National Trust for Historic Preservation Names Historic African House at Melrose Plantation a National Treasure

(Article from preservationnation.org)

Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named African House, located at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, a National Treasure. Unique in its structure and unknown purpose, the building is also home to world-renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter’s murals. 

Melrose Plantation was established in 1796 by former slave Louis Metoyer, a free person of color. In the 1820’s, Metoyer commissioned his enslaved workers to construct the house however, no records exist that give an exact date of its construction, original purpose or explain its unusual design which reflects the style of traditional architecture of houses in Africa. 

Today, the two-story hut-like building stands threatened by deterioration and destabilization. Preservation of the brick masonry walls and roof structure are needed to ensure the site is protected and reopened for public tours as an important part of the story of Melrose Plantation.

“African House is a unique testament to the confluence of cultures that helped to shape Louisiana, and America as a whole,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The architecture at African House speaks boldly of the presence of African culture along the Cane River– and symbolizes how African and French influences combined in this region.” 

In naming the African House a National Treasure, the National Trust is committed to supporting the site’s restoration. The National Trust’s HOPE Crew (“Hands-oPreservation Experience” Crew) will address repair needs on the roof and other exteriors.  HOPE Crew is an initiative of the National Trust that trains thousands of crew members in useful historic preservation skills.

“African House speaks for generations of hard working individuals through its massive hand hewn cypress beams and handmade bricks,” said Vicki Parrish, president of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches which owns and operates Melrose Plantation. 
“As preservationists, our mission is to listen to the voices of the past, and it is through the restoration of their handiwork that we discover just what they are telling us.  It is our hope that every person who visits African House will discover for themselves a distinct voice from our culturally rich Cane River past.”

Further enhancing the historical significance of African House are nine murals by folk artist Clementine Hunter.  Painted in oil on plywood and installed on the building’s interior walls, the murals depict early 20th century landscapes and scenes of daily life at the plantation.

As a farm-hand at Melrose Plantation, Hunter began painting in the 1930s when she was in her 50s. She created more than 4,000 paintings over four decades, drawing national acclaim and exhibits in galleries across the country. Today, Hunter’s works are sought after by collectors. The African House murals have been conserved and will be returned to African House when the building’s restoration is completed.

“Clementine Hunter left an indelible mark on Melrose Plantation with her inspired murals,” said Meeks.  “These amazing works of folk art were created for the African House, and they should be exhibited there.  We are working to see that happen.”

To learn more about plans to restore the African House, visit www.savingplaces.org/Africanhouse

Pardon Our Dust: Shots from the African House Restoration

Thanks to Yael Textor for assisting with on-site photography.

African House Murals Homecoming Fete

We are very excited to announce that conservation work on the Clementine Hunter African House murals is near completion. The beautiful murals will be making their way back from Houston and will reside in their temporary home at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame/Northwest Louisiana History Museum while the African House at Melrose undergoes a major preservation effort. 

To welcome the murals back to Natchitoches, we're throwing a Homecoming Fete on Saturday March 21st. The program includes:

  • 2:00p - Secrets of the African House Murals, a Lecture by Tommy Whitehead (Free and OPen to the Public)
  • 5:00p - VIP Mural Preview, Tribute Honoring Theodosia Murphy Nolan/The Nolan Foundation, Cocktail Reception, Dinner at Maglieaux's 
  • 7:00p - Mural Unveiling, Champagne Dessert, Live Music and Silent Auction at the Museum

All proceeds benefit the African House Restoration at Melrose Plantation. To purchase tickets, click here to visit our online shop.

