Friday, January 14, 2011

Collapse! 515 Clay Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi

515 Clay Street, January 25, 2006
One cold day in January of 2006, Vicksburgers were astonished to hear that the building at 515 Clay Street had collapsed. The parking garage across the street provided a great view of the site, and as you can see from the first photograph, part of the building crumbled out into the street, squashing a car in the process.
515 Clay Street, January 25, 2006
In the mid-1980s, I remember visiting the Thomas furniture store on the lower floor. It occupied an old-fashioned store lined with elegant tall wood shelves. A set of ladders on rails paralleled the shelves, allowing a clerk to climb high to retrieve merchandise. Some libraries had the same type of rolling ladders. I am sorry I never photographed in there; it looked like a time warp from the 1920s.
In the following days, we learned from the Vicksburg Post that the building was being renovated by a couple who moved here from New Orleans. Some workers had cut some joists in the morning of the 25th, and in early afternoon, heard ominous creaks and groans. They rushed out just in time to avoid being squashed.
So what happened? Look at the way the building was built, which was typical of late 1900s commercial buildings in the United States. The vertical bearing walls are three bricks thick. To support a joist, it is inset into the wall by only the width of one brick. The reason why the joist did not penetrate completely through the wall was that, theoretically, if it broke or failed, it would pop out of its support ledge rather than cantilever out and pull the wall down as it rotated downward. As long as the walls continued to stand, new joists could be installed and the building rebuilt. By the way, this kind of construction is deadly in an earthquake.
In the enlargement above, look at how the horizontal beam on the left only penetrated one brick into the wall. The top was tapered away from the wall to ensure that it would tip down without catching the wall. The beam on the right failed exactly as designed. But obviously, something went wrong and the front part of this building collapsed along with the floors.
The sordid saga continued for four years. The city and the building owners argued over who was responsible for cleaning up the street. Half of Clay Street was blocked for over a year. Then the owners wanted to raze the whole structure; the city wanted part of it saved. Years went by with almost nothing happening. We're not known for high speed action here in Vicksburg. As you can see in the last photograph, now all that remains is a piece of the cast iron framework and a window. Sad, another piece of our architectural heritage lost.
Clay Street, date not recorded. Postcard from Mississippi Department of Archives and History
This is what the block looked like sometime in the early 1900s. Vicksburg was a prosperous and real city then, with electric trolleys and commerce and industry. The postcard is from the Cooper collection at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Photographs of the collapse taken with a Sony DSC-W7 compact digital camera.

No comments: