Obit for a family manse

My grandparents’ house in DeRidder (Photo: Renee Peck)

My grandparents’ house at 417 N. Pine Street in the small southwestern Louisiana town of DeRidder stood with grandeur for almost a century. Last week, it was razed to the ground, disappearing overnight and erasing an edifice that held decades of memories — not only for my parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, but also for many people in DeRidder who grew up with the property at the center of things, both geographically and emotionally and culturally.

They remember, as children, ringing the doorbell on Halloween in expectation of one of the small brown paper bags that my grandfather painstakingly filled with candies and pecans from the orchard out back. They recall standing along the sidewalks in front of the house to watch troops from Fort Polk marching down Pine Street during World War II. They may have seen my grandfather usher more than one young soldier into the two-story brick house for a meal and a hot shower. They marveled over the swimming pool, the first in the city, and the tennis court with its red asphalt. Generations of them sat in the front yard or leaned against the fence to watch the annual Beauregard Parish Fair parade.

Most of DeRidder’s residents knew William Durham and Maude West, who lived there. Many of them worked for the family company, West Brothers. Many others knew them from the First Baptist Church, where they were lifelong members.

The house on Pine Street was built about 1925 by DeRidder banker J. Herman McMahon. He spared no expense, erecting a stately red-brick two-story main house that had four bedrooms upstairs, and a formal living room, dining room and kitchen down. The walls were masonry construction, 14 inches thick with plaster walls on the inside, and hardwood floors throughout. He commissioned an artist to hand- paint borders in all the rooms. Outside, there was a garage where McMahon manufactured and sold cough syrup.

Just beyond the back door, he erected an arbor, where Scuppernong grapes grew and where my grandmother would eventually grow thick ropes of wisteria. He added a a two-room maid’s quarter with a gas jet outside to accommodate heated wash pots on washday. A laundry shute from the upstairs hallway to the downstairs kitchen and a hidden back stairway were added bonuses. McMahon also dug the area’s first-ever swimming pool in the back yard. It wasn’t the cement version we know today, but a dirt pool that had a circulating pump. (My grandfather would later fill in the original pool and donate the pool parts to the US Air Base during World War II to build a swimming pool for the servicemen stationed there.)

Not long after McMahon set up residence, the Depression hit. He, like so many others, lost his fortune and couldn’t pay the taxes on the house. It went to auction, and in 1934 DeRidder resident Claude Ledoux bought it for taxes owed. But Claude didn’t need such an imposing home. He approached my grandfather and persuaded him to buy the house.

My grandmother was more than skeptical. It was too big, too pretentious, she said. But Durham, who had started and by then owned the burgeoning West Brothers Department Store chain, was never one to pass up a bargain. It’s a great deal, he replied, and would be a place to grow their young family. So he bought the house from his friend Claude for $3,500.

Later that year, the Wests moved in with their three young children. For the next 67 years, the house at 417 N. Pine Street played center stage to all of the joys and woes and travails of three generations of family. My mother, June, learned to play the piano at the baby grand in the living room. My uncle, W.D., wrote a novel and painted oils there, before enlisting in the army at 17 to go fight the great war. He went down with his plane over the North Sea in the spring of 1945, one of the last casualties of World War II. His bedroom door remained locked and the room was kept off limits to us until after my grandmother’s death in 2001.

The house served as muse and mentor to my own generation, too. There were six of us first cousins, three on each side, and every day after school we gathered at the house on N. Pine Street. The adults would sit on the back porch and have coffee and discuss world affairs while we kids ran free through the spacious rooms or across the large lot in back. We scoured the attic for treasure, or poked through upstairs closets and pulled out chiffon gowns and scarves to play dress-up. Every summer we swam in the backyard pool, by now a proper affair with concrete bottom and a twisty slide and diving board. My grandfather paid us 25 cents a bag to pick up pecans from the trees out back. Every summer, he would make jars and jars of fig preserves from the fruit of the fig trees around the swimming pool. The house smelled of sugar and syrup for days.

Over the years Durham and Maude added to the house. They built a wide back porch with windows overlooking the pecan orchard, a casual oasis where visitors gathered and Maude’s favorite divinity was served. After the kids were grown, they added a side wing downstairs that included a large master bedroom and bath and his and her walk-in closets. His was more diminutive than hers. They filled the house with furniture and fixtures that have found their way into our own homes. My grandmother’s chandelier hangs in my living room, her gold mirror over my mantle.

The West home served as a gathering spot for city residents for years. My grandparents were of the era that “entertained,” and they had many of the people of DeRidder come through their home over the decades. They were widely known and welcoming, and their house a place for friendship. The exterior of 417 N. Pine was a prominent landmark in town, known to passersby for its long drive, wrought-iron fence, and masses of blooming azaleas. The interior was known as well, for the hospitable people who lived there.

After my grandmother’s death in 2001, the house went on the market. The Methodist minister of the day raised the idea of turning the home into a sanctuary for local non-profit organizations. A place where people could meet, and good things happen. It would continue the Wests’ lifelong pursuit of faith and good works, in a way that would honor their memory and continue the usefulness of a house that so many people in DeRidder knew. In 2003, the W.D. West House of Care was established. And for awhile, 417 N. Pine Street retained its place at the center of a small town where people know one another and appreciate their monuments.

Now it is gone. Sold. Deconstructed. It is amazing how long it takes to build memorials and memories, and how slowly the years unspool when a family begins and grows and ages and changes within four walls. And amazing how quickly those walls come down.

But the legacy of 417 N. Pine lies in more than bricks and mortar. Like all the old homes in DeRidder, its repository of celebrations and life, and its contribution to small-town life will linger in our hearts and memories.

Comments

You must login to post a comment. Need a ViaNolaVie account? Click here to signup.