Sponsors include Cane River National Heritage Area, City of Natchitoches, Daryan Display, Friends of Louisiana Sports and History, Historic District Development Commission, Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation, Maglieaux's, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Clementine Hunter

Clementine Hunter (December 4, 1886/1887 – January 1, 1988) was born on Hidden Hill Plantation before later moving up the Cane River to work at Melrose Plantation. It was at Melrose that Hunter discovered paints and brushes left behind by a visiting artist. With these humble tools, Hunter began painting – or as she called it, “marking a picture” - various scenes of plantation life including picking cotton, gathering pecans, washing clothes, ceremonial baptisms and funeral scenes. Her resourceful nature led her to paint on discarded items such as window shades, cardboard boxes, jugs, bottles and gourds. Hunter's unique style of social commentary eventually went on to leave an indelible mark on the art world. She has become one of the most renowned, self-taught artists in the United States and is often referred to as the Black Grandma Moses. She was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art) and achieved a significant amount of success during her lifetime, including an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter (which she declined). Radcliffe College included Hunter in its “Black Women Oral History" project, published in 1980. Additionally, Northwestern State University of Louisiana granted her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. 

One of the more well-known displays of Hunter’s artwork is located in the African House on the grounds of Melrose Plantation. It's upstairs walls are covered in an elaborate mural that depicts the incredible stories of life on the Cane River. We encourage you to visit Melrose Plantation to see Clementine’s art, including the African House murals.

41st Annual Melrose Arts & Crafts Festival

The 41st Annual Arts and Crafts Festival is April 18th-19th, 2015. More than 100 vendors will set their tents and tables beneath the gorgeous live oak trees of Melrose. Artists will show and sell their original paintings, stained glass, gourmet foods, jewelry, clothing, photography, plants, toys, woodworking products, pottery and more.

The festival is sponsored by The Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN) and all proceeds go directly to the upkeep and preservation of Melrose Plantation.

Tickets are only $5.00 for Adults and $2.00 for Kids ages 6-12. Kids 5 and under are free!

Interested in being a vendor? Click here.

Francois Mignon on Clementine's African House

If the African House were the sole structure at the Melrose French Creole Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, it would more than merit a visit. It is one of nine structures you can see on your sightseeing tour of Melrose.

Francois Mignon, a prolific, gifted writer and member of the artist’s colony at Melrose relates the following endearing incident:

“It was on a hot day in July in the mid 1950's that scenes of plantation life in Louisiana began to appear along the walls of the African House. The artist was Clementine Hunter who lived in her cabin on Melrose Plantation. Well do I remember when Clementine Hunter…first tried her hand at painting. She tapped at my door, said that she had found these twisted tubes (of paint) while cleaning up and that she believed she could ‘mark a picture on her own…if she sot her mind to it.'”

She presented her first picture to Mignon who replied, “Sister, you don’t know it but this is just the first of a whole lot of pictures you are going to bring me in the years ahead“.

Francois was right and the rest is history.

(Original Post by Mr. Doyle Bailey)

Clementine Hunter's African House Murals

This week we bid a temporary farewell to our lovely Clementine Hunter African House murals as they headed to Houston, TX for some much-needed conservation.

The murals date back to 1955 and have been a gallery fixture in the Melrose African House for almost 60 years. Due to various environmental factors, the murals were beginning to show the initial signs of fatigue. In addition, the African House will soon be undergoing preservation of it's own, so the timing of the mural conservation was fitting.

After much consideration, the APHN selected the Fine Art Conservators of Whitten & Proctor to take on the project. (Quote from one of the conservators.) "The conservators at Whitten & Proctor Fine Art Conservation are very much looking forward to our collaboration with Melrose Plantation, caring for the Clementine Hunter murals from African House," said Jill Whitten. 

Although the murals will be in Houston for a while, we still have many other Clementines on display in the Big House gallery. We'll also be revealing details soon on an exciting interim exhibit in the upstairs of the African House. 

This costly project would not be possible without a generous contribution from long-time APHN Member Miss Theodosia Nolan. We are so grateful for her continuing support.

New Discoveries in the Collection at Melrose

Recently there have been several new discoveries centering on the Clementine Hunter collection at Melrose. It all began with the stove in the Clementine Hunter house. For the last 35 years, items have remained in the stove undiscovered and unexplored. When these items were discovered, our staff quickly contacted Dustin Fuqua with the National Park Service to assist with an assessment, inventory, and documentation of the pieces.

