Laying it down

Tara Vantimmeren / October 21, 2008

In 1956, the all-brick Front Street in downtown Natchitoches, the oldest permanent settlement in Louisiana and the Louisiana Purchase territory, was scheduled to be asphalted over. A group of determined women was not about to let that happen to the historic street.

The group, which was probably the beginnings of the Association of the Preservation for Historic Natchitoches, laid down in the road to prevent the asphalting from taking place, Liz Davoli, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) environmental impact specialist, told Roads & Bridges.

“They wanted to preserve the street as part of the historic fabric of Natchitoches,” Davoli said. “It had gone to the point where it was going to be under construction—this was the final way they could think of to protest.”

Over 50 years after the protest—and four years after a 2004 re-enactment to celebrate the 100th birthday of Front Street—the historic aspect of the road is just as important to residents. When it was clear that the road needed to be improved, it was decided that the historic bricks would be kept—even at a painstaking cost.

“This is something that’s very precious to the community and they really strongly wanted the historic bricks back,” LaDOTD Transportation Enhancement Manager Valerie Horton told Roads & Bridges.

Everything was removed, including the sub-base. LaDOTD is putting in a concrete foundation with sand and then the bricks on top. The bricks will no longer be used structurally as they were prior to construction, where there was not a layer of concrete—just a sand base with bricks on top.

“We made the decision that if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right, so that the next person who comes along—hopefully 100 years from now—will have a basis; we can preserve these bricks,” Horton said. “They really didn’t have any foundation underneath them.”

The biggest challenge of the project was the memorandum of agreement (MOA) that was developed, Horton said. The MOA was signed by 11 organizations and included 20 stipulations, 15 of which specifically addressed the bricks. The new bricks could be blended with old, but as one of the requirements, the difference had to be apparent.

“All the bricks removed during construction had to be done by hand,” Horton said. “Any we recovered that were structurally sound had to be reused in the paving.”

LaDOTD also had to replicate the original diamond-shape pattern at the intersection, had to show the seam between the original 1904 brick paving and the circa-1927 brick paving that was done and had to provide archaeological consultants for construction monitoring.

“This was one of the most challenging projects that we’ve ever had,” Horton said. “But we wanted to do it right so everyone would be satisfied and we wouldn’t have to touch it for another 100 years.”

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