Arabi landmark purposely burned

Dec 2nd, 2013 | By | Category: Top Story
The pre-Civil War LeBeau Plantation in Arabi was completely destroyed by arson early Thursday morning.Photo by Edwin Roy

The pre-Civil War LeBeau Plantation in Arabi was completely destroyed by arson early Thursday morning.Photo by Edwin Roy

 

Arabi resident Edwin Roy Jr. noticed something odd as he looked at the windows from his bed at his Mehle Street home at 2 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 22.

“There was a glow in the sky. At first, I though it was the streetlight across the street,” he said.

Yet, the strange orange glow was bigger; it lit up the entire neighborhood.

“By that time I heard the first siren and got up and looked out the window, I could see the flames shooting into the sky,” Roy said.

It has been hard for the public, especially Arabi residents, to understand the pointless destruction of this more than 150 year old piece of St. Bernard history.Photo by Edwin Roy

It has been hard for the public, especially Arabi residents, to understand the pointless destruction of this more than 150 year old piece of St. Bernard history.Photo by Edwin Roy

He soon realized that the building that was burning was a very important neighbor –the historic LeBeau plantation on the corner of Lebeau and Bienville streets in Old Arabi. The mansion, a 1850s-era plantation home owned by the Meraux Foundation, was touted as one of the largest remaining plantations in the New Orleans area and one of the few remaining pre Civil War-era plantations.

Roy quickly grabbed his camera and ran outside to capture the scene.

“It took me five or ten minutes, but by the time I got over there, it was gone,” he said. “The roof had gone, and the sides were pretty well enveloped in flames. It went up extremely fast.”

After Thursday morning’s fire, LeBeau Plantation has been reduced to just its four fire places and some charred frames.Photo by Edwin Roy

After Thursday morning’s fire, LeBeau Plantation has been reduced to just its four fire places and some charred frames.Photo by Edwin Roy

A photo of Arabi’s LeBeau Plantation: once a black/white picture, it was hand painted by Judy and Edwin Roy more than 30 years ago. This picture hangs in The St. Bernard Voice office just blocks from the plantation.

A photo of Arabi’s LeBeau Plantation: once a black/white picture, it was hand painted by Judy and Edwin Roy more than 30 years ago. This picture hangs in The St. Bernard Voice office just blocks from the plantation.

He said more than two dozen neighbors joined him on the street taking pictures.

Despite firefighters working through the early morning hours to quell the blaze, by Friday morning, all that was left of the 10,000 square-foot unoccupied wooden building were the brick chimneys and parts of the front door frame.

St. Bernard Parish Fire Chief Thomas Stone described the blaze as a “wall of fire” that engulfed the entire structure.

The St. Bernard Sheriff’s Office quickly ruled the fire as suspicious. Less than 24 hours later, seven suspects – including a 20-year-old man from Arabi – were in custody for arson and trespassing. They were believed to have illegally trespassed on the property while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. They were looking for ghosts, said St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jimmy Pohlmann.

The sheriff said the men had been smoking marijuana and drinking at the mansion and wanted to see if there was any truth to the legend of ghosts in the building. Most of the accused arsonists worked for the company Circulation Marketing, Inc., selling subscriptions for The Times Picayune; they were staying at the home of Arabi suspect Barbe at the time of the incident.

When the group did not find any haunted spirits, they deliberately torched the historic 160-year-old building, burning it to the ground, the sheriff said.

“They had been trying to summon spirits, beating on the floors,” said Col. John Doran, head of enforcement divisions for the Sheriff’s Office.

Dusten Davenport, 31, of Fort Worth, Texas, was identified as the likely ringleader of the group.

Those in custody are: Davenport, 31, of Fort Worth, Texas; Joshua Allen, 21; Joshua Briscoe, 20; Jerry Hamblen, 17; and Joseph Landin, 20 (all of the Dallas area); Bryon Meek, 29, of Gretna; and Kevin Barbe, 20 of Arabi.

All but Barbe and Meek were booked Friday for arson, simple burglary and criminal damage over $50,000. Meek and Barbe were booked with accessory to arson, and Barbe also charged with trespassing.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, residents reported seeing suspicious young people toward the rear area of the property.

“Their actions didn’t just engulf a building in flames. St. Bernard Parish lost a part of its history,” Polhmann said. “I believe some of them have no idea what they took from St. Bernard Parish.’’

Arson carries up to a 15-year sentence in Louisiana. While there were no reported injuries from the fire, the sheriff’s office said nearby houses had minor damage from flying embers.

Monday, State District Judge Perry Nicosia set a $450,000 bond for Davenport. He is booked with arson and burglary, which five of them are booked with.

Bonds of $350,000 each were set for Hamblen, Briscoe, Allen and Landin. Each were also booked with arson and burglary.

Bonds of $75,000 each were set for Meek, booked with accessory to arson and Arabi’s Barbe, booked with accessory to arson and trespassing.

None of the seven had immediately made bond.

The community is now left to mourn the loss and try to pick up the pieces.

The Meraux Family Foundation released a statement over the weekend about the incident, calling The LeBeau Plantation “one of our most cherished assets.”

According to the foundation, the group was in the process of determining the best use for the plantation when it was destroyed by fire.

“We reviewed dozens of proposals, but none presented a financially viable option that would serve the community,” the foundation stated, adding the price tag for a complete renovation would have been millions of dollars.

With a storied history that included an illegal gambling house and a hotel, the building hadn’t been occupied by a family for decades years.

The building underwent some stabilization work in 2003, but its windows had been boarded up since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Pohlmann acknowledged It had become a spot where homeless people gathered and trespassers entered, either looking for spirits or just to see the inside of the iconic structure. Vandals likely entered the mansion by cutting a hole in the exterior fence, he added.

While the Meraux Foundation stated it had taken measures to prevent illegal trespassers, including installing an eight-foot fence around the property and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on structural improvements and routine maintenance, “It is doubtful that anything short of 24-hour patrols would have kept out these intruders, intent on engaging in illegal activities,” the official statement read.

There has since been an outpouring from the community over the loss of the historic building.

Parish Historian Bill Hyland said the mansion had architectural significance; the LeBeau Plantation was one of the latest documented examples of “brick between posts” architecture in Louisiana, he said.

“It’s a very sad sad for the parish; the house truly represented the pinnacle of elegance of lifestyle and architecture and St. Bernard’s antebellum plantation culture,” Hyland said. “At this point we have to move ahead and hopefully make an example of these people.”

The pre-Civil War LeBeau Plantation in Arabi was completely destroyed by arson early Thursday morning.Photo by Edwin Roy

The pre-Civil War LeBeau Plantation in Arabi was completely destroyed by arson early Thursday morning.Photo by Edwin Roy

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.