HISTORIC SOUTHDOWNS

Posted on February 24, 2013

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johnson girl on stephens

Robin Johnson

posing on the front steps

of her home at

1265 Stephens Ave.

Southdowns 70808

Photo Courtesy of Andy Johnson

SOUTHDOWNS  ESTABLISHED: 1923
NUMBER OF HOUSES: Depends on who’s naming the neighborhood’s boundaries but about 750.
DESCRIPTION: State of mind. A neighborhood of older residents, young professionals and students bounded roughly by Perkins Road, Whitehaven Street, Cloverdale Avenue and Glasgow Avenue.

FUN FACT: Some of the street names have been changed, but when Southdowns was laid out north-south streets were named for Confederate generals (examples, Lee, Stuart Pickett) and east-west streets for native trees (examples, poplar, tupelo, cypress).

ARTICLE PUBLISHED BY THE BATON ROUGE ADVOCATE

“The Center of the Universe” by Ed Cullen 2009

Mary Gladney calls her neighbor, Philemon “Phil” St. Amant Sr., the patriarch of Southdowns.
Because Baton Rouge is a young city and St. Amant is 91, the Gladneys share Stuart Street with the son of the man who developed Southdowns.
The city was growing in the early 1920s — population had swelled to 20,000 — when Alfred St. Amant, a former college professor turned insurance man, and a silent partner borrowed money from almost every bank in Baton Rouge to buy the better part of a 640-acre section that had been part of Richland
Plantation.
“My daddy borrowed heavily from the banks and savings and loans,” said St. Amant, wearing a three-piece suit, as he talked in the den of one of his sons, Alex St. Amant. Alex and wife Floris live on Hyacinth. The senior St. Amant lives around the corner on Stuart.
St. Amant whistled when his father told him how much money he’d borrowed in 1923 to develop Southdowns, a bucolic spread of pasture and dairy farms.
St. Amant was a boy when his father told him offhandedly one day how much money he owed the banks.
“Doesn’t owing that much money bother you?” St. Amant asked his father. “He said if it didn’t bother the banks it didn’t bother him.”
Alfred St. Amant weathered the Great Depression to die a wealthy man.
St. Amant Sr., a retired colonel in the U.S. Army not to be confused with son Phil St. Amant, also a retired Army colonel, spent a boyhood in a little world bounded by farmland and swamp. Part of Stanford Avenue is built on a dam at one edge of a cypress swamp that’s now University and City Park lakes. St. Amant and his boyhood pals hunted and fished in the swamp.
“You shot alligators in the swamp near (present day) Lee High, didn’t you?” Alex St. Amant asked.
Not yet a grammar school student when his father subdivided farms for folks who wanted to get out of town, St. Amant’s boyhood is a memory of “firsts.”
He remembers the first telephones to reach Southdowns and the day electric lights blinked on at the family home on Glasgow Avenue.
Alfred St. Amant knew one of his first big jobs would be getting water to all the lots he proposed to sell. What water was there came from private wells. Before 1925, crews were running pipe to Southdowns from an artesian well on Mormon Road (College Drive).
“You know where Albertsons is on College Drive?” St. Amant said. “The well was across from there, just south of the Baton Rouge Fault.”
The geological fault, near where Bawell Street hits College, wasn’t “nearly the hump it is today,” St. Amant said.
Alfred St. Amant laid out the streets of Southdowns with streets running north and south to be named for Confederate generals and east-west streets to be named for native trees. When Southdowns became part of the city, some of the Confederate general streets became cities in Scotland — Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow.
“When we were taken into the city,” St. Amant said, “there was already a Johnston Street, for example.”
Alfred St. Amant sold lots 75 feet by 150 feet for $300. He encouraged the purchase of two lots, one to build a house on, the other to be a corner lot. Builder Joe Gauthreaux, who lives on Hyacinth Street in yet another colonel’s house, said one of those original lots sold for $100,000 four years ago.
Gauthreaux, wife Chrystal and their children live in the house where the builder spent some of his bachelor days.
He hadn’t been moved in long, Gauthreaux said, when his neighbors, some of them women, began returning keys to his house.
When Col. William McCutchen, U.S. Army retired, owned the house, the colonel and some of his neighbors had keys to each other’s houses to bring in mail and the newspaper and check on the houses when neighbors were away.
