March 18, 2015

Introducing African House, A Melting Pot of the Antebellum South

African House is located on the grounds of Melrose Plantation, about 15 miles from Natchitoches, Louisiana.

On March 16, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced the African House in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, as a National Treasure.

Located at the antebellum Melrose Plantation -- a National Historic Landmark -- the two-story hut is believed to have been built prior to 1820, although no records of construction remain. The structure is threatened by deterioration and destabilization, with preservation of the handmade bricks, hewed cypress roof beams, and other elements needed before it reopens.

Originally called Yucca Plantation, Melrose reflects the complex cultural heritage of Central Louisiana, with its convergence of Creoles, African-Americans, and Caucasians. The history of the plantation began in 1796, when former slave Louis Metoyer was deeded 911 acres along the banks of the Cane River Lake. Metoyer was born to Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, a French merchant, and Marie Coincoin, his housekeeping slave.

Claude and Marie’s nineteen-year relationship resulted in ten children, all of whom were granted their freedom by their father. With the rise of the plantation, the family became prominent members of the Isle Brevelle community, an enclave mainly populated by “gens de couleur libre,” or free people of color.

The brick interior of the African House

Development of the plantation -- including construction of the African House -- occurred in the decades following the initial land grant. Since no records of construction were preserved, the origin of the African House has been left to speculation, with some scholars believing it was built to resemble the thatched-roofed huts in Africa, and others seeing influence from French barns.

The ‘African House’ name is credited to writer Francois Mignon, who lived at Melrose from 1939 to 1969. In a 1968 memo, he noted that the building was "so obviously a recreation of the Congo-type building."

“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.”

The plantation remained in the Metoyer family until 1847, when it was sold to the Henry and Hypolite Hertzog. The Hertzogs owned the plantation through the Civil War, a violent portion of which was waged on the land surrounding Cane River in 1863 and 1864.

The Hertzogs sold the property in 1881 and it ultimately ended up in the hands of Joseph Henry who bestowed the ‘Melrose’ name in honor of Sir Walter Scott’s poem about Melrose Abbey. After Joseph’s death in 1899, his daughter-in-law Cammie Henry maintained the plantation’s agricultural empire and also undertook an extensive restoration of several of the structures.

Clementine Hunter in front of the African House, c. 1950.

Henry also employed Clementine Hunter, a prolific African-American folk artist whose murals depicting plantation life garnered widespread acclaim. However, Hunter did not originally come to Melrose as an artist, but rather as Henry’s farm hand, maid, and cook.

Without formal training, Hunter taught herself how to paint after discovering some discarded pigments left behind from another artist visiting Melrose. She went on to paint more than 4,000 works from the 1930s to the 1960s, drawing national acclaim and giving her the distinction of being the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art -- which still displays the paintings.

Hunter’s most famous works include the African House murals, which date from 1955 and appeared on the second floor walls of the building for nearly 60 years. Painted in oil on plywood panels, the murals depict early 20th century landscapes and scenes of daily life at the plantation. Scenes include harvesting cotton and pecans, a wedding, a funeral, and a baptism, as well as a “juke joint.” Decades without environmental controls in the house, however, ultimately led to the degradation of the murals.

The Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN) -- which assumed ownership of Melrose in 1971 -- recently decided to protect the murals, and last year sent them to Whitten and Proctor Fine Art Conservation in Houston. With conservation work now complete, the murals will be displayed at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum until work on the African House is done and they can return.

African House is the setting for a series of murals by folk artist Clementine Hunter depicting scenes of early 20th century plantation life.

“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 that end, the National Trust’s HOPE Crew program has been working with the Texas Conservation Corps, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and Melrose Plantation to rehabilitate the roof of African House, which for decades has been supported by temporary cribbing and utilized tarps to keep the rain out. The corpsmembers will remove all obsolete roof cladding and inspect, document, replace, or repair the structural elements using in-kind materials.

HOPE Crew began working on the structure in March and aim to have the project completed by next month. This proactive rehabilitation of the roof will prevent further water infiltration and damage.

Corpsmembers are working to repair and replace the structural elements of the African House’s wooden roof.

The conservation of the murals and the roof work being done by HOPE Crew are the first steps in APHN’s plans to restore the structure. APHN also plans to repair the masonry walls and install new window screens, planned for completion in 2015. Once the rehabilitation is finished, the Hunter murals will be returned to the African House, which will reopen for public tours as a crucial piece of the history of Melrose Plantation.

To learn more about plans to restore the African House, visit our National Treasures page.

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