Let’s be honest. “Historic” is probably not the first word that pops into your head when you think of Alexandria. New Orleans and Natchitoches have a plethora of old buildings – visible symbols of cities rich in history – but Alexandria? What do we have left to preserve?
Actually, we have a lot. From the Civil War to WWII, Alexandria has a rich history that deserves recognition and protection. While the national “urban renewal” trends of the 1970s destroyed many of our historic buildings that kept history fresh on our minds, a significant amount of historic architecture survived. In an effort to raise awareness of Alexandria’s historic building stock, three local historic districts were established by city ordinance in 1979. These local districts exist today, though largely unknown, even to the residents who live there. In 2006, Mayor Ned Randolph reinstated the Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission and appointed new members to the board. The current Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission is working hard to increase awareness of our city’s existing historic districts and the structures within them. This group of volunteer citizens is committed to the education, promotion and protection of Alexandria’s historic structures, older neighborhoods and cultural resources. The commission believes that our history remains alive through the preservation of historic architecture. The goal of the commission is to remind citizens that once these visual symbols of our history are gone, our precious heritage is often forgotten.
Alexandria’s local historic districts include:
District 1: The Original Town Site, from the levee to the railroad, bounded by
Rapides Avenue and the Smith and Smith Railroad tracks (now I- 49).
District 2: West End, from the Texas and Pacific Railroad tracks (now I- 49) to Bolton Avenue, bound by Monroe Street and Lee Street, which was at one time a separate city.
District 3: The Garden District of Alexandria, bound by Bolton Avenue, Lee Street, Vance Avenue, Bayou Roberts, and Monroe Streets.
Alexandria’s historic districts contain some 2,000 structures, the majority of them historic. As you drive down Jackson Street, the central artery of all three districts, take time to slow down and look at your surroundings. Veer off on a side street and discover why residents love the Garden District. Notice architectural details such as working shutters, wooden windows, hand-carved finials and tile roofs. Appreciate the bumps of original brick streets; they slow down speeding cars and protect our children. Rarely found in new construction, such details bring character and beauty into our everyday lives. Essentially, that character and beauty is what historic preservation efforts strive to protect.
While attending Mayor Jacques Roy’s SPARC Summit, I was encouraged during a presentation by longtime mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, Joseph P. Riley. Mayor Riley remarked that, not long after first taking office in 1975, he parked his car downtown and walked along King Street. Void of pedestrians and far from beautiful and inviting, most people had lost hope in the area. They were unable to see past the decrepit old buildings, disinvestment, and crime. But Mayor Riley saw potential and, with the philosophy that “there’s never an excuse to build anything that doesn’t add beauty to our communities,” he worked to preserve and restore existing buildings, adding new buildings only when necessary and in designs sympathetic to the existing architecture. Forty years later, Charleston is a thriving city with modern conveniences, whose historic character and inspiring quality of life attracts residents, visitors, and businesses from across the globe.
So, as a community on the verge of renewal and revitalization, let’s change our thinking about historic preservation. Much more than simply saving old buildings from the wrecking ball and adding paint to make them look pretty, preservation is about restoring existing buildings with the greater goal of reviving community. It’s about reviving a sense of place that will inspire. A place where people want to live, work, and play, and a place where businesses want to invest. Preservation is active and forward-thinking, not stagnant and stuck in the past. Preservation planner Donovan Rypkema recently remarked, “I do not know of a single sustained success story in downtown revitalization anywhere in the US where restoration (preservation) was not a key component of the effort.” His words echo Mayor Riley’s experience, and offer encouragement as Alexandria strives to become a 21st century city by building on the foundation of our past.
Learn more about preservation and the Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission at www.alexandriahpc.org.