Photo by Anne Craven
While working on a painting in her River Oaks studio, mixed-media artist Kimberly Brannon explained why there is a long waiting list for studio space at the center: “I’ve had studios all over, but at River Oaks they treat us like kings and queens.”
Just before a recent overnight adventure to central Louisiana, I discovered the following promotional quote while browsing through an online collection of vintage postcards. Based on the cost of the postcard stamp (one cent!), this bit of marketing circulated sometime before 1950:
Do you know that Alexandria, Louisiana, is one of the model cities of the South? — That for its size, it has more expensive buildings, more paved streets, more factories, more enterprise than any other Southern city? These are facts, easily proved. Why don’t you investigate the wonderful possibilities that it offers you?
In search of those wonderful possibilities, I hit the road with my husband and our two-year-old daughter. When we arrived in Alexandria, our very first impression was that the downtown district has fallen away from its model city era. Yes, there remain several examples of the touted “expensive buildings” that existed in Alexandria’s hey-day, but there’s also plenty of evidence that this town, like too many others, went through a regrettable razing phase to make room for parking lots and buildings devoid of any design principles whatsoever.
We got over it and went in search of the bright spots. Friends, Alexandria is a destination brimming with bright spots. And the truth is that our trip—arriving late-morning on Friday and leaving mid-afternoon on Saturday—was not nearly long enough to take in all that the area has to offer, so I’ll shout it from the highest hill: “We’re planning a return trip to Alexandria!” Here’s why:
The Hotel Bentley presides over downtown Alexandria and boasts historic significance and beauty to rival any of the better-known hotels in New Orleans. In fact, it was the only four-star hotel outside of New Orleans in Louisiana at one point. Despite its grandeur, the hotel had its ups and downs in the second half of the twentieth century and eventually shuttered in 2004. Fortunately, local businessman Michael Jenkins recognized that a boarded up Bentley was bad business for Alexandria, so he added the historic property to his collection in 2012 and hopes to celebrate the renovated hotel’s grand re-opening in February 2014.
From its opening in 1908, the Bentley was a place to see and be seen. John Wayne, Bob Hope, and other entertainers signed the guest registry, as did military higher-ups like George Patton, Omar Bradley, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Headquartered at the hotel, they readied the U.S. Army for World War II through the extensive training exercises of 1941 known as the “Louisiana Maneuvers.”
Sandy Langston, project manager for the hotel’s renovation, gave me a tour of the hotel’s Mirror Room lounge (“Everyone in Alexandria has a Mirror Room story,” she noted), the Venetian Room where top big bands from across the country played, and the breathtaking lobby. Murals on the ceiling, mosaics on the floor, super sized chandeliers, columns, and windows… it’s quite impressive.
Describing his investment, Jenkins asserts, “The Bentley is the heart of downtown Alexandria and it must be in operation to get the area moving again. It symbolizes the best of the past and the hope for the future.” Historicbentley.com or find “Hotel Bentley” on Facebook.
How’s this for history lovers: An Englishman named William Loyd was dismissed from his family as the “black sheep” and settled on a bayou in Louisiana, where he lived to tell about a Choctaw attack on his plantation home but, due to being tarred, feathered, and hung in front of said plantation, did not live to tell about his dishonorable espionage activities during the Civil War. Loyd Hall Plantation has all this intrigue and more.
We spent the night at the circa 1820 home, still a working farm, in the original kitchen structure that has been converted to a comfortable guest cottage. There are five such cottages surrounding a pool in the plantation’s back courtyard, plus two large and lovely suites in the main house on the second floor. Whether you go for the history, the hauntings, or the serene farmland setting, an overnight stay at Loyd Hall is a great choice when in the Alexandria area.
Guests are served a hearty breakfast in the main house by Beulah Davis, a Loyd Hall mainstay for forty years. Ask her for a tour of the home after breakfast, and she’ll give you all the history you can handle. I loved the original and quite elaborate plasterwork on the ceilings, seeing the dents left by Choctaw arrows aimed at the plantation, and hearing about the ghosts who look after the place. And for a few seconds I loved the offer of climbing the stairs to the third floor attic space—how often do you get to see every nook and cranny of a plantation? Delight turned to dread when, halfway up the stairwell, Beulah told me about the rather large blood stain I was about to see on the attic floor, the blood of a Civil War soldier who made the attic his hiding place. I saw the blood stain—a large one, mind you—from a safe distance then turned, ran, and lived to tell about it. loydhall.com.
Other glimpses into the past:
• Kent Plantation House is one of the oldest standing structures in the state. The Creole home offers guided tours and special events like November’s Sugar Day Festival and the Old Fashioned Christmas Celebration in December. kenthouse.org.
• Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Site provides details about the Red River Campaign of the Civil War, plus wooded trails that closely trace the old forts. lastateparks.com.
• The Southern Forest Heritage Museum was recommended as a unique must-see by many of the locals we encountered. Visit the site to see a complete sawmill complex frozen in time since its closure in 1969. Longleaf pine from this sawmill was used to build the Higgins landing craft of World War II. forestheritagemuseum.org.
