DATELINE MISSISSIPPI - Dan Camp's Slum Renewal Project in Starkville, Mississippi.
Brad German, Builder, 05/01/1994
Dan Camp has been working on renewing a slum district, called the
Cotton District, in Starkville, MS. Since 1969, Camp has built approximately 10
houses per year using no site plan, and his attention to scale and detail is
well-known by urban planners around the US. Camp's homes have charm and his
alleys are lined in bricks that he himself designs. University students rent
his townhomes or cottages in this custom-made neighborhood that has gained
Meet Dan Camp, community visionary. For the past 25 years, Camp has been quietly turning a Starkville, Miss., slum into one of the most talked about "traditional new towns" in the country.
The "town" is called the Cotton District, an old urban renewal area that sits between Mississippi State University and downtown Starkville (population 18,000). Camp buys land, and designs and builds about 10 houses a year with a $1 million line of credit from a local bank. The result: a hand-made neighborhood where kids can play kick-the-can and university students can rent charming cottages and genteel townhomes.
Since Camp stunned an audience of urban planners in Washingtozn, D.C., last year with a slide show of his work, a steady stream of planners and architects has journeyed to Starkville to view the Cotton District and come away awed. "He's the most interesting story in the U.S." says Andres Duany, the famous Seaside, Fla., developer.
"He has an innate ability to conceive appropriate scale and detail and another innate ability to implement it," says Carson Looney, who designed Harbor Town, Memphis' traditional new town. "He has a unique combination of vision and common sense that lets him see the big picture without losing sight of the details." . Camp doesn't work from a site plan, and his designs are a home-brewed gumbo of Southern architectural traditions. Like porches and shallow set-backs gleaned from New Orleans. Or cottage houses from Vicksburg, Miss., and Raleigh, N.C., not to mention an ample dose of his own imagination.
One townhouse, for example, has 395 square feet of living space, but boasts 20-foot ceilings, a sleeping loft, built-in chests, and ceramic-tile kitchen floors. (Including land, production costs about $100 a square foot.) While that sounds high, the 53-year-old self-taught builder says, "They're so hot, we can't finish them before people move in."
Other models include a two-bedroom "patio" home with a separate one-bedroom carriage house that sits on a 30-by-34 foot lot and sells for $75,000, and a 16-by-24-foot, one-bedroom cottage. "No marketing consultant would ever suggest a 395-foot townhouse," says New Jersey architect Jim Constantine, "but it's fabulous. You can't prove a lot of what he's doing would work on paper, but it works."
Which is one reason for his sudden popularity with folks like Looney and Duany, who "discovered" Camp during a visit to MSU.
Another reason, says Camp, is that "I've been doing it a lot longer than [Duany] has and without any association with him. I'm creating the neighborhood everybody else is trying to re-create."
But what's really neat is that Camp does everything himself. I mean everything. He won't use an architect ("I don't even ask their opinion"), a marketing consultant ("Our homes sell themselves"), or a land planner ("I have confidence in myself"). He even uses a '56 Chrysler (his mother's) to figure out house spacing, alley widths, and parking needs.
Camp designs his own bricks (manufactured in Columbus, Miss.) for his alleys, which are patterned after a famous Colonial backway in downtown Philadelphia. And he runs an on-site shop that turns out first-class cypress wood shutters, windows, French doors, and millwork. "I'm one of the few community visionaries who makes things happen with no help from anyone," he says. (A man with a soft southern accent and a Ph.D. in industrial education, Camp claims that he built a 12-foot cabin cruiser at age 14.)
Of course, one reason that Camp can do what he does is that he builds on cheap land with labor cheap enough to let him construct dormers on the ground and then hoist them in place with a crane. It also helps that the local building inspectors are amiable enough to let him build from thumbnail sketches on the backs of napkins. ("If you have the design in your head and can relate it to your people, you don't need blueprints," he says.)
Such factors, however, make it hard to see how Camp could survive in a heavily regulated market. In fact, although his vacancies are near zero, it's not entirely clear that he makes money in Starkville. Camp, who got rich playing the stock market, hints that he builds for love.