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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Re-Imagining Downtown DeRidder, DeRidder, Louisiana

Downtown DeRidder has the potential to become an exciting destination for the surrounding region, serving as home not only for the court, law, and politics, but also for arts and entertainment, restaurants, downtown housing, and cultural institutions and museums. There is an economic development argument here as well, because if the potential of downtown DeRidder is even only partially realized, such activity could result in an increase in tax revenue, improvement of the quality of life for residents, and start to make this area more attractive for tourists who bring with them substantial dollars to support and reinforce the vision of making downtown DeRidder a vibrant and functioning center once again.

Then how might one go about setting this process of change into motion? The Main Street program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been surprisingly effective at this in cities throughout the country for the last quarter-century. Undergirding this strategy are concepts:

  • Organization – bringing together the right people in the right institutional framework to get something done.

  • Economic restructuring – identifying gaps among existing business activities, and seeking new activities that help to fill in the holes downtown.

  • Design – insisting on high-quality design downtown, using preservation to improve the appearance of historic buildings, and to assure that new design reinforces the sense of place and sense of history downtown.

  • Promotion – as these other initiatives unfold, to not be afraid to share your success with the region, state, and nation, attracting further interest and investment that helps to fuel your momentum for change downtown.

In addition to relying on the tested and proven successful approach of the Main Street program, it might be helpful to envision several potential functions for the downtown. Some of these might exist already, and others are waiting to be started. But by defining potential functions of the downtown first, this may then assist with planning for specific buildings and projects as these opportunities arise.

The Arts/Entertainment Function
Currently there are several arts and entertainment organizations and activities, though these tend to be scattered throughout DeRidder and more broadly throughout the parish. The community theater is a wonderful asset, though its $200K debt is troublesome. Likewise the dance studio downtown adds wonderful life and vitality to the district. Then there are several photographers, crafters, and artists with shops throughout the city.

Providing a place where these activities could occur together might make sense. Such a strategy has been used in numerous other cities, often creating an arts incubator where these activities occur. Such facilities are typically on land and in buildings purchased by a municipality that are then leased to a non-profit organization which operates the facility. Several years ago the Community Concert Series brought leading entertainers to DeRidder, though was without the coordinated marketing and promotion necessary to attract audiences from throughout the region. Reviving this effort and providing the administrative support necessary for it to be successful might be advisable.

A typical parapeted building in the downtown area

The Tourism Function
Heritage and cultural tourism have proven to be a lucrative economic activity, adding $1 billion dollars of activity to places like New Orleans alone (before the storm). DeRidder has expressed interest in capturing this tourist potential through creation and operation of a Tourist Center. The location of this office within a marginal modern building that is not clearly marked, and along with other social service functions detracts from the potential of marketing the area and attracting visitors to this area, touting it as an interesting and attractive place to visit.

Finding a better home downtown for the “Tourist Center” in a centrally located building with historic character, and developing a marketing and promotion strategy for DeRidder and the whole parish would both symbolically and practically establish this area as a true tourist center.

The Cultural/Museum Function
The tourist function supports the cultural and museum function. People seek out unique places and unique experiences. When these activities can be combined and aggressively promoted and marketed then the potential for attracting people to your town is greatly increased. Presently there are several decent collections within DeRidder - that if their function was re-assessed and more carefully defined, interpretive strategy was reconsidered, and suitable facilities with a capital plan for their operation set into place, could become major civic assets – helping to attract tourists to your community.

The railroad depot is presently home to a museum on local heritage and a doll museum. These are two very different activities. So finding a new home, most likely for the doll museum, and then re-evaluating and expanding the heritage museum throughout the entire depot, possibly also providing lecture and meeting space as well, would help to give the depot a more dedicated function. The doll museum then with its own marketable identity in another building could establish itself independently and start to create a variety of activities to attract people to your community.

Adding to this, there is supposed to be a World War II collection in private hands. Finding a home for this as well, and having a team of qualified experts in various subjects review and approve the interpretive strategy and substantive content and to help develop exhibits would create another attraction in your community. The Old Jail has been mentioned as one such place for a collection of this nature to be housed. A local history collection might also be very suitable for the jail space as well. Though since the Old Jail requires substantial capital outlays, planning, and renovation for any new function to occur there, this would be a more long-term project.

