ADAPTIVE REUSE IN DOWNTOWN ST. FRANCISVILLE
By Anne Butler
It’s hard to keep track of time in the midst of a pandemic, when many people no longer have rigid work or school schedules. The little town of St. Francisville feels much the same, with visitors not sure exactly what century they’re entering. Oh sure, there are no longer the blacksmith shops and gristmills, the cotton gins and livery stables, the bustling supply houses selling everything from buggies to coffins. But there are plenty of original structures, too, and even some that were moved up the hill from Bayou Sara to escape the river floodwaters.
The 19th-century streetscape with its mixture of residential and commercial buildings side-by-side lends charm and assures a 24-hour presence in the historic district downtown. The desire to preserve these structures that give St. Francisville its sense of place has led to a need to creatively repurpose or adapt many of them for new purposes, to convert them for use in new formats. Repurposing is the reappropriation of artifacts or buildings of older cultures in new and creative ways, and this adaptive reuse can be seen throughout the two main streets of St. Francisville, Royal the residential area of beautiful historic homes, and Ferdinand the main thoroughfare to the Mississippi River and center of commerce.
In addition, there’s Commerce Street that was once the principal route from New Orleans to Natchez, where 19th-century travelers were greeted at its intersection with Ferdinand St. (now the only traffic light in downtown St. Francisville) with the sight of three magnificent structures. They were just across the road from J. Freyhan & Co., sprawling commercial complex of general mercantiles, cotton gin, grocery, saloon, warehouses and more. These homes were built by Julius Freyhan himself, his brother-in-law Morris Wolf, and dentist Denison Stocking.
An 1880s Bayou Sara newspaper calledPastimes describes the picturesque beauty of these three residences at the fork of the road: “First, in order of completion, comes the cozy cottage of Mr. Julius Freyhan, the appearance of which attracts the attention as it is approached from either of the converging avenues of travel which mingle into one immediately in its front. The sensation produced is one of quiet, unostentatious comfort, the perfection of neatness unalloyed by any superfluity of ornamentation. Next comes the beautiful residence of our fellow townsman Mr. Morris Wolf, situated as it were like a jewel, between those of Mr. Freyhan on the one hand and Dr. D. Stocking on the other. There is a feeling of adaptedness about the relative position of these three buildings which is particularly strong. That of Mr. Wolf, though marked perhaps with more amplitude of architectural decoration, is a perfect mode of neatness and good taste. To the left as you approach stands the palatial dwelling of Dr. Stocking, a magnificent termination to the lovely and romantic scene presented by the ample lawn and towering trees which lie between it and the highway.”
Alas, the magnificent Stocking villa burned in the thirties, but descendants donated the grounds to the town of St. Francisville for a well-used public park complete with Victorian bandstand and space for fun festivals. On the other side, the original home of Julius Freyhan was passed to his brother-in-law Emmanuel Wolf, was used over the years as doctors’ offices, and was eventually torn down to make way for a convenience store which has morphed into a wonderful Middle Eastern restaurant. One side wing was salvaged to form the basis for first a real estate office and now a great shop brimful of home décor items and lots more, Sage Hill. And the center structure from the 19th century, the one with that “amplitude of architectural decoration” and the only one left standing of this historic group, is now the recently restored St. Francisville Inn, beautifully furnished and landscaped, offering B&B accommodations, first-class restaurant and popular Saint bar.
Julius Freyhan, mid-1800s Jewish immigrant who arrived penniless and died one of the richest men in Louisiana, implemented a fine example of chain migration by bringing from Germany his nephew Morris Burgas, first as bookkeeper and then as owner of his own mercantile store. A succession of marriages kept this store operational in the same family for nearly a century, until it was appropriately resurrected as District Mercantile, selling everything under the sun…antiques and collectibles, oldtime children’s games and toys, clothing and more… from its propitious location right on Ferdinand St.
Throughout the downtown historic district, there are other examples of restorative repurposing. Built in 1905 and long used as the local bank, the wonderful red brick structure with its arched windows and entrance doorway is now home to the thriving international jewelry business called Grandmother’s Buttons, the original inspiration coming from the owner’s grandmother’s ubiquitous button box. Way Down South was a grocery store and auto dealership in its early years, and now it’s an appealing gift shop with popular ice cream bar and candy shoppe. Across Ferdinand Street is the West Feliciana Historical Society headquarters, museum and tourist information center, housed in an 1896 two-story frame structure that saw continuous use as a hardware store and blacksmithery until its restoration.
Grace Episcopal Church’s parish hall, Bishop Jackson Hall, was built in 1896 for the charitable brotherhood called the Knights of Pythias and was used for all sorts of travelling theatrics; on Royal Street, United Methodist Church’s offices are housed in what used to be a drugstore. Beautiful Temple Sinai, overlooking the river behind Grandmother’s Buttons, was built in the early 1900s, served as Jewish place of worship, then Presbyterian church, and has recently been restored by the Julius Freyhan Foundation as a wonderful nondenominational event center, ideal for concerts and small weddings. Another structure on Ferdinand Street was the Alamo Theater, screening popular movies in the mid-1900s; the locale was later used as a delicatessen and is now a well-stocked indie bookstore called The Conundrum. Throughout the downtown area, there are other examples, residences retrofitted as ladies’ dress shops, art galleries, beloved cafes and more.
One of the most interesting retrofits is ongoing, having begun life in Bayou Sara, was dismantled and moved up the hill safe from the floodwaters of the Mississippi River, and reassembled in what was called the Red Horse neighborhood (one story says because the horses that hauled the materials up the steep red-clay hill were covered in red dust). It served as the all-black Faithful Workers Lodge that was dedicated in 1929, then for years was known as the Boll Weevil Café with upstairs rooms of questionably scandalous usage. Restaurants came and went until its purchase by the current owner, who is doing a thorough restoration for a more wholesome mixed-use future, with apartments upstairs (eventually to be reached by elevator), and offices downstairs, plus an additional commercial space in the side lean-to. The rafters were salvaged and as much of the old wood used as possible, for ceilings especially. The original marble plaque, which graced the entrance and included the names of original members of the lodge, has been saved and will be replaced.
Venerable buildings can be expensive and labor-intensive to restore and repurpose, but there’s a certain charm about them that’s hard to replicate in new construction. A number of these and other historic buildings have benefitted from small but encouraging Main Street grants, now available on a competitive basis for restoration of interior and exterior projects involving commercial structures within certified Main Street communities. For information on the Main Street program, which is a National Trust effort to rehab deteriorating small towns across the country and return them to present-day viability and appeal, contact Director Laurie Walsh at 225-635-3688; online email@example.com.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, andNatchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination; check locally for coronavirus mitigation requirements, please. Several splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours: The Cottage Plantation (weekends), Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation; Afton Villa Gardens is open in season. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation (a National Historic Landmark) and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer periodic living-history demonstrations to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking and bicycle racing due to the challenging terrain, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some nice restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses in St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call West Feliciana Tourist Commission and West Feliciana Historical Society at 225-6330 or 225-635-4224, or St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873; online www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com, or www.stfrancisville.net(the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities).