This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
Betwixt and Between: Threatened Creole Dancehalls in the Agricultural Landscape of Louisiana by Deborah Rehn
Deborah Rehn: Thank you. Yeah, thanks, this is really, really exciting to me because I first started coming to Louisiana as a [inaudible 00:00:11] tourist to dance when I first heard zydeco when I lived in D.C. There was a cunjunto and zydeco accordion concert at Wolf Trap and I was hooked on zydeco.
A lot has changed over the years and I’m really thrilled to see all the work that’s been done and I hope to keep helping any way I can.
I’m just going to zip through this really quick because we really covered a lot. I did sort of a literature search to begin with. I had no idea as far as the vernacular architecture and the culture in tangible, how do you understand these places and how do you understand how these buildings came to be where they are and their form and their functions.
These are basically what we talk about. The context and the primary function and purpose of a dance hall is for dancing. That’s real clear, and I think the dance floor should be the most character defining feature of the building, and look at the building inside out and how people use the building.
It’s set in this area here I looked at for … Acadian I think I don’t know enough about. I know I came here during the tourist era and this, as we all know, is Spanish and French and Native American before that and it’s a landscape that’s been utilized over the generations for farming and agricultural. Also this special soil here that allowed the industries.
I think all these are important in the culture so I don’t know if that fits with the national register nomination or not but I’m always kind of outside the box in what I’m doing anyway.
Again this just reinforces the places that I looked at in the prairie. The farms, the ranches and then historically the architecture goes way back as we all know. I just wanted to point out a couple examples of the architecture and similarities. We have all the way up in Cane River, Creole culture, Creole communities and there’s been Creole colonies. A lot of research done up there and I’m not sure how much research has been done in this area on the Creoles and the history in the prairie lands down here.
The house dances, the house floor plan, If you see, notice kind of the galleries on the sides and then the walls where you walk through the doors and the shape of… What’s really important in a dance hall is the dancing and the dance. This is an older dance that you’ll see throughout the Creole world I think.
I’ve encountered it reading about in the French Caribbean, and we still do it up in Atlanta and it’s all over this Contradance which is lines. Just to imagine that line out on a gallery. I’m not a dance expert, there are dance experts out there and that’s why I’m kind of asking about bringing an interdisciplinary research to talk to these buildings and the forms and how they were used over time.
I looked at places that people dance, and this obviously was already mentioned in the plantation stores. The commercial part goes back even further than the twentieth century, so maybe … I don’t know how this can be divided up so I’m just throwing all this stuff out here.
A jook joint again and the places that I looked at are not jook joints and not ill repute. I just put that there as an example. Then church dances we already mentioned. Some people that study African American music and history talk about the real importance of the sacred and secular and the jook joint on Saturday night and church on Sunday. All the music is obviously all tied together.
That was an important point, this in between space for the community. I mean I see especially Creole … In our country we have this heritage of segregation and black and white and I think Creole is emerging and it’s betwixt in between culturally and betwixt in between in locations in the sites with the preservation of some of these. This is the outside of the building. Again, the inside is very important. This is when I was up in the north, up near Chopin, up in there. I forget the name … Cloutierville. Wait, am I going the wrong way, did I have it twice. Yeah, I’m going the wrong way again. Sorry.
Again, the house dance we mentioned, so we got all different kinds of houses and house dances over time. Just to mention the diaspora of this culture, thinking about the blues trail and how it’s mapped beyond where it begins up in Maryland where I started dancing. People had house dances and they’d move the furniture out of the rooms and dance. It goes on.
Then of course Opelousas and the birth of Clifton Chenier and I think there’s a lot of good history being done up there in promotion of the home of zydeco. In the Louisiana Creole the values again, these have already been mentioned pretty much. There’s a Creole poet, Sybil Kein, who wrote about every time there’s always a celebration, there’s always food and music and dancing.
