PROGRESSIVE ARCHITECTURE -The Placemaker - A former shop teacher in Mississippi has single-handedly revitalized a neglected neighborhood, using the principles of traditional architecture and urbanism.

by Marilyn Avery JUNE 1995


The Cotton District of Starkville, Mississippi, appears to be a historic neighborhood with its combination of traditional architecture and finely grained urbanism - the kind of neighborhood where wealthy families tend to reside over many generations. But the Cotton District is less than 25 years old and contains housing that is not only beautiful, but affordable. And the whole area was actually designed and built by one person: Dan Camp, a former shop teacher with a personal interest in architecture and urban design. 

Taking his inspiration from historic towns in the South, Camp has produced small apartments, assembled into a variety of housing types, using local labor, local materials, and handcrafted millwork. In the Cotton District, brick, wood, and stucco houses, all with the proportions and the aged patina of historic homes, line shady streets. Each door, window, fence, and gate is elegantly crafted with wood detailing evocative of buildings found in Savannah, Alexandria, and Charleston. Flowering bushes and neatly trimmed hedges border small manicured lawns. Pedestrian walkways connect an assortment of public and semipublic spaces and lead to narrow streets. Residents walk slowly and talk to each other on the street. 

Camp has single-handedly transformed the Cotton District , one property at a time, into an identifiable place. And his efforts have not gone unnoticed. Among advocates of the New Urbanism, Camp has many admirers. While lecturing at the Starkville campus of Mississippi State University, architect and urban planner Andres Duany saw camp's "historic neighborhood" and invited him to present it at the first congress for New Urbanism in 1993 (P/A, Dec. 1993, p.36). Camp was well received at the conference, which was dominated by projects in early stages of development. 

Getting Started

A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Camp studied industrial arts at the University in Starkville, graduating in 1962. After teaching industrial education in Vicksburg for two years, he came back to Starkville in 1967 as an assistant professor and taught blueprint reading, drafting, and shop classes. In 1969, he went into the development business, building his first apartment house in the Cotton District. 

His first building was a two-story, wood-clapboard structure containing eight residential units. He had made some money in the stock market and used the profit to buy a lot in a blighted area of Starkville. Adjacent to a former cotton mill, the neighborhood included primarily low-cost worker housing when the mill was in operation. After the mill closed in the 1950's, the area deteriorated and property values plummeted. When Camp began working here in 1969, he saw potential in the low land costs (housing on 45' x 90' lots were selling for $3,000 or less) combined with the proximity to the university, half a mile away. 

His plan was to build an apartment house and rent out the units to students. To secure the mortgage financing, Camp "put a spit-shine" on his shoes and took the local savings-and-loan board to the site. Despite the existing conditions and against conventional judgment, the board members approved the mortgage, with the contingency that Camp find construction financing. He got the money he needed and the building came in on budget. He rented out the units to students and put the profits into the construction of his second project. 

By 1972, Camp had built a total of 16 rental units. His net income from the units was higher than his salary from the university, so he left his teaching position and began working as a full-time, independent contractor. Using his own plans, Camp built houses for himself, for clients, and on spec in and around Starkville. His primary interest, however, continued to be his Cotton District properties. With the completion of more housing came appreciation for the implications of the placement of the buildings relative to each other, and Camp began to focus his attention on the design of urban spaces. Spanning an entire block and conceived as a historic street, "Planter's Row" is his largest single effort to date. Begun in 1986, it required a minimum lot size variance from the town's PUD Ordinance, which allowed greater densities than the town's zoning laws. Camp's reputation for development high-quality projects was well-established by his time, so the variance was quickly granted.

 The main public space in Planter's Row is a narrow brick-paved thoroughfare defined by zero-lot-line townhouses. The house feature the distinctive millwork and wood detailing found throughout the district. Rather than renting out the houses, Camp sold them in order to nurture a sense of permanence in the neighborhood. Currently, Camp owns 125 units, with rents ranging from $285 per month for a studio to $535 per month for a two-bedroom with a study. The rents are not subsidized by any government program. 

The Process

Camp's approach to the development of the Cotton District has been intuitive and personal. He loves woodworking and building. He admires traditional architecture and has spent countless hours studying and sketching traditional architecture in historic neighborhoods in Vicksburg, Savannah, New Orleans, Alexandria, Natchez, and small Southern towns. On the urban level, he studies historic street detailing and how buildings, fences, walls, and landscaping define urban spaces. On the architectural level, he notes housing types and residential forms. On the level of detailing, he sketches and reproduces in his workshop the simple and ornate millwork that he observes on historic architecture. 

Camp's process is as straightforward as he is. He begins by sketching each project, striving "to enhance the street with the look of the building." He keeps voluminous sketchbooks filled with rough, information-rich drawings of buildings and details he has seen, as well as his own conceptual sketches. With "a basic plan and an elevation or two," he runs his ideas by Larry Bell, the head of the Starkville Building Department. After answering any questions Bell may have, Camp receives his permit. Construction generally begins immediately. The foundation and rough framing are completed by a subcontractor and the finish carpentry and detailing are done by Camp and his crews. The entire process takes three to four months. 

A Strategy for Placemaking

Central to Camp's success is his use of small, affordable apartments grouped within commodious residential building types - mansions, rowhouses, sideyard houses, and courtyard houses - and outbuildings. The use of larger residential typologies gives the units a dignity they could not sustain alone. The design of small spaces endowed with well-crafted detailing is not unlike the division into apartments of once elegant, single family urban residences. His use of simple floor plans, based on traditional architecture, and the compact size of the apartments serve to keep construction costs low. Exterior balconies and porches maximize habitable space. 

The traditional urbanism that guides Camp's approach maximizes the district's livability, and the density of the development increases its profitability. He has concentrated his buildings in areas where he can control both sides of the street to ensure spatial definition. Further, he inserts mews whenever possible to create an intimate scale for the neighborhood's public and semipublic spaces. 

A Model Placemaker

With his focus on small-scale, incremental intervention, Camp's strategy for placemaking has intriguing implications for the development of affordable housing for single individuals, special populations, and people in need of transitional housing. Camp has chosen to rent his units to college students, a group that as high turnover rates and low incomes - characteristics shared by the populations hardest hit by the affordable housing shortage. Camp's rigorous maintenance program is a substantial part of his strategy to ensure the value of the housing and the livability of the neighborhood. 

Most zoning laws preclude the use of the elements that give the Cotton District its visual impact; zero-lot-line development and units with minimal square footage are illegal in most urban areas. However, many cities are now using overlay zoning as a tool to revitalized selected areas, and codes are being rewritten to encourage compact urbanism.