Cenla’s National Register of Historic Places

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Central Louisiana is full of rich history.  That history is well represented in the National Register of Historic Places, with over 200 official listings in the Cenla area.  The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archaeological resources.

 

The National Register adds properties through a nomination process.  To be considered eligible, a property must meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. This involves examining the property’s age, integrity, and significance. For inclusion, properties must be old enough to be considered historic—generally at least 50 years old—and must retain much of the same appearance from the past.  In addition, the property must be associated with events, activities or developments that have historical significance.

 

One of the oldest commemorated sites in Central Louisiana on the National Register is the Marksville Historic Site. Construction of the earthworks at the site began around the year 0 AD, and saw continued use for the ensuing four centuries. The C-shaped embankment is 3,300 feet long, up to 10 feet high, and encloses 40 acres. The Marksville site is an example of the Hopewell culture that arose in the Midwestern U.S. beginning about 50 BC. Although the site was built and used by people whose ancestors had lived in Louisiana for thousands of years, they chose to participate in this new culture, along with communities from Florida to Wisconsin, New York to Kansas. The Hopewell culture can be identified from the types of earthworks built, decorations on pottery vessels, and way of burying the dead.

 

Separated by a few short miles and fourteen hundred long years, the Hypolite Bordelon House, also in Marksville, is a fine example of the small Creole house—something which was, at one time, plentiful and is now an unusual survivor. The house plan consists of two large rooms with a  central chimney, a front and rear gallery, and one rear cabinet. The double pitched roof is highly unusual in Avoyelles Parish. As such, it is an important part of the parish’s architectural history.  The house was built by the Bordelon family, one of the pioneer families of Avoyelles Parish.  Although the meticulously restored house has been relocated from its original site, it still enjoys an essentially naturalistic setting, due to the adjacent large oak trees.  The move was necessary in order to save the house from decay and neglect, as it was inaccessible in its original location.

 

Two Cenla churches listed on the National Register share both a namesake and a common mission beyond the faith.  St. Paul Baptist Church-Moorehead School in Allen Parish is a simple frame country church built around 1910.  The old church, no longer in active use, is virtually unchanged.  At each rear corner, framing the altar, is a tiny room, which served as a school.  A historic blackboard occupies several feet of the front wall.  While churches doubling as schools were fairly common at the time, St. Paul’s is significant in that it served as a “public” school, partially funded by the parish school board.  In the early to mid twentieth century, the building provided the only education available to children in the immediate area.  The first documented use of the building as a school dates from 1919 and ends around 1945 when the school closed.

 

Likewise, St. Paul Lutheran Church is a small frame building located about two miles north of Mansura that also played a key educational role in its surrounding community.  Built in 1916 to replace an earlier building, the church features elements of the Gothic Revival and Queen Anne Revival styles.  St. Paul operated as  a  combination church and school from the very beginning and was the only educational opportunity available to local black children from its construction in 1916  through the late 1930s.

 

A handful of Cenla cemeteries are included on the National Register, including the Rapides Cemetery, Alexandria National Cemetery and Mt. Olivet Cemetery, all located in Pineville.  In addition to the Pineville listings is a small cemetery in Vernon Parish.  Talbert Cemetery is unique in that it is home to the Talbert/Pierson Grave Shelters, a set of fifteen wooden grave shelters constructed over the final resting places of the Talbert and Pierson families, who were related by marriage.  Each shelter covers one grave and consists of a gabled metal roof with overhanging eaves supported by squared wooden posts at each corner.  Tombstones accompanying the graves are  located beneath the shelter’s roof and inside the picket fenced enclosure.  Five of the earliest grave shelters include fences with hand cut wooden pickets, displaying Victorian era motifs. The shelters are rare survivors that represent a distinctive folk tradition associated with Upland South cemeteries, and experts believe that they may once have been the norm.  If so, the vast majority have been lost to deterioration and demolition. One of the mysteries about the grave shelters are their reason for existence. The general consensus is that fenced shelters were needed to prevent animals from damaging graves in the days before fenced cemeteries became common, and the roofed structures were  intended to keep rain from eroding the graves over time.

