Mrs. Criss Builds Her Dream House

Russell on the back porch

“We had saved a little money with which we paid for the lot and put $1000 down on the house. I had $500 which I planned to use for carpeting but changed my mind when we decided to go on and put in a permanent stairway so that we could finish the upstairs later on, a decision we were always glad we made. We did not have the money for carpeting or draperies or any other extras. We knew when we built the house that we wanted to eventually add a back porch, so two years after we built we added the screened porch on the back of the house, taking out a home improvment loan for three years.

“During the 60s we finished the upstairs. Russell had gotten some cypress lumber from houses his brother, Rudy, had torn down on a place he and their brother Bailey were farming, cleaned it up and used it and some beaded ceiling from the same houses to finish the upstairs. Mr. S.G. Beaman, our neighbor and contractor, along with Griff, a Negro carpenter who had worked on our house, did the upstairs work with Russell giving instructions from the sidelines. Again we could not afford to put any carpeting down at first and just had plywood floors until I won $400 in a drawing a Liberty Cash Grocery, which was used for carpet for the upstairs big room and a vinyl floor in the back hall.”

I thought it was the biggest house in Greenwood, but it really wasn’t very large at all. Just ingenious. After Sara died, I found the magazine with the house plan that she based 409 East Adams on, along with the alterations that she made so it would be just what she wanted. She should have been an architect. That house is so quaint and so functional and so solid that it could have been replicated over and over again, but so far as I know, there’s only one. I have always been rather uneasy in neighborhoods where every house has the same floor plans and you have to plant bushes or use an odd paint color to find your way home.

So many of the details in Sara and Russell’s house were reflections of her years living in the Stott home on East Washington. There is a huge living room, because she loved parties and family and wanted her home to be the center of every holiday. And that’s just what happened. There are no rooms which can only be accessed through another room, so there’s lots of privacy. After you’ve shared a bedroom with your mother and three siblings, that’s a must. And the “permanent stairway.” She was always inordinately proud of that staircase for some reason. I guess for her, that sturdy set of steps represented success and stability and all that a house should be, and she utilized them for overflow Christmas and Halloween decorations and lined them with family photographs.

Russell, I suspect, bowed to her every wish in 1950, staying out of the way and letting her call the shots. But the back porch was his domain, and he did much of his paperwork out there when the weather was nice. He would sit at the far end with a transistor radio to listen to Ole Miss football games, and I well remember the night games, when you could see the red glow of his cigarette as the second half stretched into the evening. You could go crawl up in his lap but you couldn’t talk during the ballgames. I inherited that quirk: If you want to really get on my nerves, try talking to me during an Ole Miss game. I’ll be rude. Learned it from my daddy.

Sara all but lived on the porch, as well, doing her sewing and writing and watching through the hedges to see who was walking by. She had been raised with the Stott’s famous front porch, and this screened-in room was our version of that ringside perch on the world. It was the very best part of the house.

The upstairs’ project is dim in my memory, although it must have been around 1964, because I remember Russell banning me and my Beatles’ records to the unfinished rooms on the second floor.  Sylvester Beaman was my surrogate grandfather (along with Roy Stott), a gruff old gentleman with tremendous building talent and a heart of gold. He always smelled vaguely like sawdust and he could create the most wondrous things in his garage. He and Griff created two magical bedrooms and a tiny bathroom upstairs, leaving oddly shaped attics and hiding places that were a child’s delight. Cathy immediately moved up to her new bedroom but I never left the safety of our downstairs bedroom. My Aunt Mamie had convinced me that there was a German ghost named Clyde on the loose up there, and until the day I turned the house keys over to new owners, I was a bit uneasy being in the attic by myself.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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One Response to Mrs. Criss Builds Her Dream House

  1. jemiller25 says:

    Having never actually been on the Stott porch (which, so I’ve been told, was the only one in Greenwood to compete with 409 East Adams), this porch represents so many of my early memories of Greenwood, Mom. I clearly remember walking in and your father sitting in his chair (must have been around 1990), and going immediately to sit in his lap. I remember the greenish-yellow furniture and blinds. And some of my earliest memories are of playing on the floor during one of Grandmama’s famous Christmas Eve parties. Hard to beat a great back porch, and that one was the best.

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