Nov. 3, 2014 06:10 PM

An ambitious project spearheaded by UL could land Lafayette's oldest neighborhood with a long-overdue federal historic district designation.

An ambitious project spearheaded by UL could land Lafayette's oldest neighborhood with a long-overdue federal historic district designation. By Walter Pierce Photos by Robin May

Monday, Nov. 3, 2014

A cold bottle of beer in hand, musician Bruce McDonald leans over a simmering pot in the kitchen of the stately house on Main Street he shares with longtime partner Julie Marshall, an artist, and gazes quizzically into the chile relleno. "I didn't know you put capers in there," he muses. Food chatter erupts as Julie pours herself a gin cocktail.

It's a typical late afternoon in the kitchen for McDonald and Marshall, who have lived in this century-old house for seven years. It's one of the larger homes in Freetown-Port Rico, although they know nothing of its genesis, the records lost to the ages.

"Someone told me all these houses were built by railroad people," Marshall says. "I figure it must have been some railroad magnate."

She's probably at least half right.

Bruce McDonald and Julie Marshall

In significant ways the story of Freetown-Port Rico is the story of Lafayette. The arrival of the railroad and burgeoning industrial might of the once sleepy Vermilionville, the advent of Cajun cooking as a commercially viable and lucrative cuisine - Freetown was both a wellspring and a springboard. And it was an anachronism, a neighborhood of freed slaves and free people of color where in the early- to mid-20th century races mingled as neighbors and co-workers. Lebanese Christian immigrants - notably the Salooms, Boustanys, Naomis, Ashys and Abdallas - moved in and set up shop, and they sold their wares to anyone; the only color that mattered was green.

It has remained largely unchanged from the neighborhood of railroad and sugar cane workers it began as in the late 19th century, expanding to replace the cane fields as sugar operations moved south. A massive railroad round house, sugar mill, lumber yard and salt factory - salt water was pumped in a wooden pipe from St. Martin Parish where it was evaporated to get the salt - made Freetown the nexus of Lafayette's fledgling industrial character.

"We have some people living in Freetown and on the census it says that they're farmers," notes Dr. Ray Brassieur, an anthropology professor at UL Lafayette. "Well it's hard for us to understand today: Why would a farmer be living in Freetown, why wouldn't they just go live on the farm somewhere? That was the farm."

In fact, before it was a neighborhood much of the area was part of Ile Copale, former Gov. Alexandre Mouton's sprawling, antebellum sugar plantation.

Brassieur and Corey Saft, an associate professor in UL's School of Architecture and Design, are putting a bow on an ambitious months-long project that documented every structure in Freetown-Port Rico. Eight architecture students and two anthropology students comprised a "field school" over the summer - they also took a class with Brassieur - in what the professors hope will ultimately be the awarding of a federal historic district designation for the area. That imprimatur makes preserving or improving houses and other structures in the area eligible for tax credits of up to 45 percent of construction costs on properties 50 years old or older.

Saft got the idea for the initiative last spring while working on an unrelated project in the area. He applied for a Historic Preservation Fund Grant through the state Office of Cultural Development last April. The grant, to cover the cost of documenting the architectural and cultural heritage of the area, was awarded in June, and the team of students and professors soon began their painstaking work. (The project also received financial support from the university and the Freetown Commission, and has enjoyed valuable assistance and input from the Freetown-Port Rico Coterie.) About 600 structures, mostly homes but also commercial properties, were thoroughly documented. The work is being undertaken through the architecture school's Sustainable Development Lab, the mission of which is to encourage "sustainable economic development and community revitalization with a focus on community, housing and the public realm," as Saft puts it.

"Part of what the Sustainable Development Lab wants to do," Saft explains, "is not only what we traditionally do, which is come up with ideas and work with people, but to try and find opportunities to make things happen, to finance projects - things that just wouldn't happen otherwise; everything from adjudicated properties, brownfield sites, projects that are awkward or too small for traditional developers, but things that because it's at that smaller scale they can be catalyst projects and show people that you don't have to be a big developer; you can kind of step in a normal-size lot and contribute to the progressive growth of the city."

The grant from the state covering the research and documentation by the UL team is also paying for a consultant who is taking the data - site descriptions, photographs, etc. - and compiling it. The research will be presented to federal officials sometime next spring and, the team hopes, the historic district designation will soon follow.

The house where Marshall and McDonald live on the 400 block of Main Street in the shadow of Downtown is described in a draft version of the team's research as "a single dwelling featuring elements of the Queen Anne style. It is a one-story building set on brick piers and clad in wood siding. The main roof is a hip gable covered in asphalt shingles. A partial width porch is supported by wood columns. Queen Anne style elements include a steeply pitched roof of irregular shape, decorative spindlework brackets and porch supports, and a decorative spindlework frieze. Other architectural elements include double-hung, four over-four windows and a partially glazed wood door. This structure retains strong integrity of design, workmanship, setting, and feeling."

Old Freetown, known on yellowing city maps as Mouton First Addition, is the oldest neighborhood in Lafayette. Structures from the 19th century remain in the area, Saft says, but Freetown-Port Rico is dominated by early 20th century Southern bungalows, many in the Craftsman architectural style. The area is roughly bounded by Johnston Street, University Avenue, Pinhook Road and the railroad tracks adjacent to Evangeline Thruway.

Jefferson Street is the main artery through the area; it was originally lined with live oaks and known as Oak Avenue, running from Mouton's Ile Copale plantation to downtown Vermilionville. Vermilionville became Lafayette in 1884 in honor of the French Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de La Fayette, and could only take the name after New Orleans and Orleans Parish consolidated because theretofore there was a town in Orleans Parish named Lafayette. An apocryphal tale of Oak Avenue's origins says Gov. Mouton wanted the street lined with oaks to provide a canopy so his family's delicate skin would be protected when they ventured into town.

"The story goes that [Mouton's] wife and daughters would get sun-burned riding to the cathedral and he built the oaks to protect their beautiful complexions," explains Yvonne Saloom, wife of retired city court Judge Kaliste Saloom Jr., during a September gathering in front of St. Anne's Infirmary on Jefferson Street with Saft, Brassieur and the students. Now the parish health unit, St. Anne's was built in 1937 by Judge Saloom's mother, Asma Boustany Saloom. The Salooms - Judge Saloom is 96 years old; Mrs. Saloom is none of your damn business - regaled the team with stories about Freetown-Rico's early years and the Lebanese influence on the neighborhood.

Although most of the oaks lining the street are long gone along the Moutons' route from Ile Copale to the cathedral, a few majestic specimens remain behind the former Larosen Elementary School at the corner of Pinhook Road and Evangeline Thruway, and, Judge Saloom explains to the students, long stretches of sidewalk between Johnston and Lamar streets still follow zigzag routes that once accommodated the street-side trees.

Of course Freetown-Port Rico isn't just a street grid and historic homes - it's essential to Lafayette history.

"The story of Cajun cuisine can be told from Freetown," Brassieur says. "The Landrys lived in Freetown and built Don's; Don's was the first commercial Cajun restaurant, and that's when crawfish became commercially available to the public. The Verons had a store there on Jefferson - that's where they started. There's a lot of things we take for granted today."

Freetown-Port Rico has gone through considerable gentrification over the last two decades and, probably as much as any neighborhood in the heart of Lafayette, has a high density of artists, musicians and creative people - the ideal environment for Marshall and McDonald.

"We've come to really love the block and the neighborhood," McDonald says. "It's cool."