“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

An American Search for Urban Unity: Alexandria Louisiana- Part One

Several years ago we were fortunate to have had an opportunity to study the fascinating inland city of Alexandria. What follows is the first of two original posts on the community's remarkable history of architecture and urbanism. The city's documentation in the form of tinted postcards relates directly to the article's theme by its consistency in tone and color. The postcards are published online by the Alexandria Retrospective at http://www.alexandria-louisiana.com/.


The urban form of city of Alexandria, Louisiana results from a series of interventions, summarizing in their complexity much of the history of American planning. The city began with a grid laid out around basic public elements placed on two central public squares. As time passed and public functions multiplied, the various public functions, including town hall, public market, court house, academy, and jail were dispersed onto additional public land around the city, representing civic interests at both both the local and parish scales and employing a common architectural grammar based in European-derived architectural traditions allied with a bookish classicism. Religious structures were monumental in scale as befits basic institutions serving communal purposes, but employed mostly Gothic forms and details. This clear differentiation of sacred structures appears to have resulted in part from a recognition of their essentially private character during the Antebellum era.

The city faced nearly complete destruction of its fabric at the end of the American Civil War. The two decades of poverty that followed were eventually reversed by boom times. Under the influence of a successful commercial elite, the city was redesigned after the turn of the century using sophisticated planning, consistent architectural motifs, and details borrowed from and inspired by the self-confident American Renaissance. Design at the urban scale adopted monumental patterns emphasizing the importance of civic life. City buildings, serving both civic and religious purposes, adopted a universalizing architectural grammar, as will be seen. Classical details and similar materials were shared at every level of civic significance, including the architectural vocabulary of domestic architecture. This interrelation of the private and public realms indicate the aspiration of Alexandria to the good life. As a result of the legacy of slavery, however, this extension of the public good was restricted by the limited access permitted to some members of the community to the full benefits of civic life.

Loss of commerce in the mid-twentieth century derailed the economic growth. Social conflict and loss of faith in traditional American architectural and urban goals led to an impoverishment of the central part of the city at the same time.


Alexandria lies at the center of Louisiana, on the right bank of the Red River. The central Louisiana region was settled in the early years of the eighteenth century. The Natchitoches Indians lived along the Red River. A trading post was established there in 1714 by Louis Jachereau de St. Denis, a French soldier and explorer. In 1723, The French colonial government established a garrison at a portage around a series of rapids on the Red River to protect trade. The tiny settlement across from the site of Alexandria was known as Post du Rapides.

In the 1760s, when the Spaniards received control of the region, the village contained no more than fifty inhabitants. Two merchants from Pennsylvania, Alexander Fulton and William Miller, arrived in the early 1790s and were given exclusive trading rights with the Indians. They opened a store on the right bank of the river just below Bayou Rapides. Shortly before the Louisiana Purchase they bought approximately forty thousand neighboring acres from the Indians. They had the tract surveyed for sale to settlers, who they expected would flood the area. Miller sold out and moved away, but Fulton, well-connected with the leader of the new Louisiana Territory, stayed and developed his property as the U. S. took possession in 1803.

Central Louisiana 1839. Detail, David H. Burr. The American Atlas (London, J. Arrowsmith, 1839), Library of Congress. http://www.usgwarchives.org/maps/louisiana/statemap/la1839n.jpg
As settlers arrived, Fulton, with the help of his brother-in-law, surveyor Samuel Wells, laid out a town along the river near his store, with the intention of providing a mercantile center for the immediate region and a port on the Red River. When the legislature established Rapides Parish several years later, it was chosen as the courthouse town as well. It was first incorporated as a town in 1818 and received a city charter in 1882. The name “Alexandria” may derive from Fulton’s name or that of his daughter. At any rate, the ultimate reference, understood by most educated Americans at the time, was to the great Hellenistic center of learning and commerce on the Nile, site of the greatest library of classical times.

Alexandria in 1872.Original city is at the center. http://usgwarchives.org/maps/louisiana/citymap/alexandria1872.jpg
Surveyor Wells laid out the town carefully in 1805 using the basic uninflected grid employed for most new towns across the US for many years. The central grid plan was symmetrical and mostly uninflected towards the river at the start. The original platting of the town divided it into approximately eighty one-acre squares with eight streets running back from the river. The central street running perpendicular to the river was called Washington Street. A series of ten numbered streets ran parallel to the river (what would have been First Street lined the river bank and was called Front Street. Two squares at the center were reserved for public use.

One public square, located away from the busy commercial area along the river, was designated to be “solely for the advancement of learning and culture,” probably indicating a school or academy. The other, labelled "Market Square" in 1872, was the principal public provision at the urban scale, demonstrating the centrality of the public life. Markets and town government have been associated from Renaissance times for a variety of reasons (see the City Market article). A market square was needed so that the important laws regulating commerce might be applied to a specific piece of ground. While the form of any special building erected on the square is not know to us, the form of market house/ town hall is one used across the country from Colonial times onward. Later, as we will see, that square became the site of the classically-designed city hall, seen in the postcard illustration above.

Detail of Map of the Town of Alexandria, Louisiana, 1872 showing the market square now the site of the City Hall
Each square was divided into four quarter-acre lots. The streets were to all be fifty-three feet across, except for those on the periphery, which were to be one hundred feet wide. While the town did not fill the grid provided for it for some years afterward, it gradually lived up to and exceeded the promise of the first urban design. There were two courthouses in succession. The courthouses were sited on a county square at the center of Front Street along the river, since county and town government typically required separate public accommodation at the urban scale. A literary society was chartered by the leading citizens in 1824 and a theatrical society in the 1830s. The town’s small scale is shown by the provision of a single church (Catholic). There were two banks, two hotels, and a growing roster of lawyers and doctors.

Most American towns in the earliest periods existed to provide lots to house the commercial and mechanical trades who served the surrounding countryside and the parish's (or county's) non-farming professionals (lawyers, doctors, and officials), whose activities were best served by a central urban location. As industry grew in scale and scope, many of these activities were also housed on peripheral tracts associated with the town. Most of the commercial buildings were at first located along the river on Front Street. Many of these undoubtedly took the form of the basic building of Federal-period American urbanism, the house/store, in which the owner lived above his shop.

The original quarter-acre lots were subdivided as required into narrow strips as needed to form commercial building sites. John Casson, a local leader, donated a tract of land to the west of town to house an educational institution. The College of Rapides, an academy, was built on that tract and funded, at considerable cost, to provide education to the region’s youth.

The town’s promise was reinforced when, in 1837, the Red River Railroad, the first rail line west of the Mississippi, was extended from Alexandria’s courthouse square to towns and plantations in the rich Bayou Beouf region. By mid-century, the improving economic climate brought new architecture and urban ideas. Alexandria’s population doubled from 1850 to 1860, when it numbered over 1,500. A new courthouse, with iron columns, was built in 1859. A new city hall and a library building were built in the same decade. By this date, there were three hotels, three banks, and three churches (Catholic, Episcopalian, and Methodist).

The city was part of a new national emphasis on the heritage of democracy among the Greeks. The new buildings were part of the confident building of civic buildings utilizing details and forms associated with the Greek Revival movement. During this era concepts of hygiene were emphasized and public lands and streets tended to be more carefully tended and planted than formerly.

Part Two to follow

No comments:

Post a Comment