Fire destroys front portion of old high school in Hattiesburg

Published 6:51 pm Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A fire gutted the front of the old Hattiesburg High School on Tuesday, leaving local officials to hope the spared back portion is salvageable.

Fire Chief David Webster said firefighters remained at the scene to keep the building cool and watch for any hot spots.

The fire was reported about 6:05 a.m. Tuesday and was brought under control about two hours later.

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The building, owned by the Historic Hattiesburg Downtown Association, was going to be used as a new home for the University of Southern Mississippi’s art department, said association President Joe White.

“We bought it five years ago … and bought it without any plans for its use,” White said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do now.”

The association recently completed about $500,000 worth of roof renovations, White said.

The roof of the building caved in, leaving just the frame of the four-story building intact, Webster said.

Webster said the fire began on the first floor near the south-end of the structure and moved its way through the building. He said some nearby residents were evacuated in case the fire spread.

USM President Martha Saunders said the city had lost a historic landmark.

“Many of us have lost a site that holds dear memories for ourselves and members of our families,” she said in a statement. “Perhaps more importantly, the university has lost the unique opportunity to bridge the past with the future through its engaged service to the arts. I am deeply saddened by this loss.”

After Hurricane Katrina caused a lot of damage, volunteers repaired the roof, boarded up windows and made other repairs to safeguard the building.

The structure damaged by the fire was built in 1921, officials said. The remainder of the school dates back to 1911.

In December, Mississippi Department of Archives and History announced that the project qualified for a $1 million grant to aid the building’s restoration project through the Hurricane Relief Grant Fund.

To renovate the building into an arts center was estimated to cost between $12 million and $16 million.