In Louisiana’s heartland, where rivers writhe around each other like watery snakes, sits the town of Natchitoches (pronounced nak-a-tish), population 18,270. The oldest municipality in the state, it was founded by the French in 1714 as a fort to stem the tide of Spanish settlers; its buildings front the Cane River Lake with porches and verandas reminiscent of New Orleans’s French Quarter. Almost every structure—homes and businesses alike—is a picture-postcard version of antebellum grace. And now, in the middle of all this, sits a 28,000-square-foot, two-story box, with copper cladding that swirls around its sides and reaches out toward the lake to become an abstracted version of those shaded porches. Within, the building houses the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum. Designed by New Orleans–based architect Trey Trahan, FAIA, it is as surprising for its Modernism in the historic context of Natchitoches, as Natchitoches is an oasis of urbanity in one of the poorest regions of the United States.
The project’s anchor is the Sports Hall of Fame. As Sam Rykels, the former director of the Louisiana State Museum, who helped initiate the project, puts it: “The people who run the Hall of Fame are the journalists who have had inductions there for over half a century, and they have powerful voices in every media outlet in the state.” When Rykels proposed combining a permanent display for the organization with a museum that would highlight local history, state funds became readily available. “Sports are grassroots here, that’s why people are so fanatical about them,” Rykels says. “They even light bonfires around the basketball courts when they don’t have lights.”
Athletics provide an important route to success for many of the region’s young people, as Rykels’s successor, Mark Tullos, points out: “It is their way up and out.” Tullos claims that close to half the parish’s adults have never left the state, and therefore the Sports Hall of Fame is also a way to bring the world to Natchitoches. “Most of the kids here have never been to a museum,” he explains, “and we believe that sports will get them—and the tourists—into this building.”
After the state decided to fund the $12.6 million cost of the building’s construction in 2007, Tullos gained access to a list of architects who had done other designs for the state. Trahan had created several sports facilities for Louisiana’s educational institutions, and seemed to Rykels and his colleagues to be a logical choice. Once Trahan obtained the commission, however, he opted for a different approach than he had used previously. He felt he had to push himself, both because of the site and the program, but also because, as he says, “I was bored with designing cast-in-place concrete churches and stadia.”
Trahan grew up in the small Louisiana town of Crowley, where he would “go playing in the bayou behind the house,” he says. “It was dry, but periodically it would flood. Only later did I realize what an impact that had on me, and how important the water of the rivers and the Gulf are for Louisiana.” He decided to marry his sense of the importance of water with his developing fascination with complex geometries by making the building’s core a cast-stone, computer-milled interpretation of those sinewy watercourses. The form also responds to the deformations of the urban grid at the site, where the commercial core of Natchitoches gives way to a residential neighborhood.
To house this expressive shape, which forms the building’s main circulation space, Trahan designed a container whose simplicity aims to recede next to the surrounding historic structures. While he explored more elaborate trellises for the entrance front, he felt that the building had to respond to, not mimic, the existing street façades. “We had seven community meetings in which we showed important buildings in historic contexts, and made it clear that the best ones did not try to hide themselves. Eventually, we convinced the town,” Trahan says. The people who didn’t need convincing were the clients, who were in favor of a contemporary approach from the beginning. “What you get is a modern interpretation of the historic fabric on the outside,” Rykels says, “and then on the inside you get the wow.”
Trahan fitted the program on a lot that is set back from the main commercial frontage which faces the river. He then wrapped this steel structure with a white stucco façade over which he stretched the thin copper strips. The hope is that these will oxidize and mottle “in unpredictable ways, so you get a lot of variation,” he says. Approaching the colors of the painted metalwork, wood, and earth-toned stucco of the surrounding structures, the twists in the copper strips evoke river flows while also shading interior openings. In the front, the façade projects out toward the river, protecting a small balcony overlooking the water while acting as a signboard for the museum. Though this cultural building is slightly larger than the surrounding commercial ones, its reserve—as well as its setback—give it a sense of deferential modesty, especially in comparison with the decorative balconies and other flourishes of some of the more flamboyant storefronts on the lakefront strip.
You enter the museum through a maw where the façade dips back and in, moving past a set of glass doors and into a modest lobby area that houses the requisite gift shop and control areas. While the Sports Hall of Fame has galleries that are immediately accessible on this level, the exuberance of the cast-stone staircase draws you in and up toward the second-floor galleries, where the continuation of the Sports Hall of Fame and the historical displays blend in to each other. A skylight helps, but it is the curves themselves that lead you to the second floor—they race ahead of you, lapping around each other and the stair, and flow with a sophistication that is unusual for built examples of complex geometries.
This is, in part, a result of an ingenious system of fastenings that clip to the back of the panels and in to the supporting structure; during installation, each one of the 1,100 cast-stone pieces—no two of which are alike, and some of which are up to 5 inches thick—had to slide by each other like an organic puzzle. As they did, their weight slightly deformed the steel frame, causing the task of installation to be an exacting one. Still, Trahan is proud of the fact that he was able to create the building for $430 per square foot—a fact that shows only in the plainness of the black box interiors that house some of the exhibits. Those fairly straightforward displays, by Virginia-based Explus, cost $2 million.
A major reason for the success of the sculptural circulation is Trahan’s
obsession with this project, which is so unlike his usual work. Though
the building has some discordant notes—such as the harsh, fluorescent
lights mounted diagonally on the ceiling and walls around the central
staircase and the stair’s handrails—it is convincing as a singular piece
that marries contextual evocation with form-based seduction. “Not
everybody will see the connection to the river and town, but then our
docents and staff will have a chance to introduce them to a new
language,” Tullos says. If all of this works, the Louisiana Sports Hall
of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum will draw the community
into their new, and only, cultural anchor. Visitors may come for the
sports, and by moving up and through this remarkable piece of
architecture, they will be exposed to new interpretations of the area’s
past, and future. Trahan remembers one high-schooler, a first-time
museumgoer, exclaiming upon entering the facility, “There is no other
building like this in the world.” —Aaron Betsky