This summer, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training has four interns spending 10 weeks in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The four of us are from each from different areas – of both study and geography – but while we’re here in Louisiana together, we want to make the most of our weekends with historically-oriented field trips that will help us better experience this area of the country, and the preservation field.
This past weekend, Paul, Ben, Sarah, and myself piled into my car and headed out to Melrose Plantation; making it just in time for a guided tour. Our tour guide – Tyler – was clearly well-trained, as he walked through each room with ease, answering the tough questions, and adding in anecdotes about the people that once lived at the plantation.
My favorite part of the tour was seeing the work of artist Clementine Hunter. In the upstairs portion of the Africa House (which, as we learned, is a misleading name because no one ever lived there for extended periods of time) the walls are covered in her work. Our tour guide walked us through the significance and interpretation of her work. I especially enjoyed how she sized people based on how important she thought they were, so in a wedding scene, the bride was the largest figure, followed by the maid of honor, but leaving the groom as a mere shadow to his blushing bride. Her work also depicted a series of events in one panel, engaging the viewer by creating a storyboard.
Going through the interior of the Big House, we learned how the house was originally much smaller, and open on the bottom floor; our tour guide described it as a “ground floor basement” due to flooding. A large portion of the upstairs was actually added onto the house after then-owner Cammie Henry bought a nearly demolished nearby house; brought the first floor of it to the plantation site, elevated it, and created a second floor addition. The floor boards on the deck coming out of the original house are at a steep angle – to keep rain `out – and then the floor flattens out where the addition was added on. It’s always interesting to see two eras of construction blending together to form one structure.
The site tour also emphasized the importance of accurate historical markers, and how preservation efforts – both technical and interpretive – are never finished. The Yucca House on the property (where original builder Louis Metoyer lived because the Big House wasn’t completed until after his death) has several markers that we learned were completely inaccurate. While one is pointing South in the wrong direction, the most egregious inaccuracy is one paver – dated 1971 – that credits Marie Therese Coin-Coin with constructing the house in 1750. The land grant that established the plantation borders didn’t occur until 1796, and in 1750 Coin-Coin was 8 years old. While we were lucky to have a knowledgeable tour guide and an interest in not just passively getting information from the site, wandering guests could be misled by such information, and it made me wonder about mitigation measures to prevent false information from getting out to the public. As the paver is now a layer of the Melrose Plantation’s history, should it be removed? Edited? Is an additional paver that details new information that was found after the 1971 original necessary? What other interpretative measures could be taken at the Yucca House?
The Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches – which manages the Melrose Plantation – is currently restoring the interior of the Yucca House. After our official guided tour, Sarah was especially interested in the Cypress construction methods, and we roped in our tour guide for an extra talk about restoration efforts. He explained how the Cypress beams that are visible in the facade are original, and the lime wash treatment has been maintained, but never replaced due to its durability. The interior of the house was unfortunately closed off, and the stained glass windows made it difficult to see inside – but we tried!
After leaving the plantation, we traveled to the St. Augustine Church just down the road. The church was open, and just beautiful inside. A portrait of Nicolas Augustin Metoyer that was once owned by Cammie Henry and kept at Melrose hangs in the atrium of the church. An informational placard details the story of the congregation gathering $2000 to purchase the portrait during the auctioning off of Melrose Plantation pieces in 1970. We also walked throughout the church cemetery, visiting the graves of many figures we had learned about during our visit to the Melrose Plantation, including Clementine Hunter and Augustin Metoyer.
Our final stop of the day was the Badin-Roque House. The house is one of very few remaining examples of poteaux-en-terre construction left standing in the U.S., so it was wonderful to get to see and experience such a novelty.
At the Center this summer, we all aspire to move our projects forward with the same gusto that Cammie Henry required of artists during retreats at Melrose. If there wasn’t significant progress after a few days, artists were kicked out! Along the way, though, we would love to hear recommendations for future Weekend Intern Adventures, and we’ll keep you posted on where our adventures take us during our stay here in Natchitoches.