I had a relative who briefly took over my great-grandmother’s home in Avoyelles Parish in the ‘50s and redecorated the old place. She stripped the doors off of ancient solid-mahogany armoires and turned them into bookshelves painted green. She replaced marble-topped dressers and iron or brass beds with Swedish modern. She painted the real hardwood floors battleship gray. Ten years later, in a deed that still makes me cringe, she cut down a towering mulberry tree that had been planted during the Depression by my then-toddler mother with the assistance of her grandmother. My relative called this progress.
With the onslaught of the new Interstate 49 and the demolition and modernization of older buildings in Alexandria, a recent comprehensive historic structure survey identified only 437 remaining buildings in the city’s downtown area that are at least 50 years old. These buildings include Queen Anne-style homes, shotgun cottages and at least 131 party wall commercial buildings. Some old buildings have been so modernized they are now unrecognizable.
Refusing to bow down to the mammon of progressivism, the Louisiana History Museum, “Alexandria’s Best Kept Secret,” rises on Washington Street on the original plot of land commissioned in 1805 by Alexander Fulton, an act that begat the town of Alexandria. Built in 1907 as the Alexandria Public Library, it resembles some older public buildings in New Orleans; it isn’t a surprise to therefore learn this Beaux Arts-style building with its terra cotta tile roof was designed by the New Orleans architectural firm Crosby & Henkel and built by New Orleans-based Caldwell Bros. In the early 20th century, Alexandria native S.S. Bryan and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie of Pennsylvania donated $10,000 to build the library that replaced the original one burned down by the Union troops of Gen. Nathaniel Banks in May 1864 during the Red River Campaign.
The top floor currently houses the Alexandria Genealogical Library, Louisiana’s largest genealogical enclave, and its lower floor houses more than 50 displays that date from prehistoric Louisiana to present day. These fascinating displays cover Louisiana under French, Spanish and English rule; the Louisiana Purchase; the American Revolution; the Civil War; Central Louisiana plantations; and the timber industry. Not to be missed are an 1872 map that details names and owners of city property and a display that chronicles the effect both world wars had on the Bayou State. The museum, which also has a collection of Louisiana Confederate notes, was designated by the City Council to be the Alexandria Historical and Genealogical Library and Museum in 1971 after Angelique Stafford Kraushaar waged a hard-fought preservation crusade. It was lovingly restored five years later as a bicentennial project. It is the only publicly owned building to be found in the city.
While you’re perusing old photographs provided by the museum, it’s hard to reconcile present-day Alexandria with its colorful river-town past. White-water rapids once swirled nearby. Alexandria was a place where paddle-wheelers laden almost to the top of their smokestacks with cotton bales docked at the Red River, starched Gibson girl operators worked telephone switchboards, and dirt streets lined with quaint wooden buildings looked like sets out of Westerns. It was a past similar in charm to old New Orleans.
Visit “Alexandria’s Best Kept Secret” (thankfully placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989), and you can acquaint yourself with the town’s wonderfully storied and fascinating past.
Louisiana History Museum, 503 Washington St., Alexandria, (318) 487-8556
The merchant of Front Street
Reading, to me, is a two-fold process of equal enjoyment. First, there is the quest. With a pang of remorse similar to realizing you’ve run out of coffee, you suddenly know you’re out of reading material, and a trip to a library or bookstore is imperative. This usually means leisurely wandering around a shop or a public library that is filled with the scent of strong coffee and books.
Some of the happiest places on earth are bookstores, and The Book Merchant, located on bricked Front Street in Natchitoches, a proud, independent, non-supermarket-type bookstore, is a perfect example. The sidewalk sign simply painted with the legend “Books” lies beneath an awning beloved by dogs on warm afternoons. Here you enter a bewitching shop with a copperplate ceiling that rises over various sections of books that range from children’s to regional, Civil War to people of the area, gently used books to Louisiana cookbooks to just-downright-anything-Louisiana books. The garden-and-travel section is adorned by a hand-painted mural depicting an alley of oak trees rising behind pink flowers. Interspersed through the cozy racks are comfy sofas or church pews lined with plump cushions. The sunny coffee bar, an old wood-and-glass display case filled with antique curved porcelain coffeepots, keeps fresh java flowing while you sip and search. Coffee-table books, monthly exhibits of artwork and the company of the owner’s feline who wanders the book stacks await you. A visit to The Book Merchant on a hot summer day is a perfect prelude to burrowing into your comfortable chair or bed, lost in the sojourn provided by a good book.
The Book Merchant, 512 Front St., Natchitoches, (318) 357-8900