Feb 15, 2017

Carroll Ishee

Shortly after I moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1972, I became aware of a local architect and builder named Carroll Ishee.  I had a co-worker at Ingalls Shipbuilding who lived in an Ishee-built home.  After serving in World War II and receiving the Silver Star for bravery while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division in Europe, Mr. Ishee had become an attorney.  After building a home for his wife and himself, he found that he had a real knack for design and construction.  That first house sold before the newlywed Ishees could move in, as did his second attempt, so he underwent a career change.  In a career that spanned only 26 years, he designed and built over 150 structures in the three coastal counties of Mississippi (Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson).  I was fortunate enough to have visited a half-dozen of his homes and met Mr. Ishee on more than one occasion.

I think the first Ishee-built house I saw belonged to Clayton "Clay" Coffey, my co-worker.  The house was characterized by several features:

  • The wallboard was segmented by raw, exposed wood structural elements so that the individual wall panels appeared as if they were "floating"
  • There were very few interior walls.  The bathrooms were enclosed, but not much else.
  • Interior ceilings were angular and vaulted
  • The house was built on a piece of property so steep that no contractor in his right mind would have attempted to build on it
  • All the finishes in the house were natural -- almost rustic
  • There were lots of quirky homemade items evident throughout -- custom made coat hooks, light fixtures, built-in furnishings, and door handles, for example
  • There was an abundance of indirect lighting
  • The exterior walls were dominated by glass; The house felt like it was outdoors.

There is a Web site called MS Mod that deals with all things modern in the state of Mississippi.  They did an article entitled "Call Me Ishee" that presented some details about Mr. Ishee's life that I was unaware of. "Carroll B. Ishee was born on July 23, 1921 in Hattiesburg, MS.  He was a lawyer, general contractor, and realtor who designed and built unabashedly modern homes and small commercial buildings on seemingly unapproachable sites along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  He had a love for nature and believed people needed to coexist with it not merely experience it from afar.

A typical Ishee interior, here shown in the Kris Byrd house
The motivation behind Ishee’s desire to build homes was the need he saw for improving the lack of quality in the houses he was trying to sell to his real estate clients.  He began his pursuit to build high quality homes in 1956 with the purchase of a lot in the Gulf Hills neighborhood in Ocean Springs, MS.  Ishee went on to build approximately 150 custom homes along the Gulf Coast in what can only be described as a remarkable pace of construction considering he started building in 1956 at the age of 35 and died in 1982 at the age of 61 — 26 years.

He drove an old white pickup truck, stored his building supplies which he would often buy out of old buildings on their way to renovation or demolition in a large warehouse near the railroad tracks in Ocean Springs, MS, and was a just a “lanky dude with some kind of persuasive manner”.  He would use his manner of persuasion to attract building clients, often at some public place like a grocery store, to go with him on a journey to build his view of what the client’s home should become.  We state “his view” because he very rarely took design advice from clients.  He was driven to create his opinion of what a great home should be and all he asked for from a client was a building program that listed the number and types of rooms a client wanted in their home."

The interior of the Kris Byrd house
I have written previously about a former roommate, Chip Squire, who lived with me around 1973.  Chip decided that he wanted to live in a Carroll Ishee house, so I got to see the process first-hand.  Chip and Carroll met a couple times to discuss what Chip hoped to get in a new home.  They visited several pieces of real estate that Carroll had selected to talk about how a home might be sited on the property.  They also visited several existing Ishee homes so that Chip's expectations were based on Carroll's construction and design philosophies.  (I accompanied them on one of these visits and saw a house with a meandering trench cast in the concrete floor, containing a small stream that actually flowed through the house.  It flowed through screens at each exterior wall to keep "critters" out!).  Chip and Mr. Ishee signed a contract, but it was mostly a deal built on trust and confidence.

