Article by Tom Huth

Below are excerpts from an article written by Tom Huth for Conde Nast Traveler magazine in summer 2005.

For the night’s accommodations, we have secured an old schoolhouse. Or half of one, at least. “Your side used to be the first and second grades,” explains Ellis Anderson, the woman who owns the duplex. “My side was the third and fourth.”

We’re in the artists’ hideaway of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on a quiet residential corner only two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. We swing open the door, and our schoolroom is dancing with light: sunshine pouring in through the tall paned windows, through the transoms, the ceilings twelve feet high and turning with tropical fans, the white beadboard walls hung with oversized art. Ellis shows us our bed, which is screened off by armoires and bookcases. The unusual headboard, she says, was once the ticket window of the Toulouse Theater in New Orleans. She shows us our kitchen, our own washer-dryer. We have 1,200 square feet to play with, and out every window we can see the bewitching shapes of the live-oak trees in the yard, their enormous arms glowing with Resurrection ferns.

Given this choice, who’d ever stay in a hotel?

My wife Holly and I are in the middle of an old-fashioned cross-country motoring trip, and I’ve lined up home rentals (call them hometels) in three small towns a day’s drive from each other along America’s Gulf Coast. These are communities which seem to offer some character and historical depth. Yet so far they’ve escaped the attention of most guidebooks--and developers, too.

Bay St. Louis, tucked into a peninsula with its back to the highways, has a Nifty Fifties feel. Its 19th-Century mansions and clapboard cottages share a fondness for white columns and sprawling verandas, and just enough of them have been fixed up or prettied out in Caribbean colors to make the ghostlier relics look all the more romantic, if only for their possibilities. Along the back streets, residents hang out shingles announcing what they do: the clockmaker, the attorney, the seamstress. The grass in the yards is that overripe green of the Deep South, and we can hear freight trains bleating day and night as they rumble through town.

Main Street boasts a Gothic Revival courthouse, two churches and two commercial blocks of brick shopfronts and wooden cottages which are occupied mainly these days by galleries and gift shops. Still there’s nothing so advanced as a traffic light or parking meter.

In an age of forsaken downtowns, here is a Main Street that keeps on giving. On a Saturday morning I watch a new tenant put up the lettering on his office window: GRAVITY CONSCIOUS DESIGN. Across the street a carpenter is hanging a sign on the Masonic Temple: MASSAGE...AROMATHERAPY. Two blocks up a painter is restoring a vintage Coca-Cola mural.

That night the town’s galleries host a street party, and a modest number of tourists and townspeople amble around drinking wine and listening to live jazz and R&B. Bay St. Louis has been attracting artists since the mid-1980s, and many of them come from New Orleans, which is just an hour away. The affinity is in the bones: The French settled the coasts of Mississippi and Alabama along with Louisiana, and throughout the 1800s the New Orleans upper crust came here, by steamboat and railroad, to escape the summer heat. Today you can’t find a restaurant in town that doesn’t serve gumbo and ettouffe. The paintings on display tonight likewise pay tribute: the wrought-iron cityscapes, the jazzmen, the Spanish moss. Outside, the piano player sings, “Son of a gun we’ll have great fun on the bayou!”

Ellis also drifted over from New Orleans, where she had a gallery in the French Quarter. She declares, not knowing I’m a writer: “This is the sweetest-natured community I have ever seen in my life! Kind. Generous. Tolerant of eccentricities. It’s not like the cities. Some day it might be, but right now it’s stellar. You don’t have to have that big-city wariness, that alertness.”

When she bought the landmark 1913 schoolhouse four years ago (2002), friends pitched in to help her restore it. Sometimes she traded her jewelry for their labor. Now that it’s finished, she has only one problem. Couples who rent from her are so smitten with Bay St. Louis that in the last year four of them have bought their own properties.

So on my walks through the neighborhood--when I size up the lumberyard that’s now an arts center, the Mission-style train depot that’s humming with cultural events--I fancy the thought of reinventing that abandoned bank building down by the railroad tracks, or the old Rainbow Theatre.

Most travelers, I guess, would stay here for one night on the way to somewhere else. They’d pay Ellis Anderson her $100 and move on. But Holly and I can linger a while. We lay in some groceries for breakfast and lunch and fall into our routines. I find myself gazing out the schoolhouse windows like I did when I was a boy, looking for the action. In the evenings we go out to eat, and there are just enough restaurants in Bay St. Louis to last for a week.

After dinner, driving home through the dark streets, I like to turn the corner and see our lights twinkling through the treetops. In the mornings I like to open my eyes to the embrace of those granddaddy live-oaks: to take comfort that we’re still in Mississippi.

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