Spanish Town, established in 1805 as Baton Rouge's oldest neighborhood, reflects the colorful, changing heritage and development of Louisiana's capital. Created in 1974 by residents in order to develop, preserve, and protect the "unique character" of Spanish Town, the HSTCA has been in continuous existence, perpetuating the pulse of the neighborhood. In 1978 the HSTCA had the neighborhood designated as the "Spanish Town Historic District" and recognized on the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places. In 2008 the HSTCA obtained designation as the "Spanish Town Local Historical District" along with Design Guidelines to maintain, preserve, and enhance the architectural character of the neighborhood.
History of Spanish Town
by John Sykes
The history of Spanish Town, Baton Rouge's oldest neighborhood, reflects the colorful, changing heritage and development of Louisiana's capital. The area's first residents, native Americans, settled here on the high bluff above the Mississippi River. (A ceremonial mound near the present State Capitol still survives.) Folklore has it that a large red pole, "le Baton Rouge," adorned with the heads of animals and fish (lending its bloody color), stood near the area, probably serving as a boundary marker between the hunting grounds of the Houma and Bayouagoula Indians.
After the first French exploration by d'Iberville in 1699, European settlement began slowly as immigrants entered New Orleans, the French capital of Louisiana. After acquiring the French Colony, Spanish colonial officials wanted to encourage settlement and development of their vast new world territory. Galvez Town along Bayou Manchac was one of the original settlements of Canary Islanders lured to the Spanish colony in several large migrations. Galvez Town was a miserable, flood-prone location, and its residents in a few years suddenly found themselves first in French, and then later after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, American territory. Baton Rouge remained in the Spanish territory known as "West Florida," and officials established "Fort San Carlos" to protect their interests from an increasingly hostile Anglo immigrant presence in the area.
In 1805 the governor of West Florida, Don Carlos de Grandpre, ordered an area east of Fort San Carlos at Baton Rouge be used to resettle the Spanish families from Galvez Town in order to increase the population to help defend the fort site. The original plan drawn by the surveyor-general, Vincente Sebastian Pintado, included fourteen narrow lots, each containing almost four arpents, and four "public garden" lots located nearest the fort lands along the southern edge of Bayou Gracie. The public road leading from the fort was called "Spanish Road" and later "Spanish Town Road." The boundaries were later expanded to include 20 more lots. (The original area of Spanish Town is contained roughly between present day N. 7th Street and N. 12th Streets.) Jean Baptist Aubert developed the area northwest of the original grant (between Lakeland Avenue and Capitol Drive) into smaller lots whose original deeds denote this area as "Aubert Town." Later additions called "towns" or suburbs named for their developers were added after 1809: Gras, Devall, Leonard, Hickey, Duncan & Mather and Beauregard Towns. (All of these were later incorporated as "Baton Rouge" in January 1817, and the town became Louisiana's capital in 1846.)
In 1810 the United States took possession of Spanish West Florida and used the old fort as a military base. Additional land was added to the property, and in 1819, the construction of an arsenal and barracks began. A street (now North 5th Street) running along the eastern boundary of military property was known as "Uncle Sam Street." (A boundary marker inscribed "U.S." remains at the corner of Spanish town Road and N. 5th Street.) General Zachary Taylor served as commandant of the U. S. Base, and from the commandant's residence near the Barrack's, he accepted the presidential nomination in 1849.
The Gill map of Baton Rouge (drawn in 1855) shows a few houses scattered around Spanish Town and a group of small buildings along Union Street (now N. 8th Street), an area then known as the "Town of Industry." Throughout the 1850s, North Street developed into a fine residential address with the construction of several substantial homes which still survive.
Shortly after the Louisiana's joining the Confederacy in January 1861, Federal officials gave up their post. However, Baton Rouge remained Confederate for only about 16 months. On August 5, 1862 Confederate troops challenged Federal forces at Baton Rouge. Although the battle is considered by historians as "less than spectacular," the effects were devastating on the town and its inhabitants. Many families abandoned their homes and fled Baton Rouge. Federal gunboats on the Mississippi reinforced Union troops, and Spanish Town lay in the line of their fire. Federal troops randomly demolished abandoned buildings that impeded their defenses, and some buildings were used for necessary firewood.