The house is still called “The McCutchen House” by longtime residents or “the house with the glassed-in porch and the oak tree.”
“When I moved in, the house didn’t have a street number on it,” Gauthreaux said.
Dr. Will Gladney, a neurologist who’s lived in five houses in Southdowns including his boyhood home on Aberdeen, birthed the Southdowns Mardi Gras parade in his driveway in 1988.
“The parade crossed Stanford the third year,” Gladney said. That meant Southdowns and University Gardens, where the streets are named for flowers, had formalized an alliance forged in the Southside Civic Association which represents neighborhoods along Perkins Road.
As individual neighborhoods came under the umbrella of Southside Civic Association, Southdowns, already a state of mind, became more amorphous. Some residents hold that Stanford Avenue separates Southdowns and University Gardens, but Cloverdale, a plant street and “a dale,” is on the same side of Stanford as Southdowns.
Gladney, president of the Southside Civic Association, doesn’t find much not to like about Southdowns. Born on “The Downs,” he invented its most famous event — The Southdowns Mardi Gras Parade.
He points with pride to the old sheep barn, once home to a couple he knows, in his backyard. When wife Mary, who’s from New Orleans, pointed out that her husband’s beloved Southdowns has no sidewalks to speak of and open ditches, though some are grass-lined, the physician said, “Well, that’s part of our charm.”
“I came back home to Southdowns in 1984,” Gladney said. “People roll their eyes when I say it, but Southdowns IS the center of the universe. Well, that’s just the way it is.”
“There was a time when I wished for sidewalks,” said Sarah Maas, a resident of the neighborhood since 1954. “I didn’t like the ditches.”
LSU students have lived in Southdowns as long as Maas can remember. Most of them are good neighbors. A few live too many to a house, park cars in the yard and have late night, loud parties.
“There used to be young families with children in every house,” Maas said. “Times change. But I have wonderful neighbors. I would have quit The Advocate so fast. Whoever delivered the paper, it was like he dropped it right out of the car window. All of a sudden, I started finding the paper outside my front door. It was neighbors, Linda and Tom Talley.”
Armand Michaud, at 23 the youngest member of the Southside Civic Association board, lives in a house on Lee Drive that he plans to buy.
“Complaining about student renters, I’d almost feel like a hypocrite,” he said. “But I’ve always been against people trashing the neighborhood, empty keg shells in the yard and couches sitting out in the rain.”
The night of this year’s Southdowns Parade, Michaud stood on one side of the street yelling at friends he grew up with in the neighborhood.
“It’s better on this side of the street,” revelers taunted. Some of the parade goers with Michaud crossed over. “No it’s not,” they chorused.
Sitting on the porch of his parents’ house before the parade, Michaud said, “My mom used to yell at people driving down the street at 32 miles an hour because we were out there on our bikes.” The speed limit is 30.
Parents Norma and Larry Michaud taught him to try to fix things rather than complain. His dad served on the civic association board, as did godfather John Hill.
Hill, who helped raise a war chest to fight zoning battles, found himself on the other side when, as a part owner of The Caterie restaurant, he tried to get the establishment declared a bar.
At 82, lawyer Bob Roland has a chest full of medals from the zoning wars — the College Drive Wal-Mart Campaign, the Battle for Ford’s Pasture, a.k.a. Siege of the Rouzan Redoubt; Pegues Parley and Remember the Flower Shop.
Neighbors decided not to oppose a handicapped homeowner’s request to rezone his house as a flower shop, Roland said. The shop folded to become a shoe store with a fried chicken place next door.
“Now, it’s ‘Remember the Flower Shop,’” Roland said.
Roland tells homeowners — “not as a lawyer but as someone who’s lived out here 50 years” — to fight zoning that would change the character of a neighborhood.
“You have to try to stop it,” he said. “Once it’s changed, no one’s going to jail. They (developers) look at it as the cost of doing business.”
After the Southdowns Mardi Gras Parade, residents and their guests walked home past yards dark except for the light of small blazes in metal fireplaces beneath the trees.
Car engines growled to life, masking for the moment the sound of voices at the fires.

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