The walls recently collapsed on the site of a nearly century-old historic building in Jackson, originally designed by prominent Mississippi architect NW Overstreet.
But don’t expect tears or protests from the story’s defenders. The demolition did not involve the historic building itself, but rather an indiscriminate cinder block addition in front of the building, which for years obscured the view of the original art deco-themed structure on North State Street near of Beasley Road.
The original two-story brick and concrete building, completed in 1929, served as the transmitter site for radio station WJDX. It was designed, according to legend, to look like a massive console-style Philco radio of the day.
According to new owner Scott Allen of A Plus Signs and Creative, Inc., the goal now is to restore the original building to its former glory.
“It’s a great feeling that exceeded my expectations,” Allen said of the demolition process that brings the original structure back as planned. “The building now looks more quaint and smaller – and so much better aesthetically to look at.”
As for long-term plans, Allen said he remains open-minded but inclined to turn the space into an artists’ studio.
“I’m an artist myself and I believe in doing what you know,” he said.
The most immediate goal is to have the building inspected by a structural engineer and to meet with Barry White, director of the Historic Preservation Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, to ensure that future renovations follow state guidelines.
The building is listed on the Mississippi Register of Historic Places. Allen said he had no plans to save the transmitter building, but he and his wife, Allison, began looking for a new location for their growing signage business last year.
The building’s previous owner hoped to turn it into a museum
The adjacent building at 5830 N. State St. proved to be the ideal solution.
“We wanted to stay in Jackson, and it had just the right amount of office and shop space,” he said.
And the fact that the transmitter was designed by Overstreet, who also designed the Allens’ home in Fondren, seemed like an interesting omen.
Previously, the site had long been home to Sound and Communications Inc., an audio and video installation and engineering company.
Algie Broome, who started with the company in 1957 and later became its chairman before retiring in 2016, said he had always dreamed of seeing the transmitter building restored as a museum of radio history.
“Yeah, I floated that idea when we bought the property in 1984,” Broome said. “I’ve always been interested in radio, and many state broadcast stations were our customers.”
During his tenure as company president, one of Broome’s most prized possessions was a vintage 1930s Philco radio in his office.
“It was about 3 feet tall and shaped like the transmitter building next to it,” Broome said.
The potential museum generated some interest at the time, particularly among members of the broadcasting community.
But the estimated costs and day-to-day demands of keeping his business going caused Broome to scrap the idea.
“It was going to cost around $250,000 to start, which is more change than I had to contribute at the time,” Broome said. “During this time I was responsible for around 20 families and keeping the company going – so I was very busy.”
A great story
Although not the first broadcast station in Mississippi, WJDX became the first in the capital of Mississippi and the first to be affiliated with a national network: NBC.
Owned by the Lamar Life Insurance Company, the original building applications were submitted by the company’s then vice president, CW Welty, father of famed Mississippi author Eudora Welty.
The lavish studios, located in the downtown Lamar Life Building (and linked to the transmitter site by telephone lines), featured ivory ceilings, chandeliers, black velvet curtains with gold fringe, and a piano Weber tail, according to published reports.
One of the first announcers was Armand Gilbert Coullet, a talented violinist who also served as the station’s musical director.
To operate the transmitter site, Lamar hired engineer Percy Root from Memphis and arranged for his family to move into the two-bedroom apartment on the second floor above the equipment room.
One of Root’s 10 children, Ruth Root Benton, remembers the time well.
“Yeah, I lived there until I was 16,” Benton said.
To make room for the large family, her mother, Claire, found three-stacked army cots for all the children to sleep on.
When asked if she found the accommodations crowded, Benton replied, “Not really. For the time we had all the modern conveniences – electrics, indoor plumbing and steam heating – and this was at a time when many of my friends still had outbuildings and cooked on wood stoves.
Of the Lamar Life Company, she said, “They always took good care of us – it wasn’t just trivial.”
The first broadcast was set for Saturday, November 30, 1929, but technical difficulties ensued, delaying the debut by several days while further tests were carried out.
Finally, on the evening of December 8, 1929, WJDX was officially on the air. Initial programming included an invocation by Reverend Walter Capers of St. Andrews Episcopal Church, recaps of the day’s Georgia-Georgia Tech football game, and a local talent show called “Jitney Jungle Frolics.”
Clear as a bell
“Jacksonians are thrilled that WJDX’s reception is as clear as a bell, without the intermittent static that bugaboos program from distant stations,” said The Clarion-Ledger.
WJDX was initially assigned a frequency of 1270 kilocycles but changed to 1300 kc around 1940. It remained there until 1952, when the station arranged an unusual “frequency swap” with competing station WRBC.
While the details are hazy, Lamar Life officials evidently felt that WJDX needed to ramp up its power and expand its reach if the station was to remain competitive in the increasingly crowded local radio landscape. Impressed with the new 5000 watt transmitter owned by WRBC (broadcasting on the 620kc clear channel), the company offered to buy it for $250,000 and, in turn, sell its old transmitter to WRBC for $100,000. $.
The chance to win $150,000 and stay on the air was obviously too good to pass up on the fledgling WRBC (who had signed five years earlier in 1947). Federal approval of the deal came late in the year, and the two stations switched frequencies on December 22, 1952. By January, Lamar Life was buying large advertisements touting their new frequency and improved coverage.
It also meant that the Root family would themselves be uprooted and moved to the transmitter’s new site in Rankin County. Their new home near the current Jackson airport site was more spacious than the apartment upstairs, Benton recalls. But after living there for only a few years, a tornado hit it and completely destroyed it. After that, the company provided them with another home in Brandon.
Back at the site of the original transmitter, the long reviled cinder block addition appeared around 1967, according to best estimates. This was the year WRBC was granted a license to start sister FM station, WJMI, to broadcast at 99.7 MHz. Over the next few years, WRBC and WJMI shared studio space in the new addition, one on the north side and the other on the south side.
But WRBC’s foray into FM broadcasting was short-lived. The company sold WJMI to the owners of radio station WOKJ in April 1973, and WJMI went from an easy listener to an urban contemporary format. The station remains on the air today, popularly known as “99 Jams”.
Then, in 1978, finding its long-running rock top 40 losing ground to the emergence of FM rock albums among young listeners, WRBC delivered its final swan song. The frequency was sold and became the new home of the urban format WKXI. Frequency 1300 is currently occupied by the gospel station WOAD,
In the meantime, WJDX (known as WJDS for part of the 1990s) continues today on its longstanding frequency of 620 – nearly a century after its founding – with a mix of talk and sports programming. .
And the site of its original transmitter, after being largely abandoned for more than 40 years, seems closer than ever to a great revival. “Scott (Allen) is really doing a great job!” said Benton.