Baton Rouge lost one of its architectural gems earlier this month. You probably didn’t hear about it. Not many people did.
Issues related to historic preservation don’t generate a whole lot of buzz in this community.
But you probably passed the structure often, even if you didn’t particularly notice it, because it was located on the busy S. Acadian Thruway, just north of Interstate 10.
A quick glance by an untrained eye might have found the structure to be rather unremarkable, if not outdated. It was an example of Mid-Century Modern architecture, which has a limited appeal in a town with pedestrian tastes that tend to favor quaint Acadiana-style homes and garish Mediterranean McMansions.
But to anyone who knew, this classic ranch-style home was special—not only because it showcased with understated elegance the elements of the last truly vernacular style of American architecture, but because it had a story: Built in 1957, it was the home of C.B. “Doc” Pennington, the optometrist-turned-oil tycoon, who was the richest man in Louisiana at the time of his death in 1999, and whose fortune endowed a generous foundation and the world-renowned biomedical research center on Perkins Road that bears his name.
It always seemed somewhat remarkable to me that a man of Pennington’s means lived in a home that didn’t drip with pretension. But then, that was one of the characteristics of the home that made it so appealing. It was a testament to a man who didn’t spend his money on flash and glam to impress. He spent it on things that matter.
Not that this home was shabby. On the contrary, it sat on an expansive lot of more than two acres, set far back from the street, with lush live oaks, shady elms and leafy magnolias that partially obscured its wide circular drive, brick façade, huge glass picture windows and red tiled roof. It was also much larger than it appeared from the street—more than 5,000 square feet—with a swimming pool in the rear.
As it turns out, Pennington’s family made the call to raze the old house. Doc Pennington’s great granddaughter, local real estate agent Paige Pennington, owns the property and applied for the demolition permit. Broker Gloria Carter, with whom Pennington works, says Pennington is exploring options for redevelopment that might include an office park or low-density residential use.
“It’ll be nice whatever they do,” Carter says. “I promise.”
One cannot blame Pennington for making what was no doubt a difficult decision. Restoring or renovating the home, which was used by family members as an office for the past several years, would have been costly, perhaps prohibitively so.
The driving force behind real estate is to always seek the highest and best use for a property. But it’s unfortunate that the term—highest and best use—is meant only in a financial sense, not in the sense of what would most enrich the social and cultural fabric of a community.
Which is what a structure like the old Pennington home did. It was a pristine example of Mid-Century Modern architecture, a uniquely American style that doesn’t have the widespread appeal, perhaps, of Victorian-era townhomes or craftsman-style bungalows, but is no less historically significant. As such, it added to the diversity of Baton Rouge’s visual landscape and enhanced its sense of place.
This is no small thing. Sense of place has become a key element in the development of communities. The more authentic and unique the better. It’s an intangible quality but it’s very real and it factors into decisions about where companies and creative class professionals locate.
Every place has gated communities with zero-lot-line “estate” homes. Only Baton Rouge had the Pennington home.
Not that Baton Rouge has much appreciation for even the more charming styles of historic architecture. You may remember the hard-fought battles of the early 2000s to create the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. It oversees the city’s historic districts, which number just two—Spanish Town and Dreher Place. Other neighborhoods considered becoming historic districts but ultimately didn’t want government telling them what they could and couldn’t do.
LSU architecture professor and historic preservation expert Michael Desmond—son of Baton Rouge’s best known Mid-Century Modern architect, the late John Desmond—says the issue is deeply rooted in the local culture, which has demonstrated, time and again, an aversion to thoughtful planning, development and preservation.
“There is no citywide protection of these kinds of structures here,” he says. “Part of it is no appreciation for Mid-Century Modern, but part of it is there is no sense of community identity.”
Perhaps the best hope is legislation that will incentivize the preservation of historic homes. Until recently, the state had a historic building tax credit for residential properties. But it was a casualty of legislative belt tightening several years ago.
Fairleigh Jackson, executive director of Baton Rouge-based Preserve Louisiana, hopes to bring a bill to the Legislature that would restore the program. But that likely won’t happen until 2020. Her organization’s efforts this year will focus instead on extending the sunset provision of the more impactful commercial tax credit program, which expires in 2021.
Whether a state tax incentive will make it that much more financially attractive to restore a historic home is debatable. But it certainly won’t hurt, and as Jackson points out, “without the incentive there’s really no incentive for anyone to save these structures, unless they just love historic preservation.”