OPELOUSAS — A small preservationist group is concerned about funding to correct structural problems at a former plantation home considered the oldest building in St. Landry Parish still on its original location.
Surrounded now by a modern medical complex and dwarfed by adjacent buildings on a half-acre property in the northern part of Opelousas, the Michel Prudhomme home is a “hidden historic treasure,” says James Douget, a member of the St. Landry Preservationist Society.
Built in the late 1790’s, according to Douget’s research, the Prudhomme home, constructed of cypress and oak, features a mud brick interior and a steeply-pitched roof characteristic of residences built during that era.
It once commanded a dominant presence during Opelousas’ formative days, as Prudhomme became a wealthy and prodigious landowner, Douget said.
Prudhomme, Douget said, also donated portions of the surrounding property for St. Landry Parish Catholic Church and the adjoining church cemetery, where he is buried.
The preservationist society, which has nonprofit status, became active in 1976 and acquired the home through a land swap after it was threatened with demolition during a period of Opelousas General Hospital expansion.
Since then the group has maintained the home and made renovations through the donations, annual memberships and fundraisers, Douget said.
Maintaining a home Douget considers to be at least 225-years-old isn’t easy, considering the funding the preservationists secure annually, he said.
Douget said the home’s most serious structural problem is the deterioration of one of the exterior supporting cypress columns, which extend from the slate roof downward to the second-story gallery.
The column is rotting and collapsing. That presents a major issue, since it acts as both a roof support and a buttress for the gallery, Douget said.
“There are other matters, but the beam and the gallery, that’s the biggest concern,” he said.
Douget said the annual membership drives and donations are inadequate to fund the project. The estimated $5,000 cost includes fabricating a new cypress beam and repairing the sagging gallery.
“What we have right now is a real problem with the home. The beam supporting the front gallery has to be fixed. If not, you also destroy the gallery, which is on the verge of collapse,” said Douget.
Douget said the preservationists have solicited help from contractors and builders who have indicated they would be interested in making repairs.
So far none of them has responded with an effort to make repairs, he said.
Melanie Lebouef, Opelousas director of tourism, said the Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance last year expanding the city’s historic district to include the Michel Prudhomme home.
The district extension was purposely done to include the home and the St. Landry Catholic Church, in order to allow them to apply for state and federal tax credits that could assist any renovation projects.
Lebouef said proposed repairs for the home, which has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, should qualify for state tax credits and grant funding under the Save Our Treasures program.
That program, Lebouef said, allows nonprofit groups to apply for either grants or tax credits to maintain homes that are significant in their architecture and presence to an area.
Douget said the home has played a prominent part in St. Landry’s history.
Several months following the 1804 Louisiana Purchase, in which France sold a sizable portion of land to the U.S., the Prudhomme home was used as a meeting place when Opelousas post commanders submitted documents written in French and Spanish which were handed over to American representatives.
The home was also important during the Civil War, when Union soldiers occupied Opelousas, Douget said.
“Union officers who lived in the home then, stood on the same second-story balcony and used it as an observation post. They could also look out from that point and see the numerous troops that were camped out on the grounds around the house and near the church,” said Douget.
Several families have lived in the home since it was built, but it has been unoccupied for about 45 years, he said.
Douget said he has purposely tried to interest youngsters in either joining the preservationists or having them learn about the Prudhomme home.
“The house is still about 95 percent original and I’ve had tours for scouts’ troops and school groups. Architectural students from LSU have come to the home to look at the Norman truss in the attic and they are amazed at what they see,” Douget said.