Correction to This Article
In some editions of the Post, a June 27 Travel article incorrectly said that there are no nonstop flights from the Washington area to Jackson, Miss. Southwest Airlines offers nonstop flights from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Doing Deco, Y'All, in Jackson

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By Jean Lawlor Cohen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 27, 2004

Antebellum . . . Mississippi . . . Jackson. The words conjure visions: a streamlined marquee, a neon greyhound, a leopard-skin settee.

Okay, so that's not what comes to mind. But this summer in the Southern capital of Jackson, the word "antebellum" evokes that other before-the-war time -- the 1920s and '30s of the art deco years.

And the reason? "Paris Moderne," a dazzling exhibition at the Mississippi Museum of Art through Sept. 6. Any Decophile worth his cocktail shaker should check out this luxe installation of exuberant design and modernist art. Paris, after all, was the moderne mother lode.

With a family wedding to attend and the pull of deco objects unseen, my husband and I headed to Jackson for the weekend. We saw the Paris show, toasted the bride and groom and, in less than 48 hours, learned this: The stronghold of the Old South in the 19th century boasts more architectural eye candy from between the world wars than from its Confederate heyday.

That's no surprise to the natives, whose grandparents dubbed the city "Chimneyville," after Gen. Sherman burned it (three times). Of the major pre-Civil War buildings, only the Old Capitol, the Governor's Mansion and part of City Hall remain. That war brought devastation and then the period named, ironically, Reconstruction.

Fortunes turned, however, in 1903, when the legislature moved into a new neoclassical Capitol. Soon powerful banks and insurance companies brought the will and means to rebuild on all those desolate plots, and they wanted soaring structures with the worldly, progressive look of deco. Now "Paris Moderne: Art Deco Works from the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris" provides a between-the-wars lens for seeing Jackson in a new way.

The show's most dazzling display is an 18-by-18-foot plaster wall of 45 lacquered gold-leaf panels, all low reliefs by Swiss master screen designer Jean Dunand. The subject: the Olympics, a series of robust images designed for the first-class men's smoker of the cruise ship Normandie.

Five galleries are filled with "ensembles" of furniture and fine art -- objects frivolous and functional, many commissioned by wealthy patrons, cruise lines and the nation of France. Each space reflects a particular taste or inspiration. In one, a drop-dead-deco chaise plays off a suite of ivory-upholstered chairs embossed with Greek figures. Nearby, a life-size gilded bronze Diana confirms a 1930s reverence for Napoleonic style.

Another room teases with things exotic, such as python skin chairs and drawings of wild animals. The next strikes a feminist tone with a ladies' tambour desk of rosewood and a Romaine Brooks portrait of an aristocratic horsewoman. Juxtaposed throughout are paintings by modern masters (Leger, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani, Delaunay, Picasso, a 19-foot Dufy) and furnishings by big names like Jules Leleu and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann. In all, there are more than 80 objects, including nearly 30 paintings.

For those pursuing deco merchandise, Jackson's not the place. (Victorian-era antiques are more likely finds.) But for architecture buffs like us, the landscape promised enough Depression-meets-the-Ritz to send us off in a rental car. In a matter of hours, we scoped downtown and hit a few neighborhoods. And deco? We found it high and low.

Throughout the sleepy city center, we discovered skyscrapers of medium size (18 stories or less) but impressive scale. The geometric, earth-toned Plaza Building (120 N. Congress) looms on the east side of Smith Park with the panache of New York's Dakota. Nearby, the gleaming white neo-Gothic Lamar Life Building (315 E. Capitol St.) rises 10 stories to a clock tower that looks a lot like London's Big Ben. The citizens of Jackson still set their watches by that clock, the glass discolored by nearly 80 winters.

The 1929 Standard Life Building (206 W. Pearl St.), now the offices of city bureaucrats, dominates a corner of Roach and Pearl streets. Its step-pyramid silhouette is echoed in ziggurat-shape windows and parapets. We entered an eye-popping foyer of chevrons and stripes and then a mirrored, marble lobby. Terrazzo floor diamonds pointed us toward a pair of elevators where a pleasant man stood ready (is this 1930?) to be our "operator."


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© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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