 

Unusual architecture was also seen in the public square.  The Beauregard Parish Courthouse and Jail were each completed in 1914, however they are of completely divergent styles.  The courthouse is opulently Beaux Arts, while the jail is constructed in a manner evocative of a Gothic keep.  The courthouse building consists of a three-story main block with a pair of two-story side wings, all of which is set on an English basement, and surmounted by a high drum and a square dome.  In total, the courthouse reaches a height of six stories at the apex of the dome.  The adjacent Parish Jail building was constructed with a connecting tunnel.  The four-story, concrete building has a grey stucco finish with exposed aggregate. The three-story central block has a central spiral staircase made of steel.  Two-and-a-half-story wings, which contain the cells, protrude from all four sides of the central block.  The central block is surmounted by a one-story ornamental tower, which was utilized for hangings, earned the building its dubious moniker, “the hanging jail”. It is undoubtedly the most elaborately styled parish prison in the state.

 

Central Louisiana boasts a number of notable plantation listings on the National Register. Built by Pierre Baillio II, circa 1796 prior to the Louisiana Purchase, Kent Plantation house is one of the oldest standing structures in the state of Louisiana. Together with its outbuildings, it preserves the homestead of a successful Creole family typical of a Louisiana colonial era working plantation. The house, originally only six rooms, is typical of Louisiana colonial construction. It is raised off the ground on brick pillars to protect it from the flood waters of Bayou Rapides. All of the materials used to build the house came from the land: the clay used for the brick pillars, cypress for its sills and beams, and mud, Spanish moss and animal hair for its bousillage walls.  Kent Plantation House boasts several outbuildings, including: the ​milk house; open hearth kitchen; sugar mill; and two examples of the hand-molded, sun-dried, brick-between-post slave cabins as well as several other examples of a working plantation environment.

 

Melrose Plantation, also known as Yucca Plantation, is located in Natchitoches Parish and is one of the largest plantations in the United States built by and for free people of color. The land was granted to Louis Metoyer, and development began between 1810-1815 with the construction of Yucca House, African House, and a large barn.  Louis began construction of the Big House in 1832, which was completed in 1833 after Louis’ death by his son, Jean Baptiste Louis Metoyer. Louis was a son of Marie Therese Coincoin, a former slave who became a wealthy businesswoman in the area, and Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer. The Metoyers were free people of color for four generations before the American Civil War, owning Melrose Plantation from 1796 until 1847.

 

From Loyd Hall and Tyrone Plantation around Alexandria to Oaklawn and Magnolia Plantations in Natchitoches parish and beyond, there are excellent examples of plantation life throughout Cenla.  The Piazza Gin Building, with its ginning/pressing equipment, was moved in 1997 from Rodney, Mississippi to its present location on Frogmore cotton plantation  in Concordia Parish, also listed on the Register.  The two-story frame building was constructed sometime before about 1880 (due to the use of square nails), but its exact date cannot be determined.  The building’s current equipment dates from later than the building.  Although cotton gins would have existed by the thousands across the South, extremely few historic examples  (more than 50 years old) survive today.  Early gins are so  rare—virtually non-existent—because continuing technological improvements rendered them obsolete.  The Piazza gin is indeed an extraordinary survivor. Every component is there, except for the boiler with its smokestack and water tower.

 

The Hotel Bentley has stood as an icon of Cenla hospitality for over a century. The hotel is a Renaissance Revival-style hotel, featuring a seven-bay Ionic, colossal entrance colonnade, which runs along the main block of the building, between a pair of massive end wings. Through its history, the hotel has played a vital role in the Alexandria-Pineville community, especially when it accommodated new residents and military officials during World War II. The Bentley Hotel was built in 1907-1908 by Joseph A. Bentley, a prominent citizen of Alexandria who in the course of his life was a banker, lumberman, and philanthropist, as well as hotel owner.  Since acquiring the hotel in 2012, preservationist Michael Jenkins has meticulously undertaken the task of restoring the hotel to its former grandeur, including reopening the hotel, ballrooms, Mirror Room Lounge and Bentley Room restaurant.

