Grant funding fuels documentation of Lustron houses and other historic treasures in Louisiana

This story appeared in the March issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

By Krystal Cox, Hurricane Harvey Grant Coordinator

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, caused catastrophic flooding in Houston and other parts of southeastern Texas and western Louisiana. That storm served as the catalyst for a grant awarded to the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office’s Division of Historic Preservation by the National Park Service (NPS) in 2019 to support several projects to document and preserve Louisiana’s history.

News coverage of the storm’s aftermath showed communities devastated by floodwater, with images from Houston reminiscent of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans in 2005. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared disaster areas in several parishes following the storm. This designation resulted in nine parishes becoming eligible for the NPS grant, called the Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Fund Grant: Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Natchitoches, Red River, Sabine, Vernon and St. Charles parishes.

Given an award of $1,013,757 in 2019, the Division of Historic Preservation designed a sub-grant program open to non-profits, educational institutions and government entities in the affected parishes. Fortunately, this grant did not require matching funds from either the LA SHPO or the sub-grantees, which helped speed the distribution process. After a several-week notification and application submission, review and rating period, Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser approved the sub-grantees based on recommendations from a review committee.

1: Kisatchie High School, a circa-1920 school in Natchitoches Parish, will be listed in the National Register of Historic Places thanks to a National Park Service Grant awarded to the LA SHPO in 2019. Photo courtesy of The Advocate newspaper.

2: Prefabricated, enameled steel Lustron houses were constructed from 1947 to 1950. Only 1,500 exist in the United States. This house in Lake Charles near Huber Park is one of four known Lustron Houses in Louisiana. It was recently discovered as part of the Survey of Lake Charles funded by the Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Fund Grant. Photo by Coastal Environments, Inc.

Most of the projects include surveying historic buildings, sites and objects at least 50 years old to capture information that may be helpful in future recovery efforts at the local, state and federal levels. This work also will allow LA SHPO and our cultural resources partners to identify potential historic districts, buildings, structures and sites eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Some of the surveys have already yielded important finds. For example, historians from Coastal Environments, Inc., a cultural resource management firm headquartered in Baton Rouge, discovered three Lustron houses in Lake Charles. The Columbus, Ohio-based Lustron Corporation produced pre-fabricated, enameled residential buildings from 1947 to 1950. Intended to solve the housing shortage created by military members returning from war, the modest Lustron homes ranged from 713 to 1,140 square feet depending on the model and provided low maintenance housing for families who did not want the upkeep of traditionally built homes. Initially, the buildings sold for between $8,500 and $9,500, but eventually, the average selling price crept up to $10,500.

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The Lustron House was the brainchild of Swedish-born, Chicago-based inventor Carl Standlund. Unfortunately, his company quickly went bankrupt after it organized despite being well-funded and government-supported. In the three short years the Lustron Corporation existed, it produced nearly 2,500 Lustron homes constructed in 36 states. Today, approximately 1,500 Lustrons exist, primarily in the Midwestern United States. In Louisiana, LA SHPO knows of one in Alexandria and a handful in the New Orleans area. Several of these homes have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places in other states. (LA SHPO welcomes readers to contact them with information about Lustron Houses in the state.)

Another survey, conducted in Sabine Parish, has resulted in the documentation of dogtrot and log houses, two early American house types. In addition to these rare surviving examples of simple, functional folk buildings, surveyors from Smith, Parrish & Atkins Resource Consultants, Inc., a cultural resource management firm based in Slidell, have recorded other structures related to Sabine’s past. They include the Elizabeth Baptist and St. Peter Baptist churches, two African American churches located in Pleasant Hill and Many, respectively; Addison’s Gas Station, a small Craftsman-style filling station in Mount Carmel that still features old gas pumps; and the former post office of Belmont, a tiny community of about 360 people located near the Toledo Bend Reservoir near the Texas border.

This abandoned post office is located in Belmont, a tiny community located near the Toledo Bend Reservoir of the Sabine River near the Texas border. Photo by Smith, Parrish & Atkins Resource Consultants, LLC.

In addition to surveys, one of the sub-grantees is focusing on listing the former Kisatchie High School building in Provencal (Natchitoches Parish) in the National Register of Historic Places. The two-story, stucco-clad, Mission-style building, currently managed by the Kisatchie Community Center, was constructed in the early 1920s but underwent alterations a decade later. Kisatchie High is directly associated with the School Consolidation Movement. This movement occurred over a 40-year period in the mid-20th century, during which small, rural schools became centralized under a single governing body, such as a county or parish school board. It resulted in the American public school system that exists today. The Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation named Kisatchie High School to its list of the state’s Most Endangered Buildings in 2019. The Kisatchie Community Center has been serving its community since 1964 and is working to save this important building.

The LA SHPO expected most of the projects to commence in the latter part of 2020; the deadline for all sub-grantees was February 2022. However, delays related to the pandemic and other major Louisiana hurricanes, such as Laura and Delta in 2020, interfered with those plans. Fortunately, the National Park Service granted an extension. The deadline is now the latter part of 2023; the projects are in various states of completion, with at least one group nearly finished. In addition to the National Register nomination of Kisatchie High School, the projects will result in the survey and documentation of approximately 20,000 historic resources.

Nine parishes were eligible for federal assistance following 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. Map by LA SHPO.

 

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