By Karon Warren | Photography courtesy of Chelius Carter
A passion for historic preservation has led architect Chelius Carter to save historic structures throughout Marshall County, including an 1837 structure known as the Chalmers Institute.
From the time he first visited Holly Springs in 1996 for a client’s project, Chelius H. Carter, a semi-retired architect now living in Fredericksburg, Virginia, found himself interested in the city’s past. More specifically, the city’s historical buildings. In 2002, he purchased an historic house that would serve as his home, but also would lead to a new program of preservation he couldn’t even imagine when he bought the property.
However, long before that program evolved, Carter was busy at work in 2005 on another preservation: saving the 1850 Stephenson-McAlexander Plantation Office from Mack, Mississippi, which originally served as the plantation office of Major Josiah Patrick Milledge Stephenson.
“To our knowledge, it is perhaps the last surviving antebellum plantation office in Marshall County, where there were maybe 200 to 300 of such structures in the days of ‘king cotton,’” Carter says.
He talked with Madge Lindsay, who served as director of Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, about relocating the office to Strawberry Plains, formerly a sister plantation to Mack. She welcomed the building, and it was soon moved to its new home through the efforts of the recently formed Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs, Inc. (PMCHS). In the ensuing years through PMCHS, Carter has worked to save other historic structures around Marshall County. For instance, he tried to advocate for the preservation of the street facade of Cathrine Hall on the former Mississippi Industrial College campus, but was unsuccessful.
“You don’t win all of them,” Carter says. “We’ve had victories, we’ve had losses, but you just keep waging battle and moving forward.”
Through PMCHS, he also was instrumental in saving the Chalmers Institute, an 1837 structure, from certain demolition. The building originally served as the Holly Springs Literary Institute before becoming the University of Holly Springs, the first legislatively chartered university in the state in 1839. It closed in 1843, and the building remained vacant until 1847, when it was reopened as Chalmers Institute.
Many changes occurred thereafter, but the building sat empty since the 1980s. Carter, W.O. “Bill” Fitch and Tim Liddy purchased the building in 2004, expecting the City of Holly Springs would, in turn, buy it from them with funding from the Mississippi Legislature. In 2005, Carter and Fitch founded Preserve Marshall County & Holly Springs Inc., a nonprofit created to bring historic preservation advocacy and educational outreach to the community and to take ownership of Chalmers Institute. Preservation and rehabilitation efforts for the building continue to this day.
Returning back to that historic home he purchased in 2002, with his eye for historic buildings, Carter took notice of a shed on the property behind the house. A closer inspection revealed the building was actually the original kitchen and slave quarters.
“It became very clear to me when I began to look at buying this house that I thought this structure is actually a little more culturally important and rarer than the main house itself,” Carter says. “It’s really one of the main reasons that I bought that property.”
In an effort to preserve this historic structure, Carter and his wife, Jenifer Eggleston, started the “Behind the Big House” program, which interprets the legacy of slavery in Marshall County and Holly Springs through preservation of slave-related buildings around the county.
“In our Southern culture, we have the narrative of the enslaved people who were integral to that culture, contributed much to it through building arts, performing arts, music and food,” Carter says. “Our culture is just intrinsically connected. To tell a narrative of this antebellum culture that we all are so enamored with on the silver screen and written word, and to tell that narrative without recognizing there’s this whole other people that aren’t given a voice in that narrative, that’s not history. If you’re telling history but editing out the parts that aren’t nice, you’re not telling history. That’s cultural genocide.”
Carter’s passion for historic preservation is evident in his voice, underscoring his commitment to doing everything he can to keep Holly Springs’ past in the present.
“Historic preservation is the tangible evidence of who we are, where we come from and what’s important to us as a cultural nation,” Carter says. “The diversity in our nation’s historic core is invaluable. You cannot afford to build these structures again.”
Even as he is looking to pull back and hand over the reins to PMCHS’ new board of directors, Carter is committed to being a part of preservation Holly Springs and Marshall County.
“Holly Springs has really great prospects for its future, but it must preserve its past,” Carter says. “Holly Springs has extremely good building stock. It has historic resources that other small towns would kill to have. It just requires some nurturing to keep things moving forward.”