Tag Archives: fire

Kate Chopin House: Taking a look at a heritage recovery operation

By Jeff Guin

A lot has happened in the three months since the U.S. National Historic Landmark Kate Chopin House was destroyed by fire. Much goes into a salvage effort of this scale, and you may be surprised that how much care has been taken with the remains of the building and of its surviving contents. Voices of the Past recently spoke with Dustin Fuqua of the heritage research organization Cultural Lore about his experience leading the rescue operation. Here are some of his insights on the topic.

Any salvage operation is stressful, but cases where the structure defines the community are especially difficult. Rescue workers are faced with the challenges of limiting access to the site while being sensitive to the grief of the community. All the while, they must also be mindful that the structure and the heritage resources it contains are degrading by the minute.

The situation is inherently unsafe from the get-go and will likely remain that way until the structure is taken down completely. Fires can reignite days after the initial event. Charred walls of brick or bousillage may crumble at any time. Rescuers use personal safety equipment like masks and gloves–and good sense as well–when approaching any salvage operation.

The case of the Kate Chopin House was especially dire, with perhaps only 10 to 15 percent of the Bayou Folk Museum contents surviving in any recognizable condition. For those precious few objects that survive the fire, other environmental threats immediately arise.

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For paper objects soaked with water from fire trucks and lying amid the smoldering warmth of embers, mold blooms immediately and degrades the fibers. As the home of a famous writer, this structure had some very valuable paper items. So what to do? Believe it or not, rescuers wrapped the books in acid-free paper and put them in a freezer until they can be properly conserved. Freezing the items inhibits the growth of mold and prevents further environmental damage to the paper.

Metal objects are affected by the warm, wet environment of a fire scene as well. Oxidation starts immediately, resulting in rust on metal objects that may have already been weakened by extreme heat. A quick, but careful removal operation is necessary to keep these objects from becoming further casualties of the disaster.

As with many disasters, the path of destruction can take unexpected turns. For example, Dusty reports finding a stack of Confederate currency in good condition while huge pieces of 19th century furnishings were incinerated without a trace. The wooden objects that survive are also cared for, potentially for reintegration into a rebuilt structure or as a memorial.

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Thanks to the first response efforts of the Cultural Lore team, the NSU Masters of Heritage Resources program and the National Park Service, we will have some remnant by which to remember the Kate Chopin House and Bayou Folk Museum. But what’s happening now? I’ll tell you next week. In the meantime, you can read more about this project or contact Dusty through the Natchitoches Preservation Network website.

Related images:

Kate Chopin House Ruins

Kate Chopin House - Fire

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Heritage resources define community, even in their loss

It’s in times of hardship that a community’s character is revealed. The destruction of the Kate Chopin House by fire this past Wednesday was a harsh test of character for the heritage community in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana–where I was born, and live still.

The Kate Chopin House was a Creole-style structure in Cloutierville that was named for the groundbreaking feminist author who lived there during the 1880s. The house was important enough to have been named a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of Interior in 1993.

Just days ago, the house was a testament to what small-town heritage organizations could do. Without the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches, the house would have been gone decades ago. Local memory had faded so that not many folks remember the extent to which the house had deterioriated before APHN became steward of the property in 1979. The organization invested in several restoration projects, including the installation of central air and heat in 1999.

Indeed, countless people have invested their time and hearts into the restoration of this structure. So much had been done. But the real tragedy lies in how much more could–and would–have been done to make the Kate Chopin house a preservation showcase for the country. There was much to love about it–the architecture, the history, the literary tradition.

Witnessing the house’s utter destruction–not to mention the loss of the entire contents of the Bayou Folk Museum–was a hard pill to swallow. So many locals had donated family heirlooms to the museum that it literally defined the community.

And it’s still defining us even in its loss. By Wednesday evening, representatives from most of the heritage groups in the parish had been to the site and were finding ways to help. Early Thursday morning, students from the Heritage Resources programs at NSU were moving surviving contents to a safe location. The National Park Service offices provided funds and manpower as well. Even Stine Hardware donated many needed supplies to assist the response effort.

And thank heavens for forethought! For folks like Dusty Fuqua who led a Cane River National Heritage Area grant to document the museum’s major contents through his Cultural Lore organization. It was a laborious effort that was only recently completed, and an earnest example of why folks in the heritage community do what they do.

Where do we go from here? With so little left, folks assisting with the recovery effort are taking special care of every item that is pulled from the rubble with some semblance of its original character intact. It’s a process of expanding our collective knowledge about proper conservation response.

And through this process we recognize that even through the smoke of our biggest cultural loss in recent memory, we have more resources, better knowledge and stronger determination to do the right thing. There’s a measure of comfort in that realization.

National Landmark "Kate Chopin House" is lost to fire

By Jeff Guin

CLOUTIERVILLE, LA–The Kate Chopin House, named for the legendary feminist writer who lived there during the 1880s, burned to the ground in an early morning fire today. The structure had been named a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of Interior in 1993.

According to Vickie Parrish, president of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN), the structure’s loss will be felt far beyond the Coutierville community.

“Countless people have invested their time and hearts into the restoration of this structure,” Parrish said. “So much had been done. But the real tragedy lies in how much more could–and would– have been done to make the Kate Chopin house a preservation showcase for the country. So many people loved it.”

The house was in a serious state of disrepair before APHN became steward of the property in 1979. The organization invested in several restoration efforts, including the installation of central air and heat in 1999.

The Creole-style home was built between 1805 and 1809 by Alexis Cloutier using slave labor and exemplifies the building style of that time. Creole architecture is characterized by its spacious galleries, gallery roofs supported by light wooden colonnettes and a form of construction utilizing a heavy timber frame combined with an infill made of brick.

Officials from the National Park Service’s Cane River Creole National Historical Park were on hand this morning to help salvage the few artifacts that survived the fire. The head archivist from the Cammie G. Henry archives at Northwestern State University of Louisiana was also assisting in the recovery.

The contents of the Bayou Folk Museum, which was housed in the Kate Chopin House, were also lost. Local resident Doris Roge’ says the loss is being especially felt in the Cloutierville community because so many citizens had contributed to the museum.

“A lot of people in the community donated or sold pieces for the museum,” she said. “Many pieces belonged to my grandfather. We’ve all lost a part of our heritage.”

Kate Chopin came to Cloutierville  with her husband Oscar, a New Orleans businessman who bought the house in 1879 at a sheriff’s sale. Kate was pregnant with their sixth child and quickly made enemies in the town.

According to Roge’, her grandfather often told stories of Chopin’s then-scandalous public smoking and flirtations with men other than her husband.

Many of Kate Chopin’s most important works, including Bayou Folk and The Awakening are set in Louisiana.

Dr. Lisa Abney is a Chopin scholar and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. She believes the burning of the Chopin House is a loss to the literary community as well.

“Kate Chopin’s work is important both nationally and regionally; Chopin’s creative and innovative fiction changed the face of American literature,” she said. “The loss of the Kate Chopin House and Bayou Folk Museum is a tremendous loss to fans of Chopin’s literature and to preservation. This is, indeed, a tragedy to no longer have this important treasure.”

The Kate Chopin House/Bayou Folk Museum is another significant blow to the history of the Cloutierville Community. Several important structures have been lost there over the years including the Carnahan Store, a National Register for Historic Places structure, which burned in 2004.

What caused the fire at the Kate Chopin House is still under investigation.

Photos from the scene of the fire can be seen at the NCPTT Flickr stream.

View more about the salvage operation in the video below: