Only a handful of the early members of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana are still around to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary this November, but their children and grandchildren remember the efforts of these preservation pioneers, led by a young man of 19, the late Edward Overton Perkins.
The foundation will mark the historic anniversary with its “Golden Year, Golden Party” gala on Nov. 13 at the Old Governor’s Mansion, the foundation’s headquarters.
Perkins, the foundation’s first president, acquired an interest in historical preservation from his parents, Peggy and Verdie Reece Perkins.
“My mother loved family, heritage and old houses,” said Peggy Perkins David, Overton Perkins’ sister. “My mother told stories. My brother absorbed the stories like a sponge.”
In a 1963 interview in The Advocate, Overton Perkins explained what piqued his interest in preservation.
“I’ll never forget seeing Belle Grove, that beautiful old place across the river, which is gone now,” he said. “I was 6 years old when we visited Belle Grove, but it is something I’ll remember always.”
The foundation’s early organizers met at Longwood Plantation, home of Alma and Roger Fritchie, on Nov. 13, 1963, to sign the charter. They made a commitment to save what they could of Baton Rouge’s heritage.
“The historical and cultural places and places of natural beauty must be preserved,” Overton Perkins told the group back then. “We have almost waited too late.”
The anniversary celebration will honor past presidents and the original incorporators — Imo Brown, Alma Fritchie, Elizabeth Hynes, Kitty Owen, Peggy Perkins, Miriam Reeves, Maurine Richardson, Sue Spaht, Byrne Womack and Overton Perkins.
“Peggy (Perkins) was the backbone of the organization,” said Spaht, 95, the only living incorporator. “We would meet in people’s houses and talk about old times. We toured old houses and tried to save everything we could.”
Magnolia Mound was the foundation’s first success.
Behind a screen of weeds and trees that blocked the view from Nicholson Drive, vandals and neglect had done massive damage to the historic home that dates to the 1790s.
Anna Belle Hart Anderson, who lived in the Hart House at the back of the property, sold Magnolia Mound to Al German, a developer from Midland, Texas. His plan was to tear down the house and build a high-rise apartment building.
“In order to build the apartments, German needed the zoning changed from residential to multi-purpose,” the late Elise Rosenthal said in a 1999 Advocate interview. “Concerned citizens and the fledgling Foundation for Historical Louisiana saved the home by convincing the City Council not to rezone the property.”
In a combined effort with the city-parish, Mayor W.W. “Woody” Dumas and BREC and with a Housing and Urban Development open space grant, the new owners were paid off and the property was expropriated for a BREC park with the foundation overseeing the restoration of the historic home.
In the foundation’s early years, the late Fairfax Foster Bailey gave the organization the use of her family’s historic house on North Boulevard. Later her three children, Jim Bailey, Foster Bailey and Virginia Bailey Noland, donated the property to the foundation in memory of their parents.
The Bailey House remained headquarters for the foundation until 1998, when the foundation moved to the Old Governor’s Mansion under a state cooperative endeavor agreement, said Carolyn Bennett, who has served for almost 39 years as the foundation’s executive director.
The foundation sold the Bailey House, which is now owned by First United Methodist Church. Bennett recalls some of the organization’s early leaders including the late Veda Norfolk, who instituted the house-marking program and worked to establish a certified sightseeing service for Baton Rouge.
“In 1976, she started the foundation’s Preservation Awards, which are so prestigious, even to today,” Bennett said.
Bennett worked for many years with the late Evelyn Thom, the foundation’s second president, who almost single-handedly saved Historic Highland Cemetery. Bennett valued the advice of the late Robert Heck, a distinguished architecture professor at LSU, and attorney Robert Hodges, who restored one of Baton Rouge’s earliest houses.
In recent years, the foundation has focused its efforts on education outreach through workshops, heritage lectures and tours and in its advocacy and stewardship endeavors. Through these efforts, the foundation has worked to save the City Park golf course, the Heidelberg Hotel, the Pentagon Barracks, the Old Arsenal Museum and the Kress and Welsh and Levy buildings, to name a few.
Bennett enjoys going through the scrapbooks and files from the early years of the foundation. She has a great respect for what the founders set out to do.
“From what I have sampled, the folks were so wise in how they created this organization,” she said. “The goals are still current today.”