Mississippi university received grant to preserve historic auditorium

Published 6:15 am Tuesday, January 24, 2023

One of The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Hattiesburg campus’ most recognized and beloved buildings – Bennett Auditorium – is the beneficiary of a $235,000 preservation grant awarded to the school from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as part of its Community Heritage Preservation Grant Program.

An announcement of the grant was made Jan. 23 in Bennett Auditorium, with USM President Dr. Joe Paul and State Rep. Missy McGee of Hattiesburg sharing details of its benefits to the building. The nearly 100-year-old Neoclassical style, two-story structure seats approximately 1,000 and is named for the University’s second president, Claude Bennett (1928-33) who envisioned the need for and pursued construction of the facility.

The grant will fund needed repair and restoration of the building’s interior decorative plaster and exterior windows – considered the most distinctive elements of the historic structure – as well as modernized lighting controls.

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McGee worked with USM Foundation Director Stace Mercier and School of Music Director Colin McKenzie, along with the USM Physical Plant’s Architect and Manager of Space Utilization Sara Hill, in securing the grant, with Hill writing the grant request resulting in the university receiving the full 75 percent matching fund available through the program.

“This work will help us not only keep this historic structure beautiful, but also in use for future generations of Golden Eagles and community members so that they too might attend University Forum lectures by the greatest minds from across the country, and witness some of the best artists and musicians,” said Dr. Paul. He continued in giving thanks to McGee, as well as Hill, Mercier, and McKenzie for their efforts.

“Southern Miss could not serve its students and its communities without the support of the state legislature, and we are so fortunate to have one of our own representing us in Missy McGee in the Mississippi House of Representatives,” Dr. Paul further noted. “Missy, whose district, District 102, includes Southern Miss’s Hattiesburg campus, loves her hometown and loves her alma mater, and she passionately and effectively advocates for those she represents.”

McKenzie said he is thrilled with the awarding of the grant and also praised Hill for her outstanding work in writing the grant request and securing the maximum funding available.

“It’s wonderful to know that we can do what is needed through this support from the state to help preserve this beautiful, venerable campus icon for the benefit of our university community and generations of student music performers to come,” he said.

Completed in 1930 and named in 1972, Bennett Auditorium is located behind the Aubrey Keith Lucas Administration Building in the center of the historic district of the campus. Architect Vinson B. Smith Jr. of Gulfport designed Bennett Auditorium, as well as the Lucas Administration Building and The Hub. Designated a historic landmark by the State of Mississippi in 1986, it has and continues to be host to a variety of concerts, forums, graduations, and other special events.

Some of the world’s most renowned musicians, authors, scientists, entertainers, intellects, and political leaders have graced the Bennett Auditorium stage over the last century, including Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Charles, Yo-Yo Ma, Winton Marsalis, Steve Martin, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and the late Mississippi Gov. William Winter, among so many others.

The Community Heritage Preservation Grant program was established in 2001, and since then has provided more than $56 million dollars to help restore almost 400 schools, courthouses and other historic properties located in communities throughout Mississippi. According to McGee, in just the past four years Hattiesburg has been awarded close to $700,000 through the program to make improvements to historic properties in the city.

“I’m very proud Bennett Auditorium will continue to serve as centerpiece of our beautiful campus, and now will be lovingly protected and restored for the use of students, home to the Southern Miss Symphony Orchestra, and enjoyed by the entire community for generations to come,” she said.