This sort of shows the relationship between the dance hall and the house. This is at Hamilton’s Club and it was a boucherie one Sunday morning when I stopped by to look at the club and Mr. William Hamilton gave me a tour that was really nice. They were getting ready for a family celebration.
Again, I think what’s really, really important is the continuity of the culture yet the change over time. The agricultural landscape. Everybody’s driving trucks and wearing boots and hauling stuff and the site plan next to the owner’s home close to the road, residential scale. Again the cultural expression and a lot of this is a family business, it’s a farm as a business and a dance hall as a business. There’s continuity there.
A few of use came out to Richard’s way out in the country out there in Montel near the Offshore Lounge which, by the way, they have really changed that place. We have a fundraiser in Atlanta, we didn’t raise a whole lot with the Cajun and Zydeco Association, but with the building codes and everything it looks like they’ve done a lot and that’s good to see.
Back to Richard’s, here’s what it looked like when I was there back in 2003, these overgrown bushes and the whole building wasn’t pink at the time. It had the red barn paint and this is one of the sister’s house next door when we were just here the other day. It was just all overgrown, it looks like it’s abandon. This was Kerman Richard’s house. I was told I talked to Anne Richard who was running the dance one of the times I talked to her when I was there.
Then his brother or cousin Teddy built a disco, Teddy’s Lounge, later, but Richard’s dates back to the 1940’s, we’ve mentioned that before. Now owned by[inaudible 00:10:17] I believe.
Here’s a site plan of the buildings and the location near the railroad tracks out past the town, but yet it’s within the family compound, so know the other day there was a mention that someone else owned the brick house and Teddy’s now, so this kind of is confusing with what I thought I knew. Hopefully documentation and text records and whatever, if you all have that down here, tax maps can help sort out ownership and improvements to the property. You can see when an improvement, a building is added on to a property.
Just some of the features, the entrance on the picture on the left is where they bring in the beer and deliveries and a sign out front announcing the dance. Just some of the details in the back now since hey upgraded it. There’s a ramp on the back to bring the band equipment in. What else did I want to say about this?
Okay, here’s the floor plan. Again, with the gallery like space around the side where everyone sits now and then the dance hall is in the middle. I just think the structure is quite interesting to me. It may just be a function of building span or it may be anthropologists talk about in a folklore material culture study, talk about the embodied memory in the builders and what they’re building. The vernacular construction they learn through the generations. They learn how to build things. Is there a connection here, I don’t know.
I did start looking at agricultural vernacular architecture, but didn’t have the time to pursue all that and there may be some other … Maybe it’s similar to a barn. I don’t know. I haven’t done that analysis, but I’d like to either get to that myself, we’ll see. I hope I’m not running out of time.
Just to throw in the contrast with the urban place. I’ll just kind of zip over this because I don’t want to run out of time.
I don’t know how much of you know El Sido’s, but he’s another business man and a very excellent promoter of his businesses. He developed El Sido’s and as the people mentioned the other day about having the local family oriented Mother’s Day dinners. It’s in a community. It’s in a suburb. It’s in North Lafayette, which is primarily sort of older buildings and I haven’t studied it in depth but it looks very kind of economically disadvantaged or underrepresented in major studies.
I mean I couldn’t find anything when I was looking for documentation besides … king of zydeco, the musicians, people talk about clubs, but a real rigorous analysis for real in depth … I just have that kind of brain. I always want to know more and more and more.
It was great. He took me to the one stop shop. He told me how that helps pay for his club when times get tough and this is his house that he built which is just gorgeous. I just love this picture. I just love it. He’s such a cool guy.
Here’s where it’s located in Lafayette, so it’s in the urban area. Now we’ll jump in another side of Lafayette, away on the south side of Lafayette which I find really interesting. There’s still more I want to know about how Mr. Adam Hamilton, a sharecropper, managed to buy one hundred acres of land and build his home.
The home, they look kind of alike in these little pictures. One was built by Adam Hamilton, the father that bought the land, and they expanded the house and they had a lot of kids. I brought my notes here. This may go into a nomination or something. I’ll tell the whole story.
