Letter from Louisiana's River Road: Endangered Buildings

February 21, 1993|By ANN LOLORDO

ALONG THE RIVER ROAD, LOUISIANA — Along the River Road, La. -- To the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the collection of dilapidated plantation homes, slave cabins and Creole cottages along the Mississippi River are the black-footed ferrets, Florida panthers, Santa Cruz cypresses America's landmarks.

In a phrase, "endangered" places.

There are dozens of them on this 70-mile stretch of river, forlorn and forgotten structures that join an illustrious group of historic landmarks on the endangered places list: The Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg, Detroit's Tiger Stadium, a vintage gold mining town in Virginia City, Mont., even areas of Ellis Island in New York harbor where a $156 million restoration project reopened the Great Hall in 1990. These famous sites have been threatened by encroaching development, proposed demolition and insufficient funds.

"If you don't know where you came from, how are you going to know where you might go?" says Eugene Cizek, a professor of architecture at Tulane University who is working to restore an old Creole home on the River Road. "If you erase the physical vestiges of everything that makes up your life, then all you have left are the [historic] markers."

The markers are many along the River Road. Some front magnificent, restored Antebellum plantations like Oak Alley, /^ Destrehan and Nottoway, mansions visited by several hundred thousand tourists a year. Others stand like gravestones, solemn reminders of what once was.

On the east bank of the river, a historic marker on the former site recounts the demise of of Uncle Sam's Plantation and out-buildings: Demolished in 1940 by Army Corp of Engineers to relocate the levee. (The levee, by the way, was never moved.)

The chemical plant that looms behind the Uncle Sam marker reflects a clear and present danger in this corridor -- economic forces that make rundown historic properties prime targets for aquisition or demolition. At one time, 400 "great homes" -- plantation houses with porticos and verandas, formal gardens and cotton fields -- reigned along the 70-mile riverfront between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Now, fewer than 100 exist.

These grand dames have been victimized by neglect and vandals; chemical companies wishing to locate on a road already clogged with smokestacks, farmers in need of more acreage, heirs with neither the money nor the inclination to restore the properties.

The River Road buildings exemplify the pressures -- physical, financial, environmental and development -- that threaten historic structures across the country. For example:

In Dallas, eight historic neighborhoods are threatened with demolition because their stock of vacant, deteriorated houses breeds crime and violence.

In South Pasadena, California, Victorian bungalows and Revival-style houses may be razed to accomodate a 6-mile freeway.

At Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, the park service lacks the money to repair leaky roofs, replace outdated electrical and heating systems and remove dangerous asbestos and utility transformers.

In each case, the fabric of America's past becomes more frayed, the trust says.

"We see them as really tangible parts of our history and it's crucial that we as Americans understand major parts of our history," says Peter H. Brink, a vice president of programs at the National Trust in Washington. "It's one thing to read about places. It's another to be able to go and touch them and know you're right there where the battle of Gettysburg was fought or where the Declaration of Independence was signed."

And yet in a recession-wracked economy, preservationists compete for the same private dollars that help fund organizations aiding the homeless or Somalia's starving. The availability of public dollars -- tax incentives for restoration projects -- has decreased because of changes in the tax law. As a result, investment from rehabilitating historic buildings since 1986 has dropped by 75 percent, preservationists say.

On the River Road, preservationists have sought new allies in their struggle, most recently the environmental groups that have long fought the chemical industry. More than 100 chemical and industrial plants line the river banks, a corridor also known as Cancer Alley.

To people here, the trust's "endangered places" designation affirmed "basically what people along the River Road have been feeling -- the impact of the pollution, the aesthetic degradation, the social and economic decline," says Audrey A. Evans, an organizer for the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. "The River Road is now considered the back road, the place where you put your garbage instead of the Main Street that it used to be."

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