A more immediate opportunity as it relates to the local culture and museums, is touting both the Mennonite heritage and the timber heritage of the area. Now, these may be separate focuses, or they could be conceived together, but creating a place and attraction that celebrates each of these pieces of the culture may be in order. The presence of an active Mennonite workshop downtown, with several storefronts facing a major street downtown, lends itself to putting some interpretive display in this space that tells the Mennonite story and provides examples of their work might make sense. Being able to take tours of the workshop as well, or even to have windows where people could see into that space and see people working might be interesting as well.

The Restaurant Function
Whereas historic downtowns were once centers primarily for exchange of goods and services, many have found a second life as destinations for arts and entertainment, tourists, and museums and cultural institutions as described above. Now, with people visiting to participate in these activities and to visit attractions, capturing their attention and keeping them there is important as well. It is for this reason that supporting the establishment of restaurants in the downtown area is desirable.

A unique local law has made it difficult to attract restaurants here. Because Beauregard Parish was a “dry parish” historically, this prevented restaurants from locating, because many restaurants make their money not on food, but in alcohol that people purchase with their food. Restaurants could very well be developed here even if they did not serve alcohol, but making this possible will serve as an incentive for restaurants to locate.

Something else to consider, when seeking to attract restaurants is the importance of having these in close proximity to one another. Intuitively one might think that you want restaurants spread out with ample and easy parking for each, because they are competitors and competing with other restaurants that have ample parking. But what many cities have found is that clustering restaurants and creating a sense of a “destination” for dining will make people seek out this area, and tolerate inconvenience with parking, to have a variety of options for dining downtown.

The Bed and Breakfast Function
If restaurants satisfy one basic human need – hunger, bed and breakfasts satisfy this need and one other as well – sleep. Currently there are few to no bed and breakfasts within a 50 mile radius of DeRidder. This is a MASSIVE UNREALIZED OPPORTUNITY. For a bed and breakfast to be successful here requires an individual (or individuals) with a commitment and passion to create an experience and an environment that people want to visit, and to return to.

One potential area for a bed and breakfast and perhaps a complex of such buildings is in the five historic buildings on Pine St. across from McDonald’s. These could be packaged and marketed together. And a phased approach to the restoration and positioning of these buildings separately and together as a functioning bed and breakfast and perhaps meeting, retreat, and conference venue could then be adopted.

The Residential Function
For those people who want to stay in DeRidder a little bit longer, having a place for these people to live is important. Today there is a profusion of single family homes and several mobile homes and trailers. Thus the lower end of the housing market is effectively filled. There may be opportunities in the upper end of the housing market though, with luxury lofts and condos. Starting with existing buildings would be advisable, adapting second floors for residential use. Artists, younger people, and older people often find this housing option attractive. Then as other development sites become available in and around the downtown, infill housing in a rowhouse and condo format would help to build density and intensity of use downtown. Further, those who can afford to live in this housing would also support other functions of the downtown area as they become available and emerge.

The Community Building Function
There are few places downtown for people to meet, informally associate, and to discuss the timely topics of the day. Once the Royal Café served this function, though it is no longer in place. As progress is made in other areas, creating a place to re-create the feeling of the Royal Café would be desirable. It might even be possible to create such a place within the actual Royal Café space which presently appears to be vacant.

The Institutional Function
Several major institutions are visible and apparent downtown since this is the Parish seat. If these institutions more carefully consider their facility planning and expansion plans with respect to one another, and how different sources of funds might be pooled together, and leveraged with state and federal resources to create more substantial buildings downtown would be desirable. If these strategies reinforce the sense of downtown as an “urban center” with multi-story buildings, built out to the sidewalk edge, rather than single-story buildings with setbacks, this would then help to reinforce and support the re-emergence of the downtown as an attractive and interesting place to visit.

Murals in the DeRidder U.S. Post Office

The Public Spaces Concept
Streetscape improvements have only been partially implemented, and the absence of parks and well-designed public spaces deprives the people of DeRidder, Beauregard Parish, and visitors of a place to stroll, informally gather together, and enjoy the historic setting of the downtown.

Several things can be done to improve the public spaces of downtown DeRidder, including:

  • Street lights: create a timeframe and capital plan, and complete the installation of street lights along Washington Blvd. and along other major thoroughfares.

  • Sidewalks: these may be leveled to make them more accessible and to create a smoother transition between the street and the entrances of buildings. Smoothing sidewalks, so it is possible to walk from block-to-block along a level surface would encourage the art of strolling downtown.

