Walking through history

Downtown Baton Rouge has a handful of interesting historic buildings and many modern ones, but only recently have preservationists turned their attention to its mid-century modern buildings.

In the past few years, post-World War II buildings have become an important area of study among preservationists and historians. With their simplicity, sleekness and strong lines, the buildings conveyed a feeling of American optimism following the war.

On Tuesday, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana will pay tribute to downtown Baton Rouge’s most distinctive post-World War II buildings at “Mid-Century Modern and Cocktails,” a walking tour led by John Sykes, director of BREC’s Magnolia Mound Plantation and an expert on Baton Rouge history. The event will celebrate National Preservation Month.

Baton Rouge of the 1950s was a booming city with a bustling downtown and modern air-conditioned buildings going up on almost every block.

“During World War II, Baton Rouge benefited greatly from increased wartime production,” Sykes said. “Standard Oil was a major supplier of jet fuel and a new synthetic rubber. The growth of these industries created a thriving growing economy that continued to expand during the post-war 1950s.”

The new petrochemical industry also brought money and a tremendous influx of people to the area.

“The city’s population of 153,100 in 1956 had increased a whopping 340 percent from the 34,719 residents recorded in 1940,” Sykes said “Amazing changes were happening for us in the ’50s.”

Downtown was the business center for the expanding economy. In less than a decade, many of the old downtown homes were torn down to make way for modern commercial buildings.

“At the time, the buildings being built downtown were the center of everything for Baton Rouge,” Sykes said. “Hometown talent created them — Ralph Bodman, Dick Murrell, Hays Town, John Wilson, Robert Coleman and John Desmond — but they were influenced by major trends going on.”

Sykes has selected a number of the surviving mid-century modern buildings for the tour, which will begin at the Old Governor’s Mansion. Although many are no longer in good condition, their fine architectural elements remain and all have potential to be updated and repurposed.

“They’re past the 50-year mark, which means some of these buildings are eligible for state and federal preservation tax credits,” Sykes said. “Currently the tax program is very significant providing up to 45 percent in credits for preservation.”

The four-story brick and steel Gulf States Utilities Building, still in use by Entergy, is the first building on the tour. Located at the corner of North Boulevard and St. Charles Street, it was designed by Bodman & Murrell & Smith Architects and built in 1955 at a cost of almost $600,000.

A State-Times article reported that the building was designed for Gulf States’ need for more operating space in response to “substantial and consistent increases in population, with its accompanying demand for electric and gas service in this area.”

The old Baton Rouge Savings & Loan Association Building, which is now vacant, was the first commercial building to move eastward into the North Boulevard residential district, Sykes said. A newspaper account of the opening in April 1955 said the architects “have culled the very latest developments from the world of architecture and transplanted these ideas into brick, stone, steel, concrete, marble and granite — a veritable financier’s dream house in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge.”

A drive-through window allowed for transactions that were said to take no more than 30 to 45 seconds. “Mothers may bring their small children with them and never worry about dressing up or about finding a place to park,” the State-Times reported.

The building features a large clock on the upper floors of the St. Ferdinand side of the building and a bas relief on the North Boulevard side. It shows a young mother holding a baby as she watches carpenters building the family home.

“This provides a visual clue to the building’s original purpose,” Sykes said.

Two very distinct buildings show some of the more modern designs of internationally recognized architect A. Hays Town. The Rider’s Building at Third and Convention streets and the Union Federal Savings and Loan Association Building at Fifth and Laurel streets were both built in 1955 and show a different side of Town, who came to be known more for buildings incorporating elements of 18th-century architecture.

The Rider’s Building was home to one of the area’s most elegant jewelry stores, which sold the finest brands of china, silver and crystal.

“The new $250,000 building included an interior without partitions with an unobstructed interior view of the store,” Sykes said.

The building is faced with Alabama marble and was designed to accommodate a second story that was never added.

The Union Federal Building housed the savings and loan company on the bottom two floors and offices on the four upper floors, all air-conditioned with individual thermostats. The west side of the building featured a five-story wall of Alabama marble.

“The building also boasted such modern conveniences as pneumatic tube inter-office communications and a file lift to move office files between floors,” Sykes said. “And in a nod to the changing times, a parking lot for 20 to 30 cars was considered ample.”

The Liggett Drug Store at Third and Florida streets launched the birth of a new style of drug store merchandising, Sykes said.

“Billed as ‘the South’s largest self-service drug store,’ the new store allowed consumers to shop open aisles and examine products themselves,” he said.

At a cost of $300,000, the new store, which opened in 1951, featured air-conditioning, three checkout stations for quick service and a two-way conveyor belt from the stockroom. A neon rooftop Coca-Cola sign, added by 1960, welcomed Third Street customers to the store’s well-patronized soda fountain.

The tour will also feature walk-bys at the St. James Masonic Lodge at Third and Convention streets, the Commerce Building at Third and Laurel streets, Fidelity National Bank on North Third Street and the Capitol House on Lafayette Street.

As indicative as these buildings are of the post-war growth of downtown Baton Rouge, at the time they were being built, the centers of population and commerce were rapidly expanding to the suburbs. This movement, along with the rise of the two-car family, led to the near death of downtown.

“The irony of the buildings of the ’50s is that while they were being built, in ’53 and ’54, the first shopping centers, Westmoreland Village and Delmont Village, were also being built,” Sykes said.