Special to Tate County Magazine, published by The Democrat
By Nancy Patterson
Time Flies for Senatobia High School Auditorium
Citizens of Senatobia and Tate County have a real treasure right in the middle of town and they may not even realize its importance. The Senatobia High School Auditorium, built in 1938 as a project of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), is said to be one of the best examples of Art Moderne architectural structures remaining in the southern region of the country.
The crown jewels of the whole complex are the three panels, decorated with allegorical bas-relief sculptures and a sundial. If you’ve never really studied at the panels, drive by and take a closer look.
Senatobia Municipal School District Superintendent Jay Foster is aware of the value of the auditorium art. “The auditorium is still used by the school on opening day, for programs and such. It remains in good shape, and it was renovated in 1998,” he says. “The wings on either side are not in good shape. They are mostly vacant. We do use space in one wing for our IT department.”
Foster says the school has plans to do something to keep those structures stable. “We have looked at grants and other resources to help us make some needed renovation.” He says the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has looked at the structure and hopefully, will make recommendations.
Memphis artist Dale Baucum, originally from Senatobia, and a 1969 graduate of the school has done extensive research on exactly what the panels mean.
“The similitude of the two panels concerning education and the necessary mission to harness the forces of nature is displayed by the relative size of the human figures. Their bodies are rippling with muscles and a sublime attitude that humans can control their culture,” says Baucum.
"The large gear on the left or west panel represents the mechanical age. That age produced some of the most amazing devices ever dreamed of. Mathematical science is at its best with all the strict requirements of presses and mills and farm machinery. The human figures appear to be almost Roman or Greek and representing two of the greatest times of thought that led to oceans of learning.
In describing the right or east panel, Baucum goes on to explain some of the imagery in it. “The sun in the upper corners with its rays moving across the panels represents purity and knowledge. The airplane represents flight, a dream that Leonardo da Vinci and other thinkers knew would happen. The figure in the right panel holds a skep or beehive. This relates to the early belief that bees flew to the sun or heaven and the sweets that they returned with were gifts of God.
“This puts the entire message on a very high plane... enlightenment flows from above and is yours ...if... you are smart enough to soar to the source and return with the gift (education, understanding) and then put it to work by sharing and building.” Baucum is amazed at the multitude of structures in the background.
The two panels are separated by a sundial, with its message “Time Flies.” Sadly, the artist of these works is unknown.
“This is by far one of my favorite historical buildings,” says Mary B. Ayers, supervisor of Design and Compliance at Northwest Mississippi Community College and a 1995 SHS graduate.
“The interior of the building is beautiful as well. I know the building function and efficiency does not correspond with the current needs of the school, but I do wish it could be utilized and/or restored in its entirety before deterioration progresses too far.” Ayers has an interest in the building interior since she earned a degree from Mississippi State University—a Bachelor of Human Science with an emphasis in interior design.
|Mary B. Ayers|
As to the artistry itself, Ayers says, “Part of the WPA focus was to use local materials and local labor, so in areas distant from stone quarries, cast stone and even precast concrete facades were common, in lieu of natural cut stone.”
The auditorium and adjoining wings sit on the original site of the Blackburn College for Women. Building contractor for the project was Wessell Constructions, and the architect was Hull and Drummond of Jackson, according to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Historic Resources Inventory.
The $110,000 project was supervised by then-superintendent J.W. Whitwell and the school board, according to Senatobia Centennial Souvenir Program 1860-1960, published in 1960.
Wings, also in Art Moderne style, were added in 1959 and 1965, according to the MissPreservation.com website, a blog that is devoted the architectural preservation in the state. (Dr. Susan C. Allen, who blogs as, Suzassippi.)
What we do know is that the high school and its auditorium were one of thousands of projects of the WPA.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the American economy hit rock bottom. In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced “The New Deal,” a series of programs designed to get America and the economy moving.
The WPA was one of those programs. It funded the arts, history and culture of America and employed out-of-work Americans who were certified by local agencies after meeting certain criteria.
The WPA began in 1935 with an appropriation of $4.88 billion dollars from the Emergency Relief Fund. Over the years, it employed an estimated 8.5 million Americans, and spent a total of $11 billion dollars. The typical WPA worker was paid $15 to $90 a month.
Although WPA lasted only eight years it was responsible for building structures such as airports and bridges and paving 651,000 miles of road. It also funded programs in the humanities.
“There are 52 WPA listings in the MDAH (Mississippi Department of Archives and History) database, but there are more than that associated with all programs of the New Deal Administration,” says Allen, who is in the process of documenting Mississippi with the University of California-Berkley project—Living New Deal. She says this project hopes to document every New Deal Administration project completed during those 12 years.
“It is a testament to the importance of the work when one considers how many communities benefitted from projects, and many of them are still in use,” she says.
According to Allen, there are 32 post offices in Mississippi built with New Deal funds, and many have murals completed under the program. The University of
Mississippi has six buildings constructed with PWA funds (Public Works
The Senatobia High School Auditorium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and is a Mississippi Landmark. At that time, the original school building complex along with a collection of 23 principal buildings located along or adjacent to College Street in Senatobia, were designated the College Street Historic District.
For more information on the Senatobia High School Auditorium, contact the Senatobia Municipal School District (senatobiaschools.com) or visit the MissPreservation.com website.