How do you plan a site worthy of a world-class playwright?
On Friday, October 22, students in the landscape architecture program at Mississippi State University took a literary turn. Under the direction of their professor, Robert Brzuscek, they had been studying the life and work of playwright Tennessee Williams. Williams' birthplace, the former Episcopal rectory now situated on Main Street in Columbus, Mississippi, had recently been renovated as a state welcome center and museum, but the large lot surrounding the house at the top of River Hill was essentially a blank parking lot.
Brzuscek engaged a scholar, a director, the organizer of the Tennessee Williams festival, a publisher--all as judges for plans produced by eleven teams of juniors and seniors at MSU. What a tall order: the students tried to reinterpret Williams' life or legacy into built form on a large city lot. The results included creative solutions that spanned the gamut from abstract to literal, treating the property as a narrative, with scenes or acts, to a reinterpretation of a Victorian garden. Streetcars (for Streetcar Named Desire), glass sculptures (as in Glass Menagerie), intermixed with real-world concerns, such as paved areas that could double as festival gathering places. All told, a successful project for the world-class writer who deserves world-class memorialization.
Presentations took place in the upper floor of the former Elks Club, directly across the street from the Williams welcome center. On the juror's first row sat Columbus native and newspaper editor and publisher (and the well-known photographer/cultural documentarian) Birney Imes. Imes is encouraging the development of the real site, working with landscape architect Patrick Alexander, so some ideas gleaned from the jury may find expression on the actual property.
In the panoply of great artists Mississippi has produced for the larger nation and the world, Williams' contributions loom large. Although he only spent his earliest years at the rectory, the arch-Southernness of Columbus, even its diction inflected his life's work. The time has arrived for this urban memorial.