law School and for a few years thereafter, I served as an officer
in the Army Reserve and later in the Mississippi National Guard as a
commander of an engineering detachment. This service placed me in close
contact with various contractors and craftsmen in numerous trades.
I designed and built my first house (of modern design and with lots
of glass and Cypress wood) immediately out of law school. From that
point I went on to rehabilitate structures in and around Clarksdale,
Mississippi. At first I tackled small projects such as placing a "gingerbread
house/children's store" in a burned-out downtown Clarksdale structure.
Gradually I started to buy homes and rehabilitate them for rental. As
my confidence grew and my ambition became a bit bolder, I started to
work on larger buildings.
My first major preservation project was a 10,000 foot shell of a building
which virtually had four walls and some useful structure remaining,
but was substantially deteriorated. The building had been constructed
in 1903 and originally housed the Bank of Lyon. The bank lasted only
one year, and the building was used for another forty or fifty years
for a variety of purposes, including doctors' offices and retail space,
but was then totally abandoned in the 1950s or 60s. When I purchased
the building, it was totally overgrown with vines, suffered from roof
leaks, and was in general disrepair. I rehabbed it from top to bottom,
and it now houses eight luxury apartments. Fortunately, I was able to
use the bank's original teller cashier cage, which was well preserved.
I salvaged materials such as the old bead board, plinth blocks, and
beautiful mill work and incorporated them into the new construction.
I typically give buildings back their original names unless the use
of the finished building dictates otherwise. For example, the Bank of
Lyon is now the Bank of Lyon Apartments. One building I rehabilitated,
originally the Delta Grocery & Cotton Company, is now home to a
juke joint, which occupies the first floor, and eight luxury apartments
on the second floor called Delta Cotton Company Apartments. The building
was once 7,500 square feet of cotton grading open space.
On several of my preservation projects, I have joined forces with actor
Morgan Freeman, a native of the nearby town of Charleston, Mississippi,
who shares my interest in the history of Clarksdale and the restoration
of its past glory. We co-own Madidi restaurant and Ground Zero Blues
Club. Solo effort or joint venture, I have always taken pride in being
able to look back on my completed projects. While my law profession
gives me a sense of accomplishment, there is nothing like knowing that
something from the past has been given new life, and that I've played
a role in that rebirth.
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