Centennial Gala planned for Vicksburg’s B’nai B’rith Literary Club

Organizers of the March 25 event hope to replicate this photo from the BB Club’s early days

A Vicksburg Jewish landmark that has hosted many stylish events over the decades will have a centennial celebration in grand style.

There will be a black tie optional gala on March 25 at the B’nai B’rith Literary Club, commemorating the 100th anniversary of its March 1917 dedication.

Tickets to the cocktail buffet are $50 per person, with proceeds benefiting the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation.

The 24-piece Capitol City Stage Band will perform in the ballroom. Formed in 1985, the band does original arrangements of popular music from the 1920s to 1940s, from early jazz to swing, Latin and brass. The band has done everything from specials on Mississippi Public Broadcasting to Governors Inaugural Balls.

Stan Kline, president of Vicksburg’s Temple, Anshe Chesed, said the evening is “shaping up to be a pretty significant thing,” adding that “it wouldn’t be much of a gala with our 10 people” remaining in the Vicksburg Jewish community.

Kline said Dan Fordice, who currently owns the building, felt the anniversary “is just too historically significant not to do something.” The facility hosts a wide range of events, including a large number of weddings each year.

The B’nai B’rith Literary Club was established in 1871 “for the intellectual and social advancement of its members.” It met in private homes before establishing its first location at Cherry and Crawford Streets in 1887.

The original building burned around 1915. The current building at 721 Clay Street, with marble stairs and a carved limestone exterior, was dedicated in 1917, and Kline said at the time there were 650 members.

A large ballroom is on the top floor, and in the basement was the first indoor swimming pool in Vicksburg.

As the Jewish community dwindled and Anshe Chesed moved to a smaller facility away from downtown, the B.B. Club was sold to the city in 1967, which used it as a police station, covering up the ballroom and carving typical offices out of the space.

The city installed paneling over the mahogany walls. The ballroom had an eight-foot drop ceiling and fluorescent lights installed, but Kline said they miraculously did not damage the ornate qualities of the building in covering everything up.

The city moved out in 1996 when a new police headquarters was completed, and in 1999 the building was purchased and returned to its former grandeur by Laurence Leyens, with then brother-in-law Fordice. The renovation process cost about $1.3 million.

Leyens’ family had been in Vicksburg since around 1860, establishing a candy store that was later sold to the Biedenharn family, later becoming the first place where Coca-Cola was bottled.

His father sold the Valley Dry Goods Store shortly before Leyens graduated from Millsaps, so he moved to California and sold insurance.

Upon hearing that the city planned to tear down the BB Club for “another parking lot” he stepped in and bought the building. He said after the city’s adaptations were removed, police officers who had worked in the building for years were stunned to see what had been hidden.

Leyens then successfully ran for mayor in 2001, serving two terms.

At the gala, Kline said there will be a historical display in the library on the first floor, with much of the information coming from two boxes of memorabilia on loan from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s archives, including handwritten club ledgers from the early days.

Additional material will come from a display Anshe Chesed did 15 years ago for the congregation’s 160th anniversary.

Kline will also do a presentation on Jewish Vicksburg history.

While visitors generally are unable to go to the basement to see the swimming pool because of liability concerns, there will be someone stationed downstairs so small groups can go downstairs and see it.

Storycook Favorites has its catering business in the building and is the in-house caterer for events there.

Story Stamm Ebersole, daughter of the Vicksburg Post’s longtime former food editor, quit her accounting business and went into business doing ready-made meals and famous cheese straws out of Hotel Vicksburg.

In 2005, she moved down the block to the BB Club, becoming the exclusive caterer when Fordice purchased Leyens’ share of the building.

The gala is open to the community, and those from outside the Vicksburg area are welcome. Reservations should be made by March 15 to the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation.