Cultural museum taking shape in Oxford

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – For several years, Oxford-area officials, professionals and preservationists have been shepherding the renovation and restoration of the Burns Belfry for eventual use as a cultural center and museum.
Within a few months, the once-threatened historic structure will be not only structurally sound, but also secure from the elements.
Oxford aldermen voted this week to advertise the next phase of the Belfry’s restoration, using a half-million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“The outside of the building ought to be completely finished – windows, doors, bricks repainted,” Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation representative Jim Pryor told aldermen Tuesday. “The inside will have air-conditioning and heating, and there will be one functioning bathroom out of two (that are planned).” He noted that Walker Electric had donated two Trane climate-control units for the building.
“This gets the building to … a ‘thermal envelope,’” said architect Tom Howorth. “It’s going to be tight after this.”
The air-conditioners’ donation is crucial, Howorth said: “If the building’s tight, it’s just going to sweat without air-conditioning.”
Pryor said the bid opening in a few weeks would tell how much of the remaining work – landscaping, interior finish work and the second bathroom – would be covered by the grant. Another $62,000 grant also has been secured.
“We’ll take those funds and do the next best thing for the building,” Pryor said.
Earlier work had stabilized the building’s structure and replaced its roof, among other improvements.
What is now known as the Burns Belfry was built in 1910 as the second building housing Oxford’s oldest black church congregation. It served that function until 1973 and was most recently the office of writer John Grisham until 2002, when Grisham donated the building for the use of the Oxford Development Association. The ODA is partnering with the city of Oxford and the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation in the restoration.
Given its early role in the community and its location in the Freedmen Town neighborhood of Oxford, the Belfry’s planned use throughout the restoration effort has been a place to showcase the area’s black history and culture.
“When restored, it will contain a significantly sized open space for community meetings such as ODA’s annual programs, civic clubs, and non-profit organizations,” says the Oxford Convention and Visitors Bureau website. “Space in the restored building will also be used as a museum, containing artifacts from the area and state.”
The Burns Belfry’s restoration has been going on for most of a decade, and leaders are eager to see it completed.
“We’ll be thankful that we’re this much closer than we were a year ago,” Mayor Pat Patterson told Pryor and Howorth.
Ward 5 Alderman Preston Taylor made Tuesday’s motion to advertise for bids on the project.
“I know y’all have worked on this a long time, and I appreciate your work,” he added.
Donations toward the restoration can be made through the Oxford-Lafayette County Heritage Foundation, P.O. Box 622, Oxford, MS 38655.
errol.castens@journalinc.com