Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Home of the Double-Headed Eagle: The Visionary Vernacular Architecture of Reverend H.D. Dennis and Margaret Dennis

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Home of the Double-Headed Eagle: The Visionary Vernacular Architecture of Reverend H.D. Dennis and Margaret Dennis

Article excerpt

[F]orms abstractedly embody the dynamic that identifies cultures and locates among a culture's products those that are best. Deep informs abides the power by which culture knows, claims, shapes, and conquers the world. When cultures collide, their particular dynamics erupt into visibility.

--Henry Glassie, The Spirit of Folk Art

I am a black German. A-wool I am a black Jew. A-woo! I am a black Japanese!

--Reverend H.D. Dennis, Vicksburg, Mississippi

VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI

The Gibraltar of the Confederacy erupts gloriously from the southern tip-edge of the flat Delta flood plain to guard the lush Mississippi cotton empire with its jagged bluffs. This remarkable landscape, according to the 1948 WPA guidebook, materializes with a "wild, rugged contour that has the appearance of distant castles, and ... the air of a city in perpetual siege." Nearly twenty thousand white tombstones memorialize the bloody and decisive Battle of Vicksburg that ended on the Fourth of July, 1863. Stretched along its highest contours are lush promontories that have provided escape from ravaging floods and overshadowed a century's deployment of Delta cotton by riverboat. Above all, Vicksburg is a city that emerges.

Along the edges of these bluffs, in the deep peripheral ravines settled by the descendants of local black sharecroppers, The Home of the Double-Headed Eagle shoots up from a long row of kudzu-covered shotgun shacks and cracked pavement to entangle passersby. A five-foot strip of well-worn earth on either side of the fast road invites the curious and the inspired to make a U-turn and park before this strange landscape. From the windshield of a dusty vehicle traveling 45 MPH down this back road, this roadside shrine looks like a defunct, blurry carnival. Once at rest, the fixed eye discerns the delicate makeup of this acre-wide scene. Ecstatic, attenuated spires jut twenty feet into the sky in alternating pink, white, red, and yellow brick and painted wood. These are grounded by heavy bases of cinder block, of which varying sizes have been perfectly alternated and aligned in a kind of mix-and-match grid pattern. This flock of spindly sculptures springs from the last patch of flat Delta landscape like the frozen paths of rare birds in flight, executed in multicolored brick, dyed 2 x 4s, and stacks of aligned block letters.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The first-time observer will perceive something immediately holy about these forms. In the tallest reaches of the ensemble, the towers mime the great cathedrals in height and in style as they stretch endlessly into the otherwise impenetrable gray sky. A large five-pointed star and a cutout of an open scroll, the Black Masonic's hieroglyphic welcome, anchor the assemblage. These are hung snugly at the entrance to an open-air nave decorated with collaged mirrors and found objects and topped with large baskets of silk flowers. Liturgical color wraps the strange shapes that compose the scene: alternating pink, red, white, and gold, flickering like a bright Pentecost candle. An old schoolbus, made to match the spires, glints back into the sun with bits of broken mirror and shiny beads. It faces the highway head-on as if to draw an imaginary crossroads, to the right of the main structure, and is decorated in hand-lettered bible verses, duct tape, and tin foil. The bus is connected to the main structure by a series of deconstructed walls, like those of a half-built funhouse. Nooks for socializing are filled with groups of plastic yard chairs and assorted bric-a-brac, including an outdoor fireplace and large, bright flowerpots filled with plastic daisies.

With its vestibule shoved up against the two-lane highway like a flattened diorama, this chapel draws its congregation from a steady stream of passing vehicles outside. Sounds of roaring semis and buzzing motorcycles permeate the scene. Motorists decelerate to inspect the kaleidoscopic beauty of this remarkable architecture, as well as the exhortations of dozens of signs, rendered in thin red letters on a whitewashed board, all echoing a similar theme:

   THIS IS THE HOUSE
   OF PRAYER. … 
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