PRESERVATION IN PRINT APRIL 2008 19 Damaged by fire and stripped of most of its period details, LeBeau's interior is in dire straits. ST B ER N A R D V O IC E including scores of unfortunates who were rounded up in the LeBeau planta- tion house. Eventually the state put an end to • Piles of period cast iron are stacked in a main room, awaiting thieves who will sell this trove on the illicit antiques market. • the fun in Arabi. In 1952 it took title to the LeBeau house, holding it until 1967, when a real estate entrepreneur from St. Bernard Parish, Joseph Mereux, offered to buy it and turn it once more into a residence. When Mereux died in 1992 he left the prop- erty in trust to his companion of 28 years, Arlene Soper, and to the Mereux Foundation. This not-for-prof- it holding company continues to this day to manage what's left of Mereux's far-flung real estate holdings. A resourceful student at Nunez Community College, Sharon Simpson, tapped the archives and the encyclope- dic knowledge of the Parish's indefati- gable historian, William Hyland, to compile a history of the plantation. More recently another Nunez student, Michelle Buuck (later author of Firestorm, a moving account of the St. Bernard Fire Department during Katrina), carried the research still fur- ther. A copy of her "The Historic LeBeau House" is preserved at the Nunez College library. The research of Ms. Simpson and Ms. Buuck turned up wonderful oral history accounts of life at the LeBeau house during its final post-gambling flowering. Momentum grew for systematic preservation. As early as 1979, New Orleans preservationist Lloyd Sensat had written about the LeBeau Plantation, and Tulane architect Eugene Cizek checked on its condition periodically throughout the ensuing decades. With the same goals in mind, Sharon Simpson, with strong backing from Hyland and the endorsement of The Francioni family (pictured here is Lily) lived in the LeBeau house from 1938 to 1951. the Chancellor of Nunez Community College, wrote Louisiana's Lieutenant Governor, pleading for its preservation. Even though they had many prop- erties to manage and historic preserva- tion was not their highest priority, the trustees of the Mereux Foundation were sympathetic to such calls. Thanks to them, architect Robbie Cangelosi was engaged to stabilize the structure, which he did with great success. This pre-Katrina initiative doubtless saved the LeBeau house from ruin. But then Katrina hit. Back in 1965 Hurricane Betsy, with help from the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, had flooded the entire town to the depth of three feet. But Katrina's impact was far worse, and the flood waters hung on longer. As an Arabi blogger put it in late September, 2005, "No picture or TV program can do this devastation justice. It looks like a war zone." Katrina took its toll on the LeBeau mansion. The hurricane ripped away the boards protecting the cupola and most of the roof tiles, exposing parts of the interior to wind and rain. Windows were blown out. Worse, the boarding that provided security to sev- eral ground floor rooms was torn up, leaving the mansion open to thieves. In short order the mantels disappeared. As of this writing, piles of period cast iron are stacked in a main room, await- • LeBeau, preserved and transformed into a community building, will trigger further initiatives, attract investment, create jobs and generate and justify confidence in the future. • ing other thieves who will sell this trove on the illicit antiques market. Today the LeBeau Plantation stands as a stately ruin, majestic but forlorn. Sadly, it has become precisely the kind of place that New Orleans' great surrealist photographer, Clarence John Laughlin, would have sought out for Ghosts Along the Mississippi. Is it fated to go the way of Uncle Sam, Three Oaks, and so many of those few other great homes that survived into the twentieth century? Probably, but not inevitably. If the building were immediately to be sealed up, stabilized, and strongly fenced it would be safe for several years. During that time its restoration can be planned, financed, and begun. The cost of this first, urgent, and essential step will be modest. Looking further into the future, a full restoration is probably out of the question, but a more limited effort that focuses on pre- serving the staggering spaces that an anonymous architect conceived for Francois Barthelemy LeBeau in 1854 is entirely possible. How can such an expenditure be justified? In spite of heroic efforts by residents, most areas of Arabi and Chalmette are still on their knees. Besides the Chalmette Battlefield, Nunez Community College and possi- bly Rocky and Carlo's, there are few focal points for local identity and pride, and few places that would cause a visitor to linger. The LeBeau plantation house, preserved and transformed into a community build- ing, could become just such a focal point. The effort to preserve it is a sure means of triggering further initia- tives. Done right, it will attract investment, create jobs and, most important, both generate and justify confidence in the future. In short, the LeBeau house, forlorn today, could tomorrow become a high-yield com- munity investment. In 1986, LeBeau plantation house burned, destroying the cupola and severely damaging the interior. TH E F RA NN C IO N I F AM IL Y CO L LE C T IO N