Louisiana's Architectural Gems

October 2, 2003

Arthur Nead
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Any observant traveler along the highways and byways between the Mississippi and Sabine rivers might sigh when passing a beautiful or intriguing structure, having neither the time nor wherewithal to learn about it.

architectureA new book by Karen Kingsley, professor of architecture, however, will shed light on many of these hidden architectural treasures. Buildings of Louisiana is the eighth volume in a series, Buildings of the United States, now being issued by Oxford University Press.

The series, a project of the Society of Architectural Historians, primarily aims to provide scholarly records of architecture throughout the country that also serve as functional guidebooks. A member of the society, Kingsley was asked in 1993 to consider putting together the Louisiana book.

"I thought about it for a while because I knew it would be a long-term commitment, but I love big projects," she says.

Kingsley, who is currently writing a book about the New Orleans architectural firm of Curtis and Davis, has taught architectural history at the School of Architecture since 1980, and currently is teaching survey courses in 19th- and 20th-century architecture and a seminar in Islamic architecture. For the past year she also has served as curator of the Southeastern Architectural Archives in Jones Hall.
A real dilemma faced by Kingsley in writing Buildings of Louisiana was deciding which of Louisiana's numerous architectural gems to feature and which to leave out.

"That was hard," says Kingsley, "but I was limited. The book's size was given to me. Because it's in a series, it had to fit within a certain formula." Kingsley's introduction to the book is a concise history of Louisiana that brings in architectural considerations from the outset--availability of materials, climate, topography and the contrasting architectural heritages imported by the many population groups that arrived here.

The book describes some 850 buildings and towns. In keeping with its role as a working guidebook, almost every building is standing and visible from public roads. Many are pictured in photographs. A main consideration for Kingsley was to ensure that her book include buildings from across Louisiana and not just from historic centers.

"It seemed to me important that every single parish should be included, one way or another," she says. "Some parishes don't have many buildings of great architectural interest, so you have to think about what is architecturally important given that particular setting or culture."

Achieving geographical balance was only part of the challenge. "The book had to have a full range of building types, so it couldn't be all courthouses or churches or plantations," says Kingsley. "Where there was a massive amount of a building type, I had to pick typical or unique examples."

She also had to balance time periods so as to include a full range of endeavor, from the earliest moving of earth until the modern age. Writing the book meant a lot of driving around the state, according to Kingsley.

"I visited every single building. I drove over the state perhaps three or four times," says Kingsley. "The first time was to do a survey to see what was there. The second time, to go back to see if the selections that I'd made still made sense."

But before going on field trips, she did a lot of research, especially at the Louisiana Division at the New Orleans Public Library, the Historic New Orleans Collection, the archive at Louisiana State University-Shreveport and Tulane's own Southeastern Architectural Archives. A number of architects gave her valuable suggestions on buildings to include, and she also found out a lot by talking to people in historical societies and local libraries.

Among the most important sources for information on buildings is the Division of Historic Preservation in the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism in Baton Rouge, says Kingsley. Examining the division's files, Kingsley made a list of buildings on the National Register. This gave her a base from which to work.

"And then you have to allow time to get lost, because that's how you find things," she says. "There are buildings around Louisiana that are really important that have never been put on the National Register." Kingsley emphasizes that Buildings of Louisiana is not meant to be a complete listing of architecture in Louisiana, but is rather intended to be a basis for further research on Louisiana's architecture.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000