CROWLEY — For years the building at the corner of Fifth and Parkerson streets in downtown Crowley housed a number of businesses on the bottom floor.
But tucked away sat the Grand, an opera house that first opened in 1901 and was the place where Babe Ruth, Clark Gable, Huey Long and Madame de Vilchez-Bizzet of the Paris Opera once made appearances. Once it closed 39 years later, it sat virtually untouched for decades.
It stayed that way until businessman L.J. Gielen purchased the Opera House in 1999 and restored it from what once was a decaying relic into a centerpiece of revitalized Crowley.
The Grand Opera House of the South, as it is now called, is the crown jewel of downtown Crowley and what ignited revitalization in the historic Acadia Parish city that’s become a major tourist attraction in southwest Louisiana.
“My wife loves to restore old things and salvage them,” said Gielen, a lifelong Crowley resident. “We decided to buy Dixie Hardware (downstairs) with intentions of running the hardware store and running the Opera House on the second floor.
“Most of the people who lived here had forgotten about the Opera House. It was a jewel, and we thought if we could renovate it, we could bring back the arts to downtown Crowley.”
The Grand has undergone $4.5 million in renovations under Gielen and his family after reopening in 2008. It is now in its 11th season of productions. Gielen said he loves seeing the enjoyment on people’s faces as the Opera House has become a hub for gatherings in Crowley.
“I think it was the catalyst to helping downtown begin the renovations,” Gielen said, “It isn’t complete yet, but it is beautiful and has turned into more than just performing arts. It is a gathering place for meetings, weddings and banquets. It is the center for entertainment in Crowley.”
Acadia Parish Chamber of Commerce director Amy Thibodeaux and her husband, Brandon, were the first to be married there in 2009. Thibodeaux said the extensive attention to detail the Gielen family took to renovate the Opera House is what makes it so spectacular.
“I’ve now been on numerous tours, and each time I learn something new or another story about the process they went through,” Thibodeaux said. “The stairwell, the curtains, the seating, the floors — it all feels original. Walking through the completed building, I envision the ladies walking up the stairwell, arm in arm with their gentlemen, dressed in their best to see a performance.
“Nearly every time I enter the room, I get chills thinking about the history of who has been through the building and soaking up the beauty of the space. It transports you to a place that feels much more than small-town Crowley, Louisiana.”
Business and activity has come back downtown in a city that’s more known for its rice farms and its connection to political history. Four-term governor Edwin Edwards, former U.S. John Breaux, former Congressman Christ John and longtime judge and political activist Edmund Reggie all have ties to Crowley.
Downtown is now home to 72 businesses and about 180 jobs, Crowley Main Street director Connie John said. Seven businesses opened in that last quarter of 2018, and the area is about 85 percent occupied with renovations planned for two major buildings.
Efforts began about 10 years ago with sidewalk and streetscape renovations, which were initiated under Mayor Isabella de la Houssaye and set into motion under Mayor Greg Jones in 2008. After the project was completed in about a year, Thibodeaux said it took a while to see businesses slowly moving back in.
“Since then, we’ve really seen a transformation,” said Thibodeaux, who has been with the chamber since 2010.
“Not only was the streetscape complete, but other buildings have continually been renovated. While taking advantage of tax credits and grants, one building at a time has gone from old and outdated to vibrant and fresh, while maintaining the charm and character of a historic building.”
Chad Monceaux, a 25-year veteran of the Crowley Fire Department and lifelong Crowley resident, said he experienced a sense of excitement witnessing the once-deteriorated downtown district undergo these changes.
“Downtown had died off and most of the buildings were in disrepair,” said Monceaux, who has owned City Bar of Crowley since 2015. “A lot of the building owners didn't see a vision nor the need to repair and revitalize their property. Thankfully, we have a few businessmen in Crowley who recently purchased a few more and have been doing some great work bringing them back to life to make them look good.”
According to Monceaux, the biggest challenge might be awareness. There seems to be a lack of knowledge as to what downtown has to offer, and he also thinks residential development will help downtown grow significantly.
“We have some nice retail spots, but I don’t think people really know what we have downtown,” Monceaux said. “If you ask someone what they have in Boutique Forty-Six or Puddles and Lace, they probably won’t know. They would be surprised at what is in there and the quality of people that own those places.”
Activity of late has left only a few buildings in need of renovation, Thibodeaux said. The next step for downtown would be for the city’s new administration to look at Phase 2 of the project.
“Phase 2 would be the final step in completing the streetscape from Second Street south to the railroad tracks,” Thibodeaux said. “This part of downtown still has the concrete medians and old sidewalks. The plans were made in the original streetscape, but few steps have been taken to further this part of the project.”
Said Monceaux: “We need to get people excited about our city and the city they live in. Years back, we had a slogan: ‘Crowley Pride.’ It died off, but we need to push that again. We need to make sure that people are proud of this city — and we have a lot to be proud of.”