DONALDSONVILLE — The trim, elegant building at the corner of Railroad Avenue and Claiborne Street is known as the Sam Mistretta Store, for the corner grocery store it housed from the 1940s to the 1990s, but its history goes back a century before that.

Its colorful past includes its use as a Civil War infirmary, then a saloon and bordello, before becoming a neighborhood mainstay as a grocer's from 1944 to 1991.

Chef John Folse and his wife, Laurie Folse, purchased the then-vacant building in the early 2000s and in 2014 donated it to the Donaldsonville Downtown Development District.

There are hopes to restore the building, constructed in 1851, to a new purpose, and the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation has taken notice. 

This month, the nonprofit organization named the Sam Mistretta Store as one of the state's 10 most endangered places, in an effort to draw attention to the importance of those community jewels.

"Historic sites are fingerprints of our community," Brian Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, said at an event held Nov. 15 in the Sam Mistretta building to announce this year's endangered historic places.

The list is made each year, Davis said, from community nominations and aims to "attract creative approaches and resources to see the sites saved and rehabilitated."

The Donaldsonville Downtown Development District, with the help of the Donaldsonville Area Foundation, is working to reopen the Sam Mistretta building as the Donaldsonville General Store and Museum.

The front interior of the building would have the look of an old-fashioned general store — selling arts and crafts and Donaldsonville souvenirs — and the back of the space would house permanent and temporary museum exhibits, said Lee Melancon, the city's director of community and economic development.

Through grants and volunteer labor, one part of the project has been completed, with the stabilization of wooden boards that had begun deteriorating on an exterior wall of the building, Melancon said. 

Future phases will involve the opening of the first floor, then the second floor, work that will include installing bathrooms on each floor, and bringing electricity, heating and air and plumbing to the old-time structure. 

Melancon said the total cost of that work will be approximately $120,000.

"The volunteer efforts have been an incredible labor of love," Melancon said. "You have to be in the building every week to see the progress, but patience will pay off." 

"I think that's what we're all working for, to preserve Main Street America," he said.

Other sites on the 2019 list of Louisiana's most endangered places are:

  • Antioch Baptist Church, 1903, Shreveport
  • Autrey House, 1848, Dubach
  • Bank of Pollock, 1909, Pollock
  • Kisatchie High School, 1920-22, Provencal
  • Martin Gin, 1903, Minden
  • National Hotel, 1907, Leesville
  • Old Doxey House, 1843, Grand Chenier
  • Prince Hall Masonic Temple, 1924, Baton Rouge
  • Union Church, 1902, St. Joseph 

Email Ellyn Couvillion at ecouvillion@theadvocate.com.