The 1st floor museum is no longer open to the public. The 2nd floor houses Natchitoches Genealogy Library. It is open Tuesday – Friday, 9am – 4pm. The library includes French conveyances, mortgages and books; Natchitoches Parish Census records 1820 – 1920; miscellaneous census records for other Louisiana parishes and states and Natchitoches Times microfilm records for March 1903 – Oct. 1996.
Natchitoches, Louisiana, founded in 1714, contains a wealth of architectural building styles and types, including the Natchitoches Parish Old Courthouse, built in 1896. In the early decades after the Civil War, colleges and universities across the nation were developing architecture schools. Architecture was becoming accepted as a profession, replacing the prewar, apprenticed “blue collar” designers.
By the late 1800s, architecture flourished as technology allowed for a greater variety of styles. Architects were the rage and not only did they design in the most modern styles, but they also often incorporated philosophical ideas of the time. The design and construction of Natchitoches’ redbrick courthouse, known today as the Old Courthouse located on the corner of Church and Second Streets, is a prime example of these changes.
Designed by Favrot and Livaudais, a prominent New Orleans architectural firm, the old courthouse is an excellent example of style labeled Richardsonian Romanesque. Popular between 1880-1900, the style contained characteristics such as rough-faced masonry, heavy rounded arches and towers. Windows were recessed and often grouped with colonnades separating them. Color was employed utilizing different textures of stone or brick; and ornamentation was floral, carved directly into the masonry.
Henry Hobson Richardson (1836-86) was born in St. James Parish. Coming of age as the Civil War loomed, Richardson went to Paris to study architecture. After the war, he opened an architectural office in New York City and like other designers, began incorporating popular styles into his commissions. During the 1870s, Richardson began incorporating his vision into the currently popular Romanesque Revival style. The boldest modification made was the arch: he redefined it into a heavy, rounded arch. As his commissions grew, including Trinity Church (1872 in Boston), he gained a following. Revised replicas of his work appeared across the country and by 1880 a new style was created, Richardson Romanesque. For the next 20 years – 14 of which were after his death – buildings bearing his mark were constructed.
Constructed in 1896 of brick the color of “oxblood,” this five baby-bay, two-and-one-half story, hip roof structure is an imposing edifice. Its massiveness is emphasized by the protruding tower entrance, comprised of a rusticated (rough textured) base of terra cotta off which springs a heavy, flattened arch. On either side of the arch is a floral terra cotta banding, providing texture and color to contrast with the brick walls. Today, the tower wall ends with a Palladian-style window topped by a band of squat corner pinnacles and dormered clocks under a pyramidal roof. Smaller, rounder versions of the heavy entrance arch are seen over the other openings.
The recessed windows are often paired, with the second-floor tower windows boasting a colonnade. Four diagonally placed windows, to the left of the tower, light a stairwell within, and this portion of the structure is tipped with a low-pitched roof. The cornice is merely more brick, patterned to emphasize the eaves.
The original design, prior to the 1933 fire, showed even more Richardsonian influence. A steeply pitched roof, creating a small tower, covered the portion of the courthouse with the diagonal windows. The main tower or belfry extended higher than the existing. The space occupied by the Palladian-style windows was originally three diagonally placed arched windows below a pair of arched windows similar to those seen on the south elevation. A clock was set into each elevation of the tower before it culminated in the squat, corner pinnacles and pitched roof seen today.
The old courthouse was the fourth courthouse designed for the parish since its creation on April 10, 1805. On February 9, 1895, the Jury entered into an agreement with Mrs. Ellen Schuman, widow of Theodore Schuman, to lease her old hotel building to be used as a courthouse until the new one was completed. According to the terms of the lease Mrs. Schuman would receive the amount of $35.00 monthly for ten months. She also agreed to repair at her own expense, the gutters, roof, and windowpanes. The Schuman Hotel was located on the northwest corner of Second St. and St. Denis, commonly called the “Live Oak Center.”
A bid of $20,555.00 was submitted by Patrick J. Gillen of Lincoln Parish to construct the Favrot and Livaudais design. Mr. Gillen obligated himself to complete the building no later than the fifteenth day of January 1896. However, construction time must have exceeded this date because Favrot and Livaudais did not order furniture for the building until May of 1896, at which time Beals and Daniels Company of Dallas, Texas, quoted a price of $1,625.00 for all the furniture except the jury chairs. This price included tables, desks and chairs for the offices of the Sheriff, School Board, Clerk, Judge, Grand Jury, Petty Jury and the courtroom.
In 1933, the attic, courtroom, and tower clock were extensively damaged by fire. The firm of T. Miller and Sons submitted a bid of $18,300.00 to make renovations. This was just $2,225.00 less than the entire building had originally cost. The repairs included lowering the tower steeple roof and roofline covering the stairway. The clock in the tower was damaged beyond repair and was not replaced. In 1961, additional renovations were made which included lowering the ceilings and dividing rooms. This was probably done in an effort to more efficiently heat and cool the building. Aluminum and glass doors were installed at that time.
In 1976, with E. P. Dobson Associates as architects, an effort was made to restore the old building, as near as possible, to its original appearance. The aluminum front doors were replaced with ones similar to the original doors. Detailed sheet copper, a weather vane, and three clocks were added to the tower, and the lowered ceilings were removed. A mezzanine was added above the courtroom to give the appearance of a balcony, an elevator was installed, and central heating and cooling replaced the old window units. Mr. Dobson stated they were fortunate in obtaining the original plans, but noticed after studying them that some of the walls and partitions that were supposed to be in the building were not. He said the builders either changed their minds during construction or it was not repaired after the 1933 fire.
When the present courthouse was built in 1940, this beautiful old building was probably saved due to an act of spite. It seems the committee selected to oversee the plans for the new courthouse was composed of lawyers who did not get along with the District Judge. They did not want to give him space in the new building so they excluded the courtroom. Robert Ripley printed an item in his “Believe It Or Not” column about the courthouse without a courtroom. Since this old building had a perfectly good courtroom, it was left untouched and was used until a courtroom was added to the present courthouse.
Mrs. Ginny Tobin
Dr. Lauren Taves