(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-on Preservation 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