The barn is out back. The animals are still there. I was there October 19, 2008, and the trucks, they were feeding the pigs. As I said, they were having a boucherie. I just went by here when I drove into town Sunday and everybody’s still there. Mr. William Hamilton, unfortunately he passed away five years ago, but his brother Adam, who must be Adam Jr., still lives in one of the houses. There’s three brick houses.
When you’re looking at Hamilton’s, one to the right and two to the left. We all know iconic Hamilton’s Club. This is just the interior the day I was there. Again they were decorating for … I forget if it was a birthday party. This place started … He told me his cousin started it and they used to have ball games and people would come in the trucks to the baseball games they had out in the field out back. It was smaller, and then later in the 80’s I think it was they expanded it into the dance hall.
Again, that’s kind of the time, that era, the changing over time of these places. Off to the left, the bar is in the back, they had sheets over the liquor in the bar and he told me because they were going to be having kids there they covered up the booze.
Also when it was a baseball, it was more of a private community place out in the farm land. I want to look at maps of Lafayette back at that time and see how far … What was the landscape like. Again, the landscape to me is so important in this setting. He said that one half of it was for the teenagers, and the other half was for the adults at one point.
Here’s a map, kind of a partial map. I realize this needs to be developed. All this needs to be developed. Hamilton’s in the middle there with family homes on the side and the fence and the barns and the animals out back.
This is Philip Gould, I’m so excited he’s going to be here later. I want to see more of his pictures of the dance halls.
Again, back to Richard’s Club, this is what it looks like pretty much now when we were there. This was a few years ago, and you can see the changes. This raises a question that is really raised by Gib’s Place also. This hasn’t changed as drastically, but when places change over time and they’re part of a living culture and then they become memorialized or museumized or … To be aware of how we move forward with preserving these places and maybe prioritizing some.
Some may be need to be sort of a community focus and maintained as a community center and people like us all come together and help identify which ones really need to continue in their current use, even if it’s monthly or whatever. Set up the reserve funds to try to set up a foundation and try to keep them in the current use and then maybe others. You can’t save everything. This is what we do where I work. I can’t participate in it though, it’s too painful.
What Gail does with FEMA is very painful, where you have to give up on your dream and your vision and face reality. I can’t give up, so that’s my little voice. To keep saying that we have to maintain the use and the integrity of the space, not just the fabric, but the use. A number of people in a hall, that goes back to … Gosh at this point I left out … I think we’re seeing a different slide show than I really intended come to think of it.
I have some pictures in here of dances and the history of dance. Dancing, the contra dance, we started with the contra dance, and then going up through the … That was late 1700’s, comes from Europe. Then during the 19th Century you get waltzes, which was scandalous because people, instead of just passing by each other and doing these little minuet turn and curtsy things, they were actually touching each other when they danced. It was a scandalous change, but thank God for waltzes because they’re so much fun.
Then we get to the 20th Century. I’m really leaping ahead because there’s a whole history of dance and there are people that study dance and I think it would be really fun to relate again how the dances relate to the building. In the 20th Century you get into the ragtime and the Charleston and even more scandalous dancing.
Here’s another side to the dance hall history. When we get into the urban dance halls, they’ve been written on a lot up in the North about the laws in Chicago against dance halls and the ill repute and just the stuff that goes on in dance halls. That’s a whole other element of dance hall history. Creole dance hall is one little piece here in the Louisiana dance hall. Then even the Gulf Coast dance halls we can look at.
Again, these are the similar spaces that have been talked about. Okay, then we get into the 20th Century and the swamp pop era which is the swing dancing and swing dance has changed over time. One of my theories about the dancing and the changing of the dances has to do with the amount of space that you have to dance in. Zydeco typically, when I learned it back in the 90’s, dances change with time. The names of dances change. You can have west coast swing, east coast swing, D.C. hand dancing, St. Louis imperial swing, eight-count swing, six-count swing.