A wall of glass in Brian Milling's home, typical of Ishee design
Chip selected a piece of property on which a house could be built that would have its back deck suspended over an alligator infested swamp.  I think he referred to it as a natural marsh.  Carroll built the house in about four months.  The longitudinal axis of the house paralleled the road.  It sat about 50-75 feet from the edge of the pavement.  The front of the house looked quite conventional, covered with cedar-faced texture 1-11 plywood siding, punctuated by vertical wood battens, all of which was stained a dark brown.  But when you entered through a central door, it became clear that the other three walls were glass, supported by sturdy wooden stiles.  A sliding glass door directly across from the entry door opened onto a rear catwalk that ran the length of the building with a wide center stairway descending three or four steps to a 30- or 40-ft. square deck with railings.  The deck was probably no more than 4-5 feet above the water in the marsh.  It was all very dramatic.  There were two delineated bedrooms and a single bath, but the rest of the house, including the contemporary open-design kitchen, were in a single open space with indirect lighting on a vaulted ceiling.  The house felt very unrestricted.  The marsh was an immediate presence that drew you outside.  Chip and his newly-acquired great dane lived in comfort and seclusion.  Carroll had worked his magic.

For the last several years that I worked at Ingalls, I worked for a manager by the name of Jerry Smith.  Jerry and his wife Eleanor decided to have Carroll Ishee build them a home.  They acquired a lot that Carroll recommended on Lover's Lane in Ocean Springs.  The property sloped steeply into a swamp not very far from the road's edge.  It then extended far into the swamp, and near the rear of the property, on a small rise of land, stood a giant magnolia tree.  Carroll designed a house that aligned with the road, but was only set back enough to permit cars to park facing the exterior wall, which I believe had small windows near the roof line.  When you stepped through the front door, you were confronted with an unbroken wall of glass facing the swamp (marsh?).  Beyond the glass wall was a catwalk-like porch with a center wooden walkway extending straight back to that magnificent magnolia.  The walkway broadened into a circular deck that surrounded the tree with built-in benches at its outer perimeter.  The entire structure had rope handrails that lent it a nautical flavor.  And that deck, bridge, and half the house were perched on giant pilings that Ishee's crew had driven deep into the swamp bed.  It was a breathtaking sight!

One of Carroll Ishee's more energetic proposals had to do with the remnants of the old highway 90 bridge that had at one time carried traffic between Biloxi and Ocean Springs, the so-called War Memorial bridge.  In 1962, a new bridge had been opened, replacing the earlier bridge dating to 1930.  According to the "Ocean Springs Archives" Web site, "After the 1962 Biloxi Bay Bridge was opened, the draw of the 1930 War Memorial Bridge was removed and the old span became a fishing pier for residents of Harrison and Jackson Counties.  The structure was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina on the morning of August 29, 2005.  At its City Council meeting in early December 2005, the Board of Aldermen and Mayor of Ocean Springs voted in unison to draft a later requesting Jackson County officials to permit FEMA to remove the derelict span and fund the construction of a surrogate structure to serve as a community, fishing pier.(The Sun Herald).

The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy
When I first moved to the Gulf Coast in 1972, I lived in Biloxi and commuted to the shipyard in Pascagoula.  Each day, I drove over the "new" bridge and looked down at the two concrete "piers" that extended from the Biloxi and Ocean Springs sides of the channel.  They were usually crawling with fishermen vying for the "best" spots.  But Carroll Ishee had a bigger vision.  In the mid 1970s, he presented his proposal, along with extensive drawings and artist's renderings of a kind of "mall" to be built on the bridge remnants.  Carroll Ishee had visited and studied the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) in Florence, Italy.  This is described in Wikipedia as "a medieval stone closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common.  Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers."  Ishee envisioned a similar development on each portion of the "old bridge" in Biloxi and Ocean Springs.  As he described it to the City Council members, "We already have the underlying structures.  All we need to do is build the 'wings' on either side to support buildings and lease the structure to restaurants, gift shops, and other merchants."  These would be foot-traffic only "neighborhoods."  There would be large parking lots adjacent to the piers.  They would attract tourists and become destinations unto themselves.  Neither community acted on his recommendation.

Ishee, according to my friends who knew him well, suffered from a long-standing heart condition.  He tragically died at the age of 61, in 1982.  He left a rich legacy.

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