 

White Sulphur Springs in LaSalle was “discovered” in the rolling piney hills near the town of Jena in 1833 by Joseph P. Ward, who was traveling through the area on his way to Texas.  He named the springs after his hometown of White Sulphur Springs, Georgia.  The spring was the center of a nineteenth century health resort whose once numerous buildings are now all gone.  All that survives is a spring font encased in a concrete flange, set beneath a gazebo in a small clearing.  The spring site is exemplary of a then-popular philosophy of American health care called hydropathy—the therapeutic use of mineral water as a cure for infirmities of all sorts.  People came to resorts such as White Sulphur Springs and often stayed for months.  White Sulphur Springs was in its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, but began to slowly decline thereafter.  White Sulphur Springs was closed down by the Louisiana Board of Health in 1911 after testing revealed that the water had no curative value, but instead was a menace to health because it contained harmful bacteria.

 

Journeys of healing have also led to Central Louisiana State Hospital.  The Central Louisiana State Hospital Dairy Barn occupies a commanding position atop a knoll overlooking Lake Buhlow at the northern end of the hospital grounds. The clapboard sided structure features numerous nine light casement windows. The two wings project from the south  end of the main block at angles, yielding an overall “Y” shape.  The barn is an unusual example of a farm outbuilding.  The barn was designed by an architect, which in itself makes it most unusual among the vast stock of surviving old barns in Louisiana.  The building was styled for  visual effect. Unlike virtually all other examples in the state, its design was not wholly functional, and it did not represent the cheapest, most expeditious option for barn building. Rather, it represented an architectural folly built for dramatic picturesque effect.  It likely has no rival in the state.

 

Forts Randolph and Buhlow were constructed on the Red River at Alexandria by Confederates in order to repel future Union attacks through Northwest Louisiana. Construction, completed by March 1865, utilized local plantation slave labor and was fortified with cannon and over 800 soldiers. Though the Confederate ironclad Missouri was anchored in the river opposite Fort Randolph, no fighting ever took place at the forts, and they were abandoned at the end of the war. Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Site also includes the remains of Bailey’s Dam, which is also listed on the Register. Bailey’s Dam, remarkable for its design and the amount of time required in constructing it, allowed for the Union Fleet, under the command of Admiral David Porter, to escape below the rapids on the Red River at Alexandria during the Union retreat after the battle of Mansfield. Called “one of the greatest engineering feats of the Civil War,” the dam designed by Colonel Joseph Bailey has left a lasting mark on the history of the region. The site is today commemorated with interpretive signage and a scenic overlook of the Red River.

 

In addition to serving as “living history” in and of themselves, several other Nationally Registered Historic Places in our area have assumed new life as working museums. The former Rapides Bank and Trust Company building, located just across from the Hotel Bentley in downtown Alexandria—with its fully developed classical facade with four colossal Tuscan columns, entablature and balustrade—now houses a portion of the Alexandria Museum of Art.  The former home of one-time Rapides Bank and Trust Company president James Wade Bolton, located a few blocks from the historic bank, is now incorporated into River Oaks Square Arts Center. The adjacent early 20th Century Queen Anne Revival cottage that was once the home of Harlem Renaissance icon Arna Bontemps now houses a museum honoring its former resident.  A few blocks away, the former Alexandria Library, added to the National Register in 1989, is now home to the Louisiana History Museum and Genealogical Library.  On the north side of the river, the old Tioga Commissary, once the hub of commerce in its community, serves as the Tioga Heritage Park Museum.

 

With so many different ways to explore our shared history—and we’ve barely scratched the surface—Cenla’s presence on the National Register offers fantastic opportunities for day travel and “staycations”.  To find out about all the Cenla sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, visit www.nps.gov/nr/index.htm.