From Ashes to Architecture
Exploring Historic Lake Charles
(page 4 of 4)
After the Fire
Architecture in the downtown area specifically was greatly influenced by a massive fire that swept through on the afternoon of Saturday, April 23, 1910. The blaze began behind the unoccupied opera house, Gunn’s Bookstore and a soft drink stand and then quickly spread to the Catholic church and courthouse. When it was finally contained four hours later, many downtown Lake Charles businesses and buildings had been destroyed along with several homes. In all, the fire destroyed 109 buildings. The city wasted no time in rebuilding what had been lost, but it did so in a way that attempted to preserve the integrity of what Lake Charles once was; however, it’s also obvious that several of the buildings were designed by pattern book design, which means they have the same basic structure combined with personal touches.
As a result of Lake Charles’ fiery history, visitors today have a fascinating smorgasbord of architecturally quirky buildings (many of which just turned 100 years old) that mirrors what once stood in and near downtown, as well as original architecture found immediately beyond the affected areas. During the annual Palm Sunday Tour of Homes, organized walking tours, special exhibits and interior tours offer a rare, in-depth glimpse at homes that defined this period of history. Over the holiday season, many of the homes are beautifully decorated with lights, and occasionally guided tours are made available in order to enjoy the festive façades.
However, the most common and flexible way to explore the historic district of Calcasieu Parish is by taking a self-guided walking tour. The Southwest Louisiana Convention & Visitors Bureau publishes a hearty brochure outlining noteworthy buildings in the Charpentier District (which includes the downtown area), as well as Margaret Place, Shell Beach Drive and outside of town in nearby Sulphur. In order to have a building listed in this brochure, homeowners must research their living quarters and understand the history behind them. Those homes ultimately chosen for inclusion look particularly interesting and have unique stories: They once housed someone significant in local history, were important in a trend movement in some way or have some other feature that sets them apart from others in the neighborhood. “It’s not just the architecture that sets them apart,” Cormier says, “but also the association with other activities and individuals.”
Public buildings on the walking tour have well-documented stories that make them significant in Lake Charles’ history. A New Orleans architectural firm, Favrot and Livaudais, practiced historicism, which means it copied building styles from other eras in history, and the firm’s hand in constructing a number of the buildings in the downtown area is obvious.
Throughout the entire area today, it’s easy to see that an Italian influence is at play in both style and design. The courthouse, built in 1912, has a large copper dome and is a copy of a building located right outside of Venice, Italy. The city hall, built in 1911 completely in brick, is influenced by Tuscan buildings with its tower and balcony on the front. “It’s definitely Italian,” Bourdier says. Across the street is Immaculate Conception Cathedral, which is built in the Lombardy style of architecture out of Italy and has German and Austrian stained-glass windows. “The thing about Lake Charles is that it does not have the typical French or European style downtown,” he says. “This was Prairie Country, so it was not settled by Cajuns or French or Spanish.”
Cormier recommends that those who are interested in exploring Lake Charles’ historic buildings do some research prior to visiting, especially if there’s a particular type of architecture or design of interest. Margaret Place is known for its voluptuous gardens and bungalows, for instance. Charpentier features homes built from the 1860s through 1920s. “Parking your car and walking the streets can be a good way of pacing yourself to look at the detail of our houses and beautiful gardens,” he says. “If it’s a nice day out, you’re going to see people outside doing things. Because this is the South, they will probably acknowledge you as you walk down the street, maybe call you up for a glass of lemonade on their porch. That’s the best way to discover Lake Charles.”