Former office of author John Grisham will serve as a museum and multicultural center for the city
After 10 years of fund raising, planning and shaping community consensus on what it should be, the Burns Church which once housed the first office of Author John Grisham will open as the Burns-Belfry Museum & Multicultural Center.
Burns Church, located on West Jackson Avenue, just off the square, played a primary role in the life of Oxford’s African-American community for more than 50 years. In its new role, the building will be dedicated to African American History and multi-cultural activities serving the community and visitors.
“The building and outbuilding will be finished by late July, but we will have the dedication on Sept. 21, “ said Jim Pryor, president of the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation and Project Manager since 2002.
Mr. Pryor is a retired Exxon executive, Oxford native and Ole Miss graduate.
“The dedication is tied to the Sept. 22, 1862, preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation Proclamation which took effect on January l, 1863,” he said.
Mr. Pryor said that when the Burns Church congregation decided to move in the mid 1970s, the church building changed hands several time and was purchased by John Grisham in 2002.
“When John decided to move to Virginia, we asked him to donate the property to the Heritage Foundation which he did on the condition that we restore it and put it back in use in the community ‘to help the poor’”, Mr. Pryor said.
Since the transfer of ownership, the foundation has secured funds from the City of Oxford, Lafayette County, citizens and the Johanna Favrot Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Because of its historic role, decisions on renovation had to be approved by both the Mississippi Department of Achieves and History and the U. S. Park Service.
“Ray Neilsen, retired chairman of Ameristar Corporation, who has a home here, put us in a position to finish the structures with a $200,000 gift. We have raised about $1.2 million, and will need perhaps another $150,000 to finish the interior of the museum, exhibits and the outbuilding, “ he said.
The Museum will house a range of digital exhibits and is designed in such a way that we can roll things back to the walls and accommodate about 150 people. The outbuilding next to the Church is designed to look like the original parsonage. This building will be used as a workshop to create exhibits and for storage,” Mr. Pryor said.
Pryor envisions the Burns-Belfry Museum and Multi-Cultural Center being used for a wide range of activities. “We want to concentrate on Oxford, Lafayette County and North Mississippi,” he said.
The Heritage Foundation has been working with the Oxford Development Organization, an African-American group, dedicated to economic development of the community but neither organization has the ability to operate the facility long term.
“We will need to find a permanent operator, “ Mr. Pryor said.
The City of Oxford could be the operator of the facility since it already operates Ceder Oaks, and the L.Q.C. Lamar House through the Tourism Council and Convention Center.
“There has been some discussion of creating Oxford Historic Homes Commission which would have a budget and responsibility for operation of Cedar Oaks, the L.Q. C. Lamar Museum and the Burns-Belfry Museum and Multicultural Center,” Mayor Pat Patterson said. “We will need to address this at some point in the near future, “ he added.
The Burns Belfry has a web site that can be found at www.burns-belfry.com. The web site indicates exhibits “will honor three subjects: the story of historic Burns Church, a thematic presentation of African American history, and the story of visionaries who saw saving the historic building as contributing to racial reconciliation of our community.”
Architect for the project is Howorth & Associates. Malone and Company of Atlanta, the group which painted murals at the L. Q. C. Lamar House, will create murals for Burns-Belfry. Paul Waddell is the lead architect at Howorth & Associates for the Burns-Belfry project.
Working on the project for a 10-year period, Waddell said the renovation was done in three stages. “Phase One was stabilization of the structure which had detoriated, Phase Two was to finish the exterior envelope, and Phase Three is to complete the inside and build the out building,” Mr. Waddel said.
“Over the years, water has gotten into the structure and rotted the base of the wall studs. We literally had to shore up the exterior, demolish the inside, then rebuild inside out. Not the most efficient or cost efficient way to do this,” he said.
Howorth and Associates also handled the renovation of the L.Q. C. Lamar House, another local tourist attraction.
Mayor Pat Patterson said the completed project “will have a special mission in our community.”
“The Burns-Belfry facility will serve our community well, adding another asset to our tourism inventory while recording and preserving an important part of our community history, and provide an additional place to hold community activities,” Mayor Patterson said. –– By Jim Roberts, HottyToddy.com staff writer
Email Jim Roberts at hottytoddynew.com