When a city the size of Alexandria has two energetic visual arts venues, you can’t help but think that something special is happening. The Alexandria Museum of Art and the River Oaks Square Arts Center taught me to prioritize art venues on all future travel agendas. While visiting these two organizations, my husband and I met eclectic and energetic folks, watched our young daughter interact with and respond to installations, and engaged in the out-of-the-ordinary conversation that occurs when two people look closely at one piece of art and share their thoughts. Thank you, Alexandria, for reminding me that art is a beautiful thing.
“From the Board of Directors to the artists, everyone at River Oaks is passionate,” said Rachael Dauzat, executive director of the organization approaching its thirtieth anniversary. Located downtown, River Oaks offers exhibit space, workshops, a chance to peek inside artist studios, and an incredible, original art-filled gift store set up in the historic Bolton House, a work of art in itself. (318) 473-2670 or riveroaksartscenter.com.
You’ll find more of that passion for the arts at the Alexandria Museum of Art. Exhibit A: Curator Alyssa Fridgen, who moved to Alexandria from New York City. She knew the growing museum would be a great opportunity. “I’m amazed at how much creative production there is here. Lots of artists and art spaces, and lots of support for art culture,” said Fridgen.
In addition to special exhibits and events for all ages and interests, the museum—housed in a historic building on the riverfront—hosts the popular second Saturday market, where folks can find live music, arts activities and vendors, local farmers, and gardening workshops. themuseum.org.
More notes from the arts scene:
• The Coughlin-Saunders Performing Arts Center is a hub for concerts, theatre, film, ballet, and other cultural events. Louisiana-arts.org.
The very first thing we did upon arrival in Alexandria was look for a spot to let our toddler burn off her road-trip reserve of energy. Hello, Alexandria riverfront! The Red River quietly flows between Alexandria and Pineville; and, unlike the mighty Mississippi River and all of its industrial trappings, the Red River is a decidedly friendly body of water. There is a paved riverside walkway that runs the length of the downtown district, plenty of places to picnic, and an amphitheatre perfect for riverside festivals. In 2013, two such festivals made their debut—the Alex River Fête and the Little Walter Blues Festival, which honors the legendary blues harmonica player. Pencil them in on your 2014 spring festival calendar.
While my third-trimester pregnant self wasn’t about to “rough it” during our weekend away, outdoors enthusiasts should certainly take advantage of the nearby Kisatchie National Forest. A gem for the state of Louisiana, this is one attraction that received unanimous support from all the locals we casually interviewed while bopping around Alexandria. Hike, bike, paddle, camp, cruise, and take photos—just get in there and enjoy some of its 600,000 acres. fs.usda.gov/kisatchie.
There’s a long road ahead to regain “model city” status, but Alexandria now has essential elements—including passionate citizens—that point in the right direction. The Hotel Bentley is poised to lead the way and can rightly be described as the linchpin for central Louisiana. As the postcard suggested, “Why don’t you investigate the wonderful possibilities that it offers you?”
Details. Details. Details. theheartoflouisiana.com SIDEBAR: EATS & TREATS IN AND AROUND ALEXANDRIA
Located in a historic Art Deco building, Diamond Grill is downtown Alexandria’s fine dining destination. (318) 448-8989 or thediamondgrill.com.
No matter what you order for lunch at Word of Mouth Café, don’t miss the almond bread pudding for dessert. Unforgettable. (318) 528-8702 or Word Of Mouth Café on Facebook.
Many downtowners that we spoke to mentioned Sentry Drug and Grill with genuine fondness and loyalty, and word on the street is that their burgers can’t be beat. (318) 445-0952 or sentrydrug.net.
Vibrant energy emanates from Tamp & Grind, a corner coffee shop located downtown. Ask to speak with owner Jeff Phillips, a former cross-country truck driver; he’ll make you love coffee shops, dogs, children, and historic buildings. (318) 448-0111 or Tamp & Grind Coffee on Facebook.
At the charming 1921 Jackson Street, Chef Ginger Havard keeps the lunch menu fresh with lots of house-made and locally-sourced items. Try the lavender lemonade. (318) 787-2222 or 1921jacksonstreet.com.
No need to even open the menu at Tunk’s Cypress Inn on Kincaid Lake. Order the bacon wrapped quail at this rustic eatery. The food and atmosphere make Tunk’s worth the fifteen-minute drive to the outskirts of town. (318) 487-4014 or tunkscypressinn.com.
Inglewood Farms is a sensible stop for folks seeking sustainable farming practices in Louisiana. Stop by on a Saturday morning for the weekly Harvest Barn Market and keep your eyes peeled for organic pecans. (318) 442-6398 or inglewoodfarm.com.
No trip to central Louisiana is complete without a stop in Lecompte for one of the legendary pies served at Lea’s Lunchroom. We can’t resist the chocolate meringue pie. (318) 776-5178 or leaslunchroom.com.