Friendly’ gators may welcome visitors

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 18, 2001


PHOTO: Edie Michel examines one of the many cultural displays at the newly opened St. James Welcome Center, including a fireplace grill from Welham Plantation. (Staff Photo by Leonard Gray) GRAMERCY – Visitors to the St. James Parish Welcome and Tourism Center may be greeted by much more than a smiling employee with a brochure. A few friendly alligators may be nearby as well. The center’s grand opening was held July 7, welcoming at least 450 people to the ceremony, which was hosted by Parish President Dale Hymel Jr. However, that was the number who signed in. “A lot more didn’t,” added Laurie Bourgeois, a state-certified tourism officer who works at the center. “This is the gateway to our community,” commented Edie Michel, economic development coordinator, in explaining the location of the new center at the intersection of Airline Highway and Louisiana Highway 3213, near the Veterans Memorial Bridge. What really gives the center flair, however, is the historical and cultural features, she added. The main building is a French Creole house built in Convent in the 1830s and donated to the parish by its last owners, the Sardegna family. The house began as a four-room dwelling and, each time it was moved away from the encroaching Mississippi River, it was added onto to a present six-room building. In the renovation work performed on the house by Judd Reynaud of Convent, elements of St. James Parish history contributed. The brick piers supporting the building came from Welham Plantation in Hester, which was demolished in 1979 but dated back to 1835. Likewise, a rare fireplace screen salvaged from Welham adorned one of the house’s two fireplaces. The hand-rolled glass is antique and came from the nuns’ house at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Convent. The house is also filled with displays of various local attractions, including nearby Laura and Oak Alley plantations. Work began on the project in May 1999 with the donation of a seven-acre site by Kaiser Aluminum. Clearing, filling and settling the site took several months, and work appeared to move slowly. The site itself had no water, sewer, electricity or telephone, and hookups took time to accomplish. In the last month, however, action stepped into high gear, Michel continued. Hymel learned from the Sardegna family they planned a family reunion at the center’s grand opening and wanted the parish to settle on an opening date. He instructed Michel to make the place ready, and it was. “I had a lot of cooperation,” she said. Contributions and hard work, including various painting of Louisiana scenes by Barbara Louque and Kathy Hotard, along with Cajun paintings by Tina Becnel adorn the main building. Winky Nobile contributed an antique dresser and O.J. Daigle loaned an antique bed. “We wanted to include as much local history as possible,” Michel said. Other facilities at the site include a second, smaller building which houses the public restrooms and vending machines. The main house includes a conference room and there is one boardwalk nature trail in place. A second boardwalk is planned, along with the installation of a cistern display, a covered pavilion and an alligator exhibit. At the end, the entire project cost the parish an estimated $300,000 to develop, which Michel called a “very rough” approximation. Finally, with the blessing of the house by the Rev. Frank Uter of St. Joseph and Sacred Heart Catholic churches, operations began. The house is open seven days a week, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.