I mean there’s all these kind of dances that there are done here, but if you have a small place to dance your dance is going to be different than a big place. That’s important too. That’d be an exciting study, like jook joint dancing versus lounge dancing versus bar dancing versus … I mean the dance halls.
The dance hall, again, is a place of … There’s Creole dance halls at least that I’ve looked at. I should never generalize. Again, it’s a place between. It’s not the bar. It’s not the lounge. It’s definitely not the jook joint. It’s a family. It’s overseen. It’s controlled environment for the community and maybe the older folks. Maybe it’s the old and the young. That might be part of it.
There’s the dance floor. Okay quickly architectural stuff. Again, the upgrades, the pipes, they try to make an accessible railing there, I think, is what that is an attempt. You can see the change. We talked about the windows and the air conditioning and how that’s been changed. Inside of the dance, what it’s like. Just the continuity of the culture and hopefully someone in Sid’s family will take over El Sido’s. Someone in Hamilton’s family will take over Hamilton’s.
I just also want to say that being a dancer, and one of the things, I know a lot of people that don’t dance they have this fear. You feel like, “Oh my God, no, don’t ask me to dance.” I’m not going to dance. I don’t know how to dance. I’m the opposite. It’s like, “How can I find someone to dance with?” I just want to say these dance halls that right now we see on the landscape, and they’re just out there and they’re just mute and they’re just standing, waiting for someone to ask them to dance.
The enduring heritage of live music and dancing as fundamental in the cultural life of Louisiana Creoles is widely recognized. It would follow that the material culture generated to house these expressions, the Creole dancehall, would be equally important. Suburbanization, cultural shifts, aging owners, and absent family support are threatening the survival of these buildings and their settings. Understanding the meaning of these places and their significant place in history is a first step toward preserving them.
Over 15 years of research, observation, and “fieldwork” at zydecos informed my reading on the history, culture, architecture and music of Louisiana Creoles. Oral history interviews with owners and musicians added primary contemporary focus. Investigation and analysis of specific landscapes, sites, and buildings, supplied geographical context and enlightened meaning.
Creole dancehalls are iconic places that physically express the continuity of colonial culture along with the social and economic circumstance of the Louisiana Creole people in the twentieth century. The two primary dancehalls analyzed are unique inventions that create a community space close to home, between historic house dances and modern night clubs or jook joints. Further study is proposed for a broader and deeper appreciation of this unique architectural composition.
Deborah Marcella Rehn, AIA, is an architect with the Southeast Regional Office of the National Park Service. She began traveling to Louisiana to dance zydeco and two steps in Creole and Cajun dancehalls in the early 1990’s. As a preservation architect trained at Washington University in Saint Louis and Columbia University in New York she was deeply intrigued by the unique places of cultural expression and heritage. Over the next 15 years she studied and documented the cultural heritage of the Creole community and vernacular architecture in rural and small town Creole landscapes, including Richard’s, Slim’s and Hamilton’s, among others. She has presented her research at a number of conferences including VAF, APAL/HGA, ASA and P/ACA. And, somewhat fortuitously, one of her major projects during this time with the National Park Service was the preservation of Perseverance Hall, a historic Creole dance hall in New Orleans.
Debbie has been a licensed architect since 1993, as well as a construction inspector, technical advisor, project manager and trainer with the National Park Service. Among numerous other projects, her work has included preservation work on several masonry fortifications in the southeast and the Caribbean. She is a technical expert committee member of ICOMOS and is a contributing author of the Historic Fortification Preservation Handbook, published by Washington State Parks in 2003.
Her master’s thesis at Columbia, Managing the Scientific Conservation Process: Theory and Practice, was partially motivated by her 6 years of experience working in private architectural practices on adaptive reuse and tax credit projects in St. Louis and upstate New York. It focuses on tools and techniques for conserving historic fabric and addresses some of the complex challenges originating with issues of budget, significance, and authenticity.