  • Esplanades: much like sidewalks, special esplanades lined with trees and benches and in several high-visibility areas would promote circulation but also create nice places for people to congregate and gather together downtown. Such a space could run from 1st to 2nd and be between the jail and courthouse, along Washington Blvd. and in other areas.

  • Create a public park/bandstand/playing fields: A well-designed multi-use space like this could serve as the symbolic and visible center of the community, providing a place where people of different ages and interests can get together. Programming activities in this space throughout the year would assure that it is vibrant and well taken care of. Grant Park in Chicago and Central Park in New York City are good examples of such a space.

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Bishop-Brighton House, Wyandotte, Michigan

1978 photo courtesy Michigan State Historic Preservation Office

The Bishop-Brighton House has stood at the cross-roads of business, political, and civic activity in Wyandotte, from the time it was built through present day.

Like many properties in the historic center of Wyandotte, the ownership of this property can be traced to the Eureka Iron Company which acquired it in 1854, and even earlier to Major John Biddle's estate "The Wyandotte" set up here in 1818, and the Maquaqua Indian village located here even before that.

Title was transferred several times between 1854 and 1896, though as late as 1900 no building had yet been constructed on this site.

Jerome H. Bishop, Sr., Wyandotte industrialist, philanthropist, and mayor, purchased the property on September 14, 1901. His 33 room mansion with 10 fireplaces was located across Superior Blvd. on the north-east corner of Superior and Biddle. Returning to the home across the street, either Bishop Sr. built the house on this site or his son Jerome H. Bishop, Jr. did when title was transferred to him on September 26, 1902. Either way, a home was built with Tudor Revival details on the exterior and Arts and Crafts Details inside. Both of these features were strongly influenced by the English Arts & Crafts movement of the 19th century and early 20th century. The building in which R.P. McMurphy's restaurant is located is another fine example of the style.

The Brighton family was next to own and occupy the house between 1916 and 1938, after Bishop Jr. and his wife sold it to them. Much like Bishop Sr. transferred the property to Bishop Jr., Brighton Sr. apparently transferred the property to Archibald W. Brighton Jr., a single man, in 1938. A building permit in 1934 signals the changes about to come. This permit by A.W. Brighton, Sr. was for a cement-block gas station to be placed between the house and Biddle Ave.

Now, at first glance, it appears strange and uncommon for a gasoline station to be placed in the front yard of a house. Though at the time this was not an unfamiliar practice, especially in historic centers where most of the prime lots were occupied, and when the physical environment had not been adapted so thoroughly to meet the needs of the automobile (as it is today). This filling station is unique though, because it has three gables punctuating the roof, and faux-timbers, with both of these features picking up on themes from the main house behind.

Intrusion of this filling station in front of this grand house was a portent of things to follow. Houses were demolished on three of the other corners, including Bishop Sr.�s former house that served as City Hall from the 1930�s to 1960�s, before being demolished and replaced by the Bishop Co-Op. Of those great houses that still remain, the Ford-Bacon House was only saved because it was incorporated into a Public Library, and the Ford-MacNichol House for use as a museum.

Other uses for the Bishop-Brighton House and fueling station in front of it came in the years to follow. The house was sub-divided for multiple uses in 1960. A permit was filed by the Gulf Oil Company to hang an electric sign in 1961. In 1967, Brighton, Jr., now living at 17775 Parke Lane in Grosse Ile, sought to obtain a Certificate of Occupancy for "Laundry and dry cleaning pick up station," but was denied by the City Engineer. Apparently reeling from this defeat, a permit was approved for the demolition of the filling station in 1971 (when John Stanko was the owner). In 1986, a flower and gift shop was proposed for the first floor, but this too was found to be a use that was not allowable in the district.

After all that happened in the storied history of this house, what was next was for its rediscovery and preservation to occur. New owners, the Murphy's, acquired the property, and began a painstaking restoration. In an letter on November 5, 1992, Dennis Murphy describes how �we are in the process of a painstaking restoration and my wife and I had literally spent every free hour of the past summer sanding, priming, and applying two top coats of top-of-the-line paint. Other improvements that the Murphy's made include upgrading plumbing, rebuilding the porches, replacing the roof, improving the back yard, and building a fence.

The current owners Gerry and Vicki Lucas purchased the property in 2000, and for the next five years made it their home, while also transforming the building and preparing it for use as a bed and breakfast. They received their Certificate of Occupancy and officially opened for business on the weekend of October 1, 2005.