A Walk Through History
By The West Feliciana Historical Society
A descriptive walking tour of historic downtown
St. Francisville, Louisiana.
The second-oldest incorporated town in Louisiana began as a burial ground. Spanish Capuchin monks established a church in the 1730's across the Mississippi River in Pointe Coupee Parish, where raging floodwaters often made burial impossible. Soon they began crossing the river to the dry highland bluffs to bury their dead. The settlement that straggled up around their graveyard took its name from their order's gentle patron, St. Francis.
Late in the 18th century, the King of Spain issued land grants to Anglo-American settlers men and women from the eastern seaboard looking for riches and a second chance in Spanish West Florida. By 1785, their number led to the creation of the Distrito de Nueva Feliciana. St. Francisville was dignified by charter and plot plan when it was developed around 1807 by John H. Johnson, whose markings of the streets and squares on the narrow loessal (windblown glacial soil) ridge prompts the description "a town two miles long and two yards wide."
Below the bluffs of St. Francisville a different sort of town grew. Bayou Sara took its name from the creek that gave flatboaters on the river a safe anchorage in colonial days. Steamboats and King Cotton made it the largest port between New Orleans and Natchez by 1850. Its rowdy richness fell before fire, Civil War, flood, the railroad, and the boil weevil. It began and ends at a boat landing.
St. Francisville survives and reflects the growth and character of the surrounding plantation country. An oft-quoted figure places two thirds of the known American millionaires in the antebellum decade on the plantations of the Great River Road from New Orleans to Natchez. St. Francisville and West Feliciana were home to many of them. A stroll through the town's National Register Historic District of 146 structures awakens a sense of that grand history and also the simpler small-town life that came before and after it.
A visit to St. Francisville begins at the Museum of the West Feliciana Historical Society (1) where exhibits interpret local history and tourist information, brochures, and guidebooks are available 9-4 daily except holidays, Sunday 1-4. Telephone 504-635-6330. A walking or driving tour of a mile-long loop is suggested. Most structures have green Bicentennial markers; private homes are often opened for the annual Audubon Pilgrimage each March.
From the museum on Ferdinand St. go approximately one block west to a left turn onto Royal St. White's Cottage (2) is a 1903 urban adaptation of that emblem of Upland South culture known as the dog-trot or en and passage house-two "pens" or rooms divided by an open passage or "dog-trot." Audubon Hall (Old Market Hall)(3) was built in 1819 as an open-air public market with magistrate's office upstairs. Notice the arches at each end for the passage of wagons. Enclosed in 1868, the hall has served as Masonic Lodge, theater, library, and from 1947-78, as the town hall. Recently returned to its historic state, it is maintained by the Historical Society.
Across the street and on the corner is Seabrook (4). built c 1817 by a Baltimore merchant along Anglo-Creole lines, the house is named for later owner Henry Seabrook, a master plasterer responsible for its fine Federal-style interior decorations, as well as those in other parish landmarks.
Down Royal St. To the left is the Robb House (5) built in 1895 by pharmacist F.M. Mumford as gable-front commercial building with living quarters above. Next door is the United Methodist Church (6) . Methodism arrived her in 1803 with fiery missionary Lorenzo Dow; an imposing church was built in Bayou Sara in 1844. the present church was built in 1899 and includes the bell tower from the old church.
Across Fidelity St. is Virginia (7). this magnificent Greek Revival town house began humbly in 1817 as a one-room store. Expanded in 1826 to a story -a-half cottage, it reached its present size in 1855 when Massachusetts-born lawyer L.D. Brewer added the two-story section with elaborate cast iron balconies. Brewer enjoyed his home for only four years before boarding the ill-fated steam boat Princess at Bayou Sara. Bound for New Orleans and delayed by fog, overloaded boilers exploded with great loss of life, including Brewer's.
Across Royal St. from Virginia is the Golsan House (8). Joseph L. Golsan came here in 1877, a young Alabama Lawyer eager to enter Post Reconstruction politics. He married the great-grandniece of Lucy Audubon, never lost an election, and built this charming Queen Anne cottage in 1885.
The Romanesque Bank Building (9) built in 1905 anchors one corner of Royal and Prosperity streets. On the other corner is an unassuming Stucco Structure (10) which in its original state was one of the finest brick buildings in town. Built as the leading mercantile counting house in 1809, it served as the first court house of West Feliciana Parish in 1825 and later as the branch of the Bank of Louisiana.
Now turn right on Prosperity St. The Greek Revival Law Office (11) was built by a lawyer from New York state in 1842 and has been devoted to the practice of law ever since. The Court House (12) was built in 1903 to replace the 1852 structure damaged when the town was shelled by Federal gunboats during the Siege of Port Hudson in 1863. the demolition of the classic slate-covered brick structure proved so unpopular that those responsible refused to have their names displayed on the cornerstone, which remains blank. The temple-like well house from the earlier building remains in the rear.
