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The Secret History of a Louisiana Plantation Home

It was "the oldest building of African design, built by Blacks for the use of Blacks," in the country, according to a 1974 Landmark Designation for Yucca Plantation, now known as Melrose Plantation. Recently named a National Treasure by the National Historic Trust in March, the two-story, hut-like building on the property is called the African House. It's part of an estate on the Cane River in Northwest Louisiana, a place separated from the rest of the state by many miles and unique circumstances. Settled by the Cane River Creoles, free people of color who became wealthy slaveowners and plantation owners, it also stands as a bit of an architectural mystery. The then-owner of the plantation, Louis Metoyer, commissioned its construction in the early part of the 19th century, but it was only given its current name decades later by Francois Mignon, a writer who said it obviously resembled a "Congo-type building."

The question around the structure's origins points to the cultural melting pot it arose from, a region with a blend of African, French and Spanish influences. Louis's story is a perfect example. He's the son of Frenchman Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, who initially came to settle in New Orleans but wound up living in Northwest Louisiana, and Marie Therese Coincoin, a slave and housemaid with whom he became romantically involved. Over the next few years, Claude Metoyer would purchase Coincoin's freedom, along with the freedom of the ten children they would have together. The couple split in 1786—some speculate Metoyer wanted to produce an heir legal in the eyes of the French crown. He gradually becoming a big shot and large slaveowner in Natchitoches, and she built up her own empire, eventually purchasing a plantation and buying the freedom of all her children. Descendants of Coincoin would eventually control more than 11,000 acres and hundreds of their own slaves.

"They were part of a whole Creole community, free people of color, who were slaveowners and ran plantations," says Carolyn Brackett, a Project Manager for the National Historic Trust. "It's one of the fascinating things about that place, there are so many layers of history at Melrose. It takes a long time to sort them out."

Styles of African Architecture cited in the Historic Structures Report. The top is a Yoruba structure, from Nigeria or Benin, and the bottom is an Akan structure from Ghana.

Louis's own stint as a plantation owner started when he was granted 911 acres from his mother in 1795, land that was initially acquired as part of a grant from the Spanish crown. After settling in and planting crops such as corn and cotton, Metoyer began designing and building out what would become Melrose Plantation, starting with the Yucca house, finished sometime in the first decade of the 19th century and built with traditional French techniques. The Africa House, which was likely built by a slave he purchased in 1809, came next, made of bricks hand-pressed on site. Boasting a long, sloping roof, the building has been compared to the vernacular architecture of subtropical Africa or the West Indies. Different theories have been advanced about its design and purpose (some suggested that it was a storehouse and at one point, a jail for rebellious slaves). A 2002 paper makes strong connections between the building's style that that of barns from Eastern France (it makes sense that slaves and craftsman would pick up those kind of techniques in a French-speaking territory). Others have suggested that the builder or builders incorporated building designs from their homeland. The thin record on Metoyer makes it more difficult to discover the designer's intent.

These structures, and the development of his property, served as a prelude to Metoyer's rise. By the 1830s, this free man of color, or "gens de coleur libre," had become a wealthy planter, enough so he could afford to own a dozen slaves and become a local philanthropist (he helped his brother build a Catholic church on nearby Isle Brevelle). He would design the Big House, a grand plantation home done in French Colonial Style, in 1830, seeing construction start before he died in 1832.

"We don't have a lot of information about Metoyer," says Molly Dickerson, the site director at Melrose Plantation. "He had some other landholdings here, but there isn't a lot of documentation about his life or who he was as a person."

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