African House At Melrose Undergoing Restoration

MELROSE, LA (AP) — The first phase of a $180,000 restoration of the African House at Melrose Plantation is underway through partnerships providing expertise and hard-to-find tools.

         The unique structure was constructed on Melrose by those enslaved to Louis Metoyer in the early 1820s. Although in "fair condition," it was in need of repairs, a new roof and preservation before it was too late.

         "Part of preservation is being proactive," said Monica Rhodes, manager of a crew commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to perform the work by hand.

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         The Trust on Monday named the structure, known for housing murals by American folk artist Clementine Hunter, a National Treasure. The organization connected the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches, which owns the plantation, with a "hands-on preservation experience" crew, called the HOPE crew, and experts like Alicia Spence, who specializes in timber framing and hails from Massachusetts.

         "Preservation is the heart of any culture," Association President Vicki Parrish said. "To do that, we need many people and many hands. Without the support of International Paper and the HOPE crew, we would have found (this project) almost impossible."

         International Paper, which has mills in nearby Campti and Mansfield, donated and delivered about $7,000-worth of lumber for a new roof, which is expected to be completed in three weeks.

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         "International Paper is committed to the communities where we work and do business," Manager John Dickson said. "It's all Louisiana cypress, so it's from some of the same places they would have gotten it in the 1800s."

         Beams for the roof are hand-hewn Louisiana cypress. Shingles originally would have been cypress as well but will be western red cedar due to cost and availability.

         The crew also is returning as much original material to the structure as possible, Melrose Plantation facilities manager Molly Dickerson said.

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         "We want to replace in kind," Dickerson said.

         Spence trains and guides the work, doing plenty of it herself, while the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training in Natchitoches serves as preservation adviser.

         The crew comprises about seven to nine members from multiple states and one from Germany. The Trust's HOPE crew program is about a year old.

         "We want to connect youth with preservation around the world," Rhodes said. "…What America doesn't have is an apprenticeship program, a way to train (youth) in craft skills. We travel around the country working on preservation projects."

         The program exposes young people to preservation, history and uncommon skills, like hewing cypress logs for the African House.

         "They're using tools that were around at the time (1800s)," Spence said. "It helps you understand how buildings are built. … It changes the way you look at it and see how wood really works. Hewing is not my norm. It's almost nobody's norm anymore."

         Another phase of construction and restoration will include mason and drainage work to address issues with the brick floor and walls. Parrish said the floor absorbs water, which moves to the walls with the summer heat.

         "We're going to have to face those problems," Parrish said.

         The next phase will begin when funds are available. The Association is hosting a "Homecoming Fete" on Saturday as a fundraiser and to celebrate the return of Clementine Hunter's murals to Natchitoches.

         Hunter's paintings of plantation life in the early 20th century have been in Houston for 10 months in a $167,000 restoration project paid for by Theodosia Murphy Nolan and the Nolan Foundation. They have returned to the area through a partnership with the Louisiana State Museum and Sports Hall of Fame, which will keep the paintings on display for a year.

         The cost of restoring the murals is not included in the $180,000 price tag of restoring the African House, which falls to the Association. As a nonprofit, the organization relies on fundraising and support from other groups.

         "Homecoming Fete" events includes a free public lecture at 1 p.m. at the Natchitoches Events Center, a private dinner at Maglieaux's on the Cane and a champagne dessert reception at 7 p.m. at the Louisiana Museum and Sports Hall of Fame. Tickets for the dessert reception are available. Cost is $50 a person.

         Melrose Plantation is located in Melrose in Natchitoches Parish along the Cane River National Heritage Area. The African House is located behind the main house.

         The uniqueness of the African House is what led the Trust to name it a National Treasure. Its uncommon structure has African architectural influences. Its architecture is similar to traditional homes found in Africa and France. And to date, there are no remaining records of its construction or its original function, according to a statement from the Trust.

         "This lack of documentation makes preserving this place even more essential," according to the statement.

         – by AP/ Reporter Leigh Guidry with The Town Talk

         For more information





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