The Commercial Dispatch
By: Carmen K. Sisson
January 3, 2013
Sam Kaye, noted as one of the state’s leading historic preservationists, died Tuesday, leaving a legacy that his friends and colleagues say will endure the test of time.
Kaye, 72, an architect by profession, built his life around history, working tirelessly to preserve Mississippi’s historic buildings, saving them from demolition and restoring them to new viability while carefully maintaining their historic and architectural integrity.
The Mississippi Department of Archives and History has called him “one of Mississippi’s finest preservation architects,” and the Mississippi Heritage Trust in May 2012 awarded him the Al and Libby Hollingsworth Award for Lifetime Achievement — the state’s highest award for outstanding service to historic preservation.
At the time, former Gov. William Winter said he knew of no other architect who has done more to develop a public appreciation for preservation.
Kaye’s position as an expert was so well-known that in November 1978, when Ken P’Pool was charged with opening a field office in Columbus for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, he immediately made an appointment to drive up from Jackson to meet Kaye.
P’Pool, now director of the MDAH Historic Preservation Division, said Kaye’s knowledge of Columbus history was unparalleled. Along with being involved in the preservation and restoration of many downtown buildings, he also uncovered a few hidden jewels.
Endlessly curious, Kaye began investigating the origins of Bridge Street, now known as Fourth Avenue South. People told him there had once been plans to build a bridge across the Tombigbee, but the plans had never materialized. Kaye proved everyone wrong, discovering that freed slave Horace King of Tuscaloosa had constructed a bridge that was later demolished by a flood.
“Sam always had a very deep appreciation for history, particularly for Columbus history,” P’Pool said Wednesday. “He grew up in Columbus and was always fascinated by how all of the events had come together. He had an innate fascination with history and could see the really amazing stories that played out in Columbus.”
Kaye was equally talented at mining the rich nuggets of history in other Mississippi towns, sometimes surprising even lifelong residents. As one of the founders of the Mississippi Main Street Association, and a board member with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he served as the state’s architect and advisor for numerous preservation projects.
No matter where you go in Mississippi, if you see a beautifully restored building, chances are Kaye had a hand in it, said longtime friend and Columbus historian Rufus Ward.
Kaye’s depth of knowledge never ceased to amaze even those who knew him best. Ward said Kaye could look at a piece of moulding on a window and tell when the structure was built.
He was meticulous with details, but friends say he had an easygoing nature as well. He was generous with both his time and his expertise, often taking younger preservationists under his wing, said Bob Wilson, executive director of Mississippi Main Street.
“He was my mentor as well as a terrific friend,” Wilson said. “He was very well-respected nationwide. Sam has individually and professionally touched all 51 of our Main Street communities.”
Jokingly, Wilson and his colleagues often called Kaye “the map man,” because no matter what city they were working in, Kaye knew the current maps, Civil War maps and other information they could use to market the unique characteristics of each town.
“Sam just knew that backwards and forwards,” Wilson said. “He was just super. Anytime we went to a national conference, he was really a rock star in that group. Everybody knew Sam and admired him and was impressed with his knowledge and professionalism.”
P’Pool said because historic preservation is such a specialized niche in architecture, it requires a combination of professional ability and personal interest. It is easier to design a building from the ground up than to try to preserve the integrity of a structure already in place.
But he had an irrepressible mixture of love and enthusiasm for his work, and in Kaye’s 35 years on the review board for the National Register of Historic Places, P’Pool said he and others called on him frequently for advice. He never refused.
“He did so much gratis work,” P’Pool said. “He was a very generous and affable person, always fun to be around.”
Jan Miller, central district director for Mississippi Main Street, said she thought of Kaye like a father.
“Sam will be greatly missed,” Miller said. “He was a fine person and a very good friend.”
Memorial Funeral Home is handling the arrangements. Visitation will be held Saturday, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Columbus, from 9 a.m. until funeral services begin at 11 a.m. Burial will immediately follow at Friendship Cemetery.