From Ashes to Architecture
Exploring Historic Lake Charles
Robert Alan Walker
(page 1 of 4)
Take a walk through the Charpentier Historic District of Calcasieu Parish in Lake Charles, and you might notice something a bit unusual. Unlike in some historic neighborhoods found around the United States, the houses here don’t necessarily have uniform fencing or the same kind of vegetation. They aren’t all the same size or height. The houses aren’t all the same color.
In Lake Charles, it isn’t any sort of unity that makes the historic district unusual but rather a shared past that has resulted in a neighborhood featuring an eclectic collection of Victorian-style buildings, each with a distinct story and unique look. Massive columns are combined with wood-crafted ornamentation. Turrets are decorated with stained-glass windows. Intricate balustrades, scrolls and spindles detail expansive porches.
Originally a lumber town with 28 sawmills, Lake Charles was a place made out of wood. The term “Victorian” is used to represent many styles of architecture that evolved in England and the United States from around 1840 to the early 1900s, but the city’s unique position as a lumber town resulted in immediate access to unusual tools, putting an uncommon spin on a common form of architecture. “When you come to Lake Charles, you’ll see Victorian architecture that has some distinctive Lake Charles features,” says Adley Cormier, long-standing advocacy chair of the Calcasieu Historic Preservation Society, which helps identify and document historic structures in the area and assists homeowners and property owners in maintaining these buildings.
With more than 40 blocks and hundreds of mixed-style buildings, the Charpentier District has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the houses along Broad, Kirby and Pujo streets showcase the particular products, styles and designs of the mill owners who owned these homes, many of which were made of Louisiana cypress and hard pine. “They served as visual catalogs,” Cormier says, “and because of that, there’s an enormous variety of what we call kickshaws, which are little doodads … that hang off those Victorian houses we have here that are specifically designed in Lake Charles and were products of the Lake Charles mills.”
A combination of French, Spanish and German influences as well as transplants from the Upland South also created an unusual form of architecture and design. “We have a good variety of structures that make it a little less homogenous than other places,” Cormier says. “We have variations of size and shape and style.”
Design styles ranging from Queen Anne revival, the most elaborate of Victorian styles, to bungalows, which have large, overhanging roofs, can be found throughout the area. Gothic revival, colonial revival, Italian renaissance, Spanish colonial, Byzantine, Hollywood Moorish, Scottish baronial, Southern Greek revival and neoclassical French architectural styles are all found tucked down the neighborhood streets in this unsuspecting Southwest Louisiana town.