The Fire Walk Script , The Architecture of Recovery
One hundred years and one day ago a violent conflagration destroyed property and disrupted lives in our corner of Louisiana. Certainly, there have been many other disasters: floods, yellow fever and influenza epidemics, hurricanes in 1933 and 1957. Only very recently, we experienced Rita and Ike. So it can be said that the disasters are no strangers to us in Southwest Louisiana.
So what makes this particular disaster so unusual and why are we commemorating this particular recovery? I would suggest that this disaster was relatively compact and relatively complete. Not only did the fire clear out the early, in some cases original development in downtown Lake Charles, it also cleared out a particular nineteenth century notion of how cities work. Recovery from the Great Fire created for Lake Charles a completely new, modern way of building and using downtown.
The Great Fire was so intense, particularly here in the heart of downtown, that there was little to nothing left to restore. The photographs that document the fire show a bleak landscape of little more than fire-damaged chimneys. Literally, we were left with ashes, particularly at this intersection. The slate had been washed clean by the fire.
Both the police jury and city council decided early on to approach the recovery from several different angles at once. Immediately following the fire, the need for security was prime. The state militia, sheriff's department and city police kept up round the clock watches. The fire department went on special alert to monitor errant blazes from piles of ashes and rubble.
Revised, updated building codes were soon in place following a short moratorium on all types of construction in downtown. Fire codes and lists of suitable building materials, styles, and setbacks were reviewed and put into place. Missing documents were reconstructed from bits of existing records and from memory. It took well over a year to reconstitute property records and successions using materials that have been in the care of an abstracting company located away from the fire.
The actions of the paid fire department were reviewed as was the availability of water hydrants and water pressure. Unfortunately, Fire Chief Sudduth was fired, but the water company review passed muster as providing sufficient water pressure. Streets were cleared and the streetcar lines and electric utilities were reestablished in record time. The fire was deemed a natural disaster, given the dry gale-force winds and the totally unregulated, densely packed city of wood.
One of the early post-fire decisions was to abandon the alderman-mayor format of civic government. By 1912, Lake Charles began to operate on a commission basis, considered then to be a more modern, more progressive, business-like approach to civic government. The new commission form encouraged sound fiscal practice, and rejected waste and favoritism. The Commission form presided over the next two decades of rapid civic growth and improvement. In many respects, the city had matured and began to think of itself as a modern city worthy of all possibilities.
The economy diversified with investment in oil exploration and petrochemicals. Local entrepreneurs experimented with diversified agriculture including meat packing, citrus farming, and rice milling. The area made an early foray into aviation by competing for and getting Gerstner field as an army training site only 10 years after the Wrights invented the airplane. The city recruited the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team under Connie Mack to make Lake Charles its winter headquarters. Both the City and Parish cooperated in efforts to locally build and open the deep water Port of Lake Charles.
Within 6 years, downtown commercial Lake Charles had been largely rebuilt. New modern structures replaced many of the older surviving wooden buildings. Ryan Street was lined with new structures using both modern codes and fireproof materials. One of the best examples of this surge of new construction was the impressive Muller's Department Store building, at Ryan and Division, completed in 1913. Rail connections were strengthened with three active passenger and freight terminals in place. Potential firetrap structures were condemned. Streets and highways were improved as automobiles became more commonplace.
As to replacing civic architecture, the minutes of the City Council and the Police Jury showed that they were able to meet in a variety of locations immediately following the fire. The Majestic Hotel served as a surrogate courthouse and city hall for a time.
The decision to rebuild downtown was overwhelming and the decision to build better was made evident by the selection of the prestigious New Orleans-based architectural firm of Favrot and Livaudais for the principal commissions to replace lost buildings.
Favrot and Livaudais was a long-established firm with may civic, academic, and religious commissions throughout the South to their credit. In designing for this area's needs, the firm used traditional building styles but shaped the interiors for modern use. Strong and distinctive historically-based exteriors provided the big picture outline. As to the interiors, they would be shaped by function and utility. And of course, they selected brick, marble, terracotta, copper, bronze, tile, and other fireproofed materials that have stood the test of time.
The first commission completed was for the new City Hall. The building is Italianate in style with a central clock tower and tile roof. The design placed the new City Hall facing Ryan Street and surrounded by spacious grounds covering the entire block. No longer was the area chock-a-block with wooden frame structures.
Across Ryan, the city abandoned South Court Street to provide ample grounds for the new Courthouse. Favrot and Livaudais used the Classic Palladian style with columns, porticos, and a massive copper dome. The principal facade faced Ryan Street. There were once equally impressive entrances on the north and south as well, but these are now obscured by later additions.
These two important buildings were monumental in scale and designed to inspire and edify the common man and woman. The functions of city and parish government were elevated both literally and figuratively as the main entrances are not on the street level - the level of commerce and the everyday. Government functions were made special, spaces were grand and materials used were solid and real to allow the structures to withstand hard daily use and to impress both citizen and visitor. The buildings became the symbols of Calcasieu and of Lake Charles and represented strength and tradition.
To replace the Catholic Church and rectory, Favrot and Livaudais chose Romanesque-Lombard styling in a deep red brick. The new Immaculate Conception followed a classical outline with rounded arched windows and a distinctive bell tower.
In all, we are lucky to have these three remarkable, diverse and striking landmarks. Each of the three is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places and these buildings are arguably the most significant architecture ever built in Southwest Louisiana. They are the physical evidence of a determined decision to build bigger and better after a challenging disaster.
The parish and the City commissioned the Favrot and Livaudais firm for additional new structures including Central School and the Ward Schools, Lock Park Pavilion, several private homes, and the Calcasieu Marine national Bank. In addition, the parish of Allen, chose this firm in 1912 to design a courthouse for their newly minted parish.
For many of the displaced families, the choice to rebuild was not a difficult one. A few families, like that of Judge Gorham, rebuilt new homes in place. And new residential areas of town were being developed and were readily available. Some families took the opportunity to start fresh in what is now called the Charpentier District just to the east of downtown. This area had been largely prairie fields. The oaks we now associate with this residential area were only saplings planted in years following the great fire.
Other residential areas developing included Baptist Meadows (the area around St. Louis School which was the site of the Louisiana Baptist Orphanage), and Margaret Place. The city had provided opportunity before the fire, and certainly with all the new construction, would provide opportunity again. The idea of residential suburbs ringing the central core of the city was firmly in place. Trolley lines were extended to serve these areas with lines on Hodges, Kirby and Kirkman as well as Ryan.
In conclusion, the architecture of recovery from the Great Fire was not only an architecture of buildings, grand as they may be, but also an architecture of ideas, opportunities, and symbols that created a stronger, better and modern city and parish.