Tuesday, October 8, 2002
Sept. 11 brought a reprieve for a Farish Street building that housed many of the early machinations of the country-blues movement. On Aug. 9 the front façade of Brown Furniture Building at 225 North Farish Street started bowing after construction crews ripped up the sidewalks in front. Apparently, the sidewalk was holding up the bricks in the front façade; when the sidewalk went, the building was in danger of going, too. So the city wanted to rip it down.
Not so fast, said the Jackson Historic Preservation Commission. The building once housed the offices of H.C. Speir, a white man who opened a music store in 1925 on Farish during its heyday as the city's thriving black business district. During the next decade, what Bluesworld magazine calls the "golden age of blues recording," Speir called himself a "talent broker," discovering blues artists from throughout the region for record companies including Victor, Brunswick, Columbia, Paramount and others. His roster included Charlie Patton, Bo Carter, Blind Joe Reynolds, Blind Roosevelt Graves and the Mississippi Shieks. And he indirectly assisted Son House, Robert Johnson and Willie Brown.
In the early 1930s, Paramount started accepting Speir's suggestions on his word, without hearing any demos. He would often invite new musicians he had discovered to his Farish Street store to use an audition recording machine he had installed upstairs in 1927. Finally, in 1944, after the blues age started waning, he opened a used-furniture store in North Jackson.
Commission member Marcia Weaver realized that it was the Speir building the city was targeting. "I became very upset about the possibility of losing one of the most historic buildings along Farish Street," she said. The commission resisted the demolition, arguing that the building's walls were still standing and, thus, could be secured without moving many bricks. The commission recommended that the building's front sign be removed in order to relieve the extra weight.
The city did not agree right away. In late August, the preservationists from Mississippi State Archives and History got involved. "They were pleased to have input," Weaver said. Then, on Sept. 11, representatives from the city, the commission and the State Archives agreed to remove only enough original bricks to secure the facade. Weaver is relieved the city finally agreed to invest in saving the building. "Knocking down a building with a bulldozer is always the cheapest way," she said.
Weaver was pleased with the positive outcome of the meeting, adding that the Memphis-based Performa Entertainment Real Estate Inc., which is redeveloping Farish Street, has said they would try to work on the Brown building first. "All involved were on the same track of how important it was to save the historic state of that building," she said. "Now we're waiting to see."
See: "Godfather of Delta Blues," Bluesworld magazine