Return to Royal St. and walk past the double galleried house with the fishscale Queen Anne gable toward Propinquity (13). One of St. Francisville's oldest brick buildings, Propinquity was built of some 200,000 bricks in 1809 as the store of John Mills with cellar underneath and dwelling house above. Lucy Audubon was carried on the ledger during the years she taught plantation misses as a means of earning the money which allowed her husband to publish his Birds Of America. The building was restored as a private residence in 1966.
Directly across the street is the Barrow House (14) with cast iron railed balconies hard on the banquette and sloping rear roof. built as a store-cum-dwelling, there is no central hall; french doors gain access. The single story addition was once a separate house. J. Hunter Collins, law partner L. D. Brewer of Virginia , noted in his ledger the $260 cost of moving the cottage and $224.38 for the ironwork. Like Brewer, he could not choose between two admired patterns. As a Virginia, the upper and lower balcony rails differ.
Off Royal, behind Propinquity, at the end of Johnson St. is the office of the St. Francisville Democrat (15). The town has had a weekly newspaper since the third newspaper in the Louisiana Territory, The Time Piece, was established in 1811. The Democrat was begun in 1893 in opposition to Louisiana lottery and moved into its present office in 1908. Today the front room contains a computer for generating news stories, but the back portion remains the printing shop of the late Horse and Buggy Printer, Elrie Robinson.
The Printer's Cottage (16) is the small restored post and beam house to the right of the Democrat office. The legend persists that bodies about to be buried in the Old Spanish graveyard were housed in it. Its heavy corner posts and load-bearing outer walls allowed many interior changes over the years, but the original sturdy construction is apparent in the attic as is damage from Civil War bombardment.Prospect (17), built before 1807, is constructed of bousillage (heavy timbers filled in with a mixture of mud and moss) after the manner of the Creole houses elsewhere in Louisiana. The full cellar, however, is of eastern seaboard derivation. Original construction styles have been overborne by a Victorian dormer and millwork, but an early classical well house remains untouched.
Hillcroft (18), a grand Neoclassical townhouse, was built in 1905 for Judge Samuel McC.. Lawrason as a gift from his wife's brother, a wealthy South Louisiana sugar planter.
Cross Ferdinand St. and walk up the steep hill to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church (19). Built from plans drawn by Confederate General. P.G.T. Beauregard in 1871, the church was completed in 1893. The interior columns are of hand-hewn heart pine and the altar was hand-crafted in Natchez. From the Catholic Hill can be seen the part of town known as The Foot of the Hill, with its small pedestrian park commemorating the West Feliciana Rail Road, 28 miles of track first talked of in 1828 and completed after arduous labor in 1842, the first standard gauge track in the nation. Beyond the park was the town of Bayou Sara.
Continue east on Ferdinand St. to Grace Episcopal Church (20). Organized March 15, 1827, Grace Church is the second oldest Episcopal church in Louisiana. The present Gothic structure was built 1858-60, its cornerstone laid by Leonidas Polk, the Fighting Bishop of the Confederacy. Grace Church's beauty owes much to the restraint of its builder, local master carpenter C.N. Gibbons. Severely damaged by shelling during the Civil War, Grace Church nevertheless saw the burial by its rector of Federal gunboat captain John E. Hart. A Mason, Hart had desired a Masonic burial, and fighting stopped for a day while Confederate and Union Masons honored a brother's request. The Rev. D. S. Lewis read the Episcopal burial service as Commander Hart was laid to rest in the time-honored Masonic Plot.
A country block eastward on Ferdinand is the Widow Ross's House (21 ). Dora Ross was a frugal German hausfrau who had outlived two husbands by the time of the Civil War. She set a good table and served many gunboat officers, oblivious of the ire of her Confederate neighbors. It is said that Admiral Dewey, then a midshipman, often dined at her board.
Return now to the Museum, noting the 1883 Greek Revival lodge of a Black Burial Society (22) nearly opposite.
You may either conclude your tour here or continue up Ferdinand Street to the Brasseaux House (23), Trinity (24) a late 19th -century home; built 1901; and Evergreenzine (25), the descriptive Yiddish name chosen by a German merchant for his 1885 home. These and other frame structures, from early Wood Cottage (26) of hewn logs covered by clapboards to such Victorian excesses at the St. Francisville Inn (Wolf-Schlesinger House) (27), establish the architectural character of a Southern market town, where residences co-exist with step-front commercial buildings.
Some reproduced with Permisson of WF Historical Society .
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