Following the Civil War, there were very few original homes remaining in Spanish Town. A few antebellum homes along North Street survived, but the majority of the neighborhood was destroyed and abandoned. The local newspaper described the neighborhood in 1865: "That portion of the city called Spanish Town is almost entirely divested of its original tenements, and excepting here and there a Negro cabin, or a slight dwelling, wherein some poor family dwells, tenaciously clinging to the spot hallowed by the cares, joys, and sorrows of a lifetime, the entire site of Spanish Town is given up to the rank herbage that luxuriantly covers the soil."
In the two decades that followed the Civil War, Spanish Town grew into a vibrant, almost exclusively, African-American neighborhood. Freed slaves crowded into Baton Rouge from the outlying parishes looking for work in the Capitol City. The Freedman's Bureau offered some assistance and educational opportunities. Spanish Town became home for many who built small cottages and shot-guns on their own land and in a few cases, on abandoned land. A new church, Shiloh Missionary Baptist, was organized, and the congregation's first building, a small frame church (built at 659 Spanish Town Road) was dedicated on July 7, 1872. The center of community life, Shiloh Baptist Church, operated a Sunday school in a small shot-gun behind the church for several years.
In 1879 the United States Army withdrew its last garrison from the post, and in from the 1890s to 1920s, Spanish town grew again, this time into a thriving university neighborhood. Rising property values and the convenience of the location ushered in a major boom in Spanish Town. The old military post buildings barely provided enough space for classrooms and laboratories, so University officials allowed students to find housing off campus. Old lots were subdivided into smaller ones, several cross streets were cut and a new wave of construction of boarding houses, fraternity buildings, and residences for University staff began in Spanish Town. During the 1910s, Spanish town boasted three grocery stores, a butcher's shop, a bakery, and a church. The majority of Spanish Town's surviving buildings reflect the many variations of the "bungalow" style so prevalent in American architecture of the early 20th Century. Appropriately, one of the new streets was named "Bungalow Lane."
The University permanently changed Spanish Town. Property values dramatically increased and many residents, including many African-Americans, took advantage of the rapid increase. (Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church sold its property and used the proceeds to build a new church in 1932 on S. 14th Street, but preserved the original Church's cornerstone.) University officials dredged Bayou Gracie to make "University Lake" along the northern edge of Spanish Town. The University's proximity also changed Spanish Town's streets: Spanish Town Road became Boyd Avenue (after the LSU President David F. Boyd who lobbied to acquire the Military Post as University site), "Uncle Sam Street" became College Avenue, and Slocum Alley became University Walk).
LSU was relocated in 1926 to a site south of the city on the old Gartness plantation, and the former military base property became the site of the new capitol complex in 1930. Although few remembered at the time, the original provision of the gift from the U.S. government specified that if the land was ever not used for "educational purposes," the Federal Government could reclaim the property. When LSU dredged a new lake by its new site, old University Lake became Capitol Lake. A large number of Spanish Town's streets were renamed in the 1930s: College Avenue became N. 5th Street, St. Hypolite became N. 6th Street; St. Mary's became N. 7th Street; and Mills Avenue became N. 9th Street.
The construction of the Baton Rouge Expressway (now Interstate I-110) in 1957 severed Spanish Town into one-third of its original plan. Recent state government building projects have swallowed two entire blocks of Spanish Town with the construction of the Department of Insurance Building and the Galvez Office Building.
1884, the Interior Department allowed Louisiana State University to move from its temporary location at the Deaf and Dumb Asylum buildings in Beauregard Town. The legislature accepted the land from the Federal Government and the 210- acre property became the new home of the University, giving Spanish Town a new neighbor.
For almost two hundred years, Spanish Town's history illustrates the various changes of Baton Rouge's development. Although many people see Downtown Baton Rouge as one unit, the city is really a series of separate neighborhoods that have grown together over time. Although older than Baton Rouge, few original homes of Spanish Town survived the Civil War, and today, the prevailing architectural styles reflect the early 20th Century when Spanish Town was a thriving University community.
The Baton Rouge Advocate, September 6, 1865, September 8, 1865
John McGrath, "In the Long Ago," Baton Rouge Advocate, February 20, 1920
Mark T. Carleton, River Capital: An Illustrated History of Baton Rouge (1996)
Gilbert Din, The Canary Islanders of Louisiana (1988)
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Baton Rouge
Evelyn M. Thom, Baton Rouge Story: An Historical Sketch of Louisiana's Capital City (1967).