Lemann Building

Historic Spaces that Deploy Contemporary Learning Methods: Lessons from Donaldsonville

October 18, 2022

A History of the Lemann Building

More often than not, a general store performs as the epicenter of a community – a gathering place to purchase products, produce, and supplies for the coming days. But also, to congregate, gossip, and have a place to meet. In its most basic function, a good general store functions as a steward to the neighborhood it serves. The Lemann Building has been that lighthouse for the City of Donaldsonville for more than 150 years.

Donaldsonville has seen the Lemann Building, built in 1872 and designed by famed architect James Freret, occupied and vacant – its nuanced history mimics the city it calls home. Positioned between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Donaldsonville was once part of a heavily trafficked trading route. When river parishes were commerce hubs, Donaldsonville boomed, and a diverse group of people called it home. Its pivotal location along the Mississippi River’s fertile Westbank allowed it to briefly become the capital of Louisiana – a consequence of a dispute between Anglo-Americans in the northern part of the State and the French Creole populace in New Orleans.

Since the introduction of mechanized agriculture at the turn of the 20th century, Donaldsonville has seen a steady decrease in its population. As of 2020, the population of Donaldsonville, the seat of Ascension Parish, was 8,424, with a poverty rate of 45.2%, which is 33.8% higher than the national rate in the United States.

Donaldsonville Facade

Donaldsonville's Legacy of Black Leadership

The City of Donaldsonville has a legacy of Black leadership and was the first in the United States to have a Black mayor — Mayor Pierre Caliste Landry. Born into slavery, Mayor Landry would serve as Justice of the Peace, Ascension Parish School Board member, and Superintendent of Schools. In 1870 he was elected President of the Police Jury and an appointed Tax Collector for his town. Two years later, Landry was appointed Postmaster by President Ulysses S. Grant and elected to the State House of Representatives.

As the City and the South have evolved, through Jim Crow and the repeated injustices Black people face, there has been a legacy of reform – championed by the very leaders that the City has produced. Today Donaldsonville is led by Mayor Leroy J. Sullivan, Sr., and his platform champions infrastructure and public education programs – the latter of which has focused heavily on the revitalization of the historic Lemann Building.

Abundant Architectural Styles

Like so many once-booming river cities, Donaldsonville retains numerous architectural influences and styles. Following the pattern of Louisiana’s delta, the Lemann Buildings’ columns fan out into a cast-iron lacework, its shadow parodying the wetlands along its stucco walls. The building stock ranges from Victorian to Antebellum to Federal, denoting the moments when resources were plentiful and innovation was at the forefront of civic leaders’ minds.

Site Description

As you drive northwest on Highway 18, otherwise known as Mississippi Street, the route snakes through the side of town that is buttressed by the Mississippi River’s levee.

On the northern side of the building is Crescent Park, which has seen recent improvements and is home to Oaks and Magnolias that assemble an expansive canopy.

Along the south side of the building is Railroad Avenue, and if you travel towards the center of town, you’ll drive by one of the oldest standing synagogues in the United States. Now an Ace Hardware, the Bikur Cholim congregation represents the once-thriving Jewish community that was made up of business people, mayors, and farm owners. From the street, you can see the gable rise above the 1950’s storefront addition — remnants of the past are visible in the Victorian filigree and lintels.

The Project & Event

As a result of a productive working relationship, Ascension Parish approached Multistudio to reimagine the ground floor of the Lemann Building into an early childhood learning space that could be modeled throughout the region. The Center will foster growth for infants through 2-year-olds and is designed to give children the start they need to succeed. The curriculum will follow the Perry Preschool Project, which takes an active learning approach to early education and was developed outside Detroit in the early 1960s. The Perry Preschool Project came as a response to the disinvestment that Black people were seeing and continue to see in their communities throughout the country.

On Thursday, October 6th, Lexi Tengco, AIA, the Project Manager of the Early Childhood Education Center, and several others from the Multistudio team joined an open house hosted by the Parish of Ascension, City of Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, Nicholls State University & CF Industries.

Financed by money rerouted from the St. Bernard Juvenile Detention Center, the Early Childhood Education Center illustrates how funds redirected from penal architecture to spaces intended to foster the growth of the individual can weaken systemic structures of inequality and racism.

While at the open house, the Multistudio team engaged stakeholders with VR goggles and our Deck of Spaces to illustrate how these spaces would look once complete.

The Early Childhood Education Center will come equipped with learning spaces to serve infants through 2-year-old children: a gracious lobby welcomes families while maintaining security, classrooms include ample daylighting and healthy material finishes that emulate nature, and the cafeteria serves as a multipurpose space for dining and indoor gross motor activities. Though outside our scope of work, the building’s second and third floors were renovated to accommodate mixed-income housing – promoting artist-preferred accommodations.

To put it simply, build educational spaces — open people’s minds and hearts, and good things will come.

A Steward to the City

We are optimistic about Donaldsonville’s future – a City entrenched in history and community. As the Lemann Building is retrofitted for its new program, it continues to act as a steward to the City and the people that it serves.

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