Architectural Documents Help in Restoration

October 24, 2004

Arthur Nead
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Laura Plantation is down but not out, thanks to a team of Tulane teachers and students who have rallied to help rebuild one of the state's premier cultural tourism destinations.

lauraThe roof of the historic plantation, located on River Road outside of Vacherie, La., was completely destroyed by a fire on Aug. 9, but work, drawing heavily on Tulane's past involvement in documenting and renovating the structure, is already under way to repair the damage.

The plantation is one of several historic buildings documented by Tulane, says Eugene Cizek, professor of architecture and director of the architecture school's preservation studies program.

The university receives grants from the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation to create drawings of endangered historic structures for the Historic American Buildings Survey.

"In other words," says Cizek, "if they were to burn down, they could be rebuilt from those drawings." Students in the preservation studies program are assigned to make drawings of historic structures both as a teaching tool and as a continuation of a decades-long effort to identify and document historical structures.

They produce measured drawings, write detailed field notes and do careful photographic documentation of the buildings, some of which are in danger of demolition either intentionally or by neglect.

The work is administered by the Historic American Buildings Survey, itself a piece of living history, being the last surviving component of the Works Progress Administration founded by the federal government in the 1930s during the height of the Great Depression.

All accepted drawings become part of the collection of the Library of Congress, and copies also are housed at the Southeastern Architectural Archive at Tulane. Preservation studies students were the first to document Laura Plantation's big house after Cizek discovered in 1988 that it was not an aging Victorian farmhouse, as it first appeared, but instead was an important early Creole plantation house.

Cizek has had a long involvement with historic Louisiana architecture. He has taught preservation courses at Tulane since 1970, before the preservation program was formally set up, and has been instrumental in guiding the renovation and educational presentation of architectural landmarks. The preservation studies program started up eight years ago as part of an interdisciplinary master's program. When Cizek discovered the true age of Laura Plantation, he asked the state to shift some funding to allow Tulane to document the buildings.

"The owners were proposing to put some kind of port or industrial development there and tear all the buildings down," he says. "We ended up doing the drawings for all of the large structures. Then I started taking those drawings around and showing them to people so they could see what beautiful buildings these would be if they were restored."

Cizek showed them to Sand and Norman Marmillion, with whom he had worked for several years in preservation activities on River Road.

"I knew they were looking for a house to do some kind of development with, and I felt that this property was a good prospect. They fell in love with it," says Cizek.

With help from Cizek and students, Laura Plantation quickly established itself as a unique cultural and historical asset. It features not only a main house built in 1805, but also many of the original outbuildings, including slave cabins, overseer's cabins and a variety of farm structures. Laura Plantation took the lead in offering visitors a view of the whole spectrum of antebellum plantation life, from the stories of the owners to an unflinching look at slave life.

"Laura Plantation offers an artifact-and story-based interpretation, which is not the way most plantation houses have been interpreted," says Cizek. "The others were a bit more moonlight and magnolias, hoop skirts and that sort of stuff. At Laura we did a comprehensive interpretation of what slave life was like, and that, perhaps, inspired the other plantation tours to talk about this issue as well."

When news of the fire at Laura Plantation arrived, Cizek and preservation studies program instructor Mark Thomas agreed that they should sidetrack their planned class projects and immediately assist with repairs. Cizek, Thomas and their students have already made a number of field trips to the site to assess the fire damage.

In addition, Tulane-trained architects Heather Ruoss and Calvin Johnson are serving as the restoration architects on the project. Much interior woodwork and furniture also was damaged or destroyed. Fortunately, the first firemen who went in while Laura was burning rescued a cabinet filled with irreplaceable artifacts, including portraits, photographs and some furniture.

"The roof is entirely gone," says Cizek. "There was a wing off the back that was totally destroyed with the exception of the piers." Other than that, the main structures of the house are intact and in restorable condition. "Laura will be rebuilt," says Cizek.

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