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  • Home of the Double-Headed Eagle:The Visionary Vernacular Architecture of Reverend H.D. Dennis and Margaret Dennis
  • Ali Colleen Neff (bio)

[F]orms abstractedly embody the dynamic that identifies cultures and locates among a culture's products those that are best. Deep in forms 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-woo!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. [End Page 89] 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.

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This visionary architecture is beautiful, strange, thick with meaning, and extraordinary in form. Its thin towers reach up from thick brickwork bases, its bright colors develop on the edge of the traveler's moving landscape, its shape and meaning change with each passing day as the Dennises add to and reconfigure the world around them. Its first name, among many, is "The Home of the Double-Headed Eagle," after the twin totems celebrated by Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire, and Freemasonry of the Scottish Rite. All photographs courtesy of Tim Gordon and Ali Neff unless noted otherwise.

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 [End Page 90] 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...


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