Ethel Park is a new community pocket park in the historic town of Washington, Louisiana. It is also a happy ending to what could have been a sad story for place lovers. Ethel Park is a formerly vacant lot donated to the town for the purpose of creating a community green space. With features like native plants, scattered benches, a pergola, sugar-kettle water feature, Little Library, and children’s corner, this small swatch of tranquility in the middle of town is the result of two years of volunteer labor, generous donations and grants, and a whole lotta community love.
Where does Law of Place fit in? For that, we go back to approximately 1830, when steamboat captain Michel Galland built his small cypress cottage on the lot that would become Ethel Park nearly 200 years later. Though staking claim as Louisiana’s third oldest town (founded in 1720), Washington made its name in the early nineteenth century as a steamboat town due to its location on Bayou Courtableau. In 1848 Captain George Haygood dredged a turning basin to allow steamboats to turn around and head back downstream after delivering passengers and cargo. The town thus thrived, fed by the people of the boats and the resulting industry, until 1900, when the railroad displaced steamboat as the go-to transportation. Captain Haygood’s steamboat turnaround and numerous historic homes and buildings of the steamboat era remain and are worthy eye candy for a stroll through town.
In 1978, Washington was designated as a National Historic District. In 2007 the town adopted a Historical and Preservation Ordinance, which was and is implemented and enforced by the Historic District Commission. This structure is similar in substance and scope to most other historic preservation schemes, though the details of each code varies. Most historic ordinances provide for oversight by a commission, define the historic district to which its provisions apply, and set forth procedures for obtaining a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA). The COA is essentially the permit to proceed with the modification, addition, etc. of the historic district property.
The idea of a historic preservation ordinance is to protect a place’s historic assets such as by limiting modifications of buildings to those which do not destroy the historic integrity of the building and/or district. Modifications and–dare I say it–demolitions require special permission from the historic commission after an application and hearing process. Failure to abide by the ordinance could result in penalties. (Check out an earlier post regarding how these penalties help preserve our places.)
In about 2018, the owner of the Michel Galland house wanted to sell it, but, the town being in the valley of an economic crisis, no one was buying. Then along came an old house lover who wanted to buy it. The problem was he only wanted the old house. In accordance with the mandates of the historic ordinance, Mr. Buyer and/or the seller applied to the Historic Commission for a COA to move the house from the property. But, contrary to the mandates of the historic ordinance, the Historic Commission failed to take any action. Under the ordinance, failure by the Commission to reach a decision within 10 days of the filing of the application for COA is considered approval. Thus, Mr. Buyer’s application was implicitly approved, and, sadly, the little steamboat captain’s cottage was allowed to be moved from its original home, leaving a trash-filled, overgrown vacant lot.
The happy ending, of course, is that very generous donors purchased the vacant lot and donated it to the town for the creation of a community park. The moral, of course, is a caution to use your town’s historic ordinance and commission as a means of protecting its historic assets. Ignorance of its provisions defeats the purpose of these special historic preservation tools.
Washington is special place for its history steeped in steamboat-era lore and its romantic bayou scenes. It is a fitting setting for place-centered historic mysteries.