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Historic Downtown Natchez Mississippi Walking Tour
Item 12 of 15
Built in 1853 and originally known as Institute Hall, this stately building is historically significant for its architecture and the role it has played in the community. In terms of architecture, the building is an excellent and rare example of a 19th-century auditorium designed in the Greek Revival style. The Pearl Street facade is the most impressive part of the building, featuring paired pilasters (columns), a grand portico and pediment, and a molded parapet with paired tiers. The building was first used by the school next door called Natchez Institute, which was founded in 1845 (it is believed to be the first free school in the state). Over the years, the building was used in a number of ways including hosting a variety of performances and events and was even used as a skating rink. Today, it is now the United States Courthouse for the Southern District of Mississippi.

  • Building, Architecture, Landmark, Property

Natchez Institute was founded in large part using funds donated by local businessman and philanthropist Alvarez Fisk. In doing so, Fisk helped establish the city's public school system (Fisk was also a member of the Mississippi Colonization Society, which settled free blacks and freed black slaves to Africa). The idea for the hall originated in 1850 during a meeting of the school's Board of Visitors. Construction began in 1852 and was completed the next year. The work was done mostly by slaves owned by the general contractors.

As noted above, Institute Hall became a popular gathering place for the community. In fact, for the rest of the 19th century it was the primary entertainment venue in Natchez. A part of the basement was converted into a public library in 1883, which continued to operate until 1965. Given its popularity as an entertainment venue, the building eventually became known as Opera Hall by the 1890s. However, in 1901 a new entertainment venue and school were built, which, apparently, left Institute Hall unused for many years. Then in 1921, the American Legion renovated the building as a memorial to the veterans of World War I and the building was renamed Memorial Hall as a result. In the coming years, it was used as a museum to display regional artifacts and memorabilia, storage for voting booths, and even as a venue for boxing matches. Performances were also held as well.

The decades took its toll on the building and it was in need of serious repair by the 1970s. Work to restore it didn't begin until 1987 when the Natchez Foundation bought it and made initial emergency repairs. The old building became a courthouse in 2007 after it was decided that the U.S. District Court in Southern Mississippi should be downsized and relocated. Institute Hall was chosen and renovated. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

McCahon, Mary. "Neibert-Fisk House." National Park Service - National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. January 22, 1979. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/79001295_text.

Miller, Mary Warren. "Institute Hall." National Park Service - National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. June 20, 1979. https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/2b1efb0e-1a1a-4eb2-ae44-23240be5cb30.

"U.S. Courthouse, Natchez, MS." U.S. General Services Administration. Accessed November 20, 2020. https://www.gsa.gov/historic-buildings/us-courthouse-natchez-ms.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:United_States_Courthouse_(Natchez,_Mississippi)