‘Laz Quave’ marks centennial of City Hall building

Following is the prepared text of the presentation by Biloxi High School student Bryan Rosetti, who portrayed former Mayor Laz Quave during a July 30, 2008 ceremony celebrating the centennial of the building that now houses Biloxi City Hall. Quave was a longtime community leader who served as mayor when the federal building became City Hall. Rosetti presented the re-enactment.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Laz Quave, and I’m going to tell you a little bit about this building you’re in right now, and a little bit about the Biloxi of old.

I was the mayor of Biloxi when this building became City Hall in 1960, and I also served as a sheriff, county supervisor, and later in life, after being mayor, I served as a City Councilman.

I have to tell you, Biloxi has sure changed a lot since 1908 when this building was finally dedicated.

For one thing, your casinos are sure a lot bigger and better than the ones we had in the Biloxi of my day.

There was a time when this building was almost torn down for progress, which would have been a tragedy, but let me start at the beginning.

The stately three-story marble edifice that houses Biloxi City Hall has a history that is as storied as the city itself.

The building was originally constructed to be a U.S. Post Office, federal courthouse and Customs House.

It was built on land purchased for $8,000 from William Armstrong in 1902.

Although construction began in 1904, the job was not finished until some four years later, owing to delays caused by a hurricane, a yellow fever epidemic, supply failures, and, according to reports from the time, “incompetent contractors.”

Despite those issues, the planned $125,000 building was completed for $99,146, and there were reports those contractors from Chicago even tried to bribe the federal inspector who oversaw the construction of this building. Imagine that, attempts of bribery in Biloxi.

But the good news is that the inspector, Victor DeProsse, made sure the government got everything it paid for. And what a beautiful building it was. More than 1,200 tons of marble are used on the exterior walls. Each stone is attached to the inner brick with strong clamps covered in cement.

You can see the plenty of Italian marble, and nearly all of the woodwork is original.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This building was “substantially completed” on June 30, 1908 and was dedicated in August 1908 in a ceremony that was said to be one of the greatest occasions ever celebrated in the city. Dignitaries from the local, state and federal levels gathered at 9 a.m. for the dedication while Ott’s Point Cadet Orchestra “discoursed fine music.” The gathering was so big, in fact, speechmaking was moved to the nearby Dukate Theater on Howard Avenue. The band led the crowd to the theater.

1908, by the way, turned out to be a banner year for the city. That year, Biloxi got free mail delivery, with employment of four regular carriers and one extra carrier. Visitors to the federal building dedication took rides around the city on the new electric trolleys before departing on a fleet of power boats for a trip to Ship Island. They returned that night for a big banquet at the Firemen’s Hall and more speeches and music from Ott’s Orchestra. The party finally ended at 1 in the morning.

In early 1950s, plans were afoot to demolish the structure to make way for a larger federal building. I think we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to a man who helped make this happen. His name was Anthony “Tony” Ragusin. They called him Mr. Biloxi, because he lived and breathed Biloxi. As longtime manager of the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce, he helped bring Keesler here, he helped save this building, and he did a great job promoting the city across the country. Many of his famous pictures of old Biloxi are still around today.

Tony convinced Senator Jim Eastland and Congressman William Colmer that using this building as City Hall would be a good idea. It was through Tony’s work that Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield finalized the deal with me when I was mayor.

We also owe thanks to the Biloxi school board. In 1953, the board voted to give up the Howard I school, which was located at what is now the U.S. Post Office on Main Street. A swap was made: The federal government paid $84,000 for the school, and the city paid the feds $16,000 to make up the $100,000 appraised value of what would become City Hall.

The building was dedicated as City Hall on April 2, 1960, and one of the first things that we did was get to work on adding a couple of modern conveniences, things like an elevator and air conditioning. The elevator is still working.

In 1978, this building joined the National Register of History Places and was hailed by National Register representatives as “the finest documented building in the state of Mississippi.”

One of the blessings from Hurricane Elena is that Mayor Blessey used the opportunity to uncover these huge ceilings in this room, which had been covered with a drop ceiling. In fact, they did some massive renovation work to this building during the Blessey administration, so much that they had to temporarily move City Hall to the Dantzler House.

And now, I’m hoping that Mayor Holloway can put the polish back on the building so it can be the proud structure that it once was – and always will be..

Biloxi has lost a lot of historic buildings in hurricanes, whether it was in 1915, 1947 or in Camille or Katrina, so doing everything that we can to protect buildings like this one is very important.

But let me leave you with this: Despite all of the storms and whatever other calamity we might have to overcome, I think the best thing about Biloxi is the people. The people are what make Biloxi the great place that it is. Always have and always will, and there’s no hurricane that can change that.