The items dated between 1972-1977 and included an Avon product box, a St. Augustine Church raffle ticket from October 7-8, 1972, paper documents including a receipt from Roque's auto garage, newspaper sections, a Natchitoches Parish water bill and even an empty pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. (According to historian Tommy Whitehead, Clementine did not smoke but her daughter did.)

The second big discovery is more of a “re-discovery”. While inspecting broken glass doors in the Melrose Library, staff uncovered a large blue binder with a full inventory of items received by APHN from the Hunter family after her death. Once this re-discovery was fully realized, we began working to identify and find the items listed. One such item was an “artist box.” This box was found and to our delight, Clementine’s paints and brushes were still inside.

Every day is an opportunity for a new discovery at Melrose.

The Melrose Library

Melrose is in the process of updating, improving, and developing exhibit spaces throughout the house museum and historic site.

Our staff began work on the morning of January 21, 2013 by removing each book from the library and sorting it according to its age and ownership by the Henry family. Significantly damaged books were also removed for proper storage.

By the end of Day 1 the library was empty and installation of the new lighting began. The site caretaker installed florescent fixtures inside the book cases to provide off-set room lighting and draw the visitor’s attention to the books on display. The top shelf in each section was trimmed down to allow more light to flow into the bookcase. Each shelf was then vacuumed, cleaned, and painted where necessary.

Books were then vacuumed and carefully placed back on display. Additional collection items and furniture were moved back into the room. The final step was to install the necessary conservation tools to further protect the collection of books at Melrose.

After 4 days of exhibit work, the library was reopend. The first group to see the work completed were students from Mansfield High School. Their teacher commented, “It didn’t look this good last year!” We are excited to be able to provide visitors with a new experience in the Library exhibit and hope to continue to meet and exceed our visitor’s expectations each day. 

This project is supported by a gift from The Rapides Foundation.

Economic Impact of the Fall Tour of Homes

Fall Tour: A Vital Economic Asset(Presented by: Schulz, B., Yandell, K., Springer, M., Walen, D., James, K., Walker, J., and Smith, J.)

Graduate students from Northwestern State University completed an economic impact study for the APHN Fall Tour of Homes. The purpose of the Economic Impact Study is to assess the financial impact of the tour and project the amount of ‘new money’ created in the community of Natchitoches, Louisiana. If there are a large number of attendees who travel more than 30 miles to partake in the 58th Annual Fall Pilgrimage Tour of homes, then a positive economic impact will be estimated for the city and surrounding communities. The 2012 Fall Tour brought an estimated $509,000 in economic impact to the community.

93 surveys were collected at random. Questions included the participant identifying where they live, how many are traveling in their group, how long they were staying in town, and estimated spending on food, drinks, souvenirs, lodging, and gas.

Using the average ticket price of $37.66; approximately 536 tickets were purchased for the Tour of Homes.

“New Money” is defined as money introduced into the community that would not be available to the area (over 30 miles). $27,278 of new money was spent (ticket sale not included). In other words, each visitor who came to Natchitoches only for Tour of Homes spent $357.82. The total money (people coming just for Fall Tour and people who would be in Natchitoches anyway) was $27,820.

The impact multiplier for Natchitoches is 2.8 which makes the economic impact of Fall Tour of Homes approximately $509,037.73.

This study has several limitations including the fact that ticket sales are roughly estimated and the data from participants is self-reported. But these numbers are shocking. Fall Tour has an enormous impact on the local economy with 57% spent on food and lodging; hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants benefit most from the event.

What we discovered during this project is that primarily “new money” is generated. This is money that would not have been spent in Natchitoches without Fall Tour of Homes. We have a “tangible opportunity to increase the local economy,” and APHN is proud to have such an impact on the vitality of the community.

(Originally posted by Adam Foreman)

Robert Wilson's Clementine Hunter-Inspired Exhibit

"To highlight the work of African American folk artist Clementine Hunter, participants in the Watermill Center Summer Program recreated African House, a structure on Melrose Plantation in Louisiana, where Hunter worked and painted. The center’s reimagined house, positioned at the epicenter of the event, served as a gallery for Hunter’s colorful, deeply personal canvases." - BizBash 

View the complete slideshow here.