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CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY – with Jonathan Sebastien
Publisher and Contributing Writer

Photograph: Part of the Opelousas National Historic District pictured in 1989 the year it was entered on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photograph from Carola Lillie Hartley Collection.)

How often do you hear this question asked in Opelousas – What is a historic district?

There are different types of historic districts. Opelousas has two — a local Opelousas Historic District and a National Historic District.

A local historic district is a section of a city which contains older buildings considered valuable for historical or architectural reasons. That district receives, in some cases, legal protection from certain types of development considered to be inappropriate. The historic district is a protection for your property as well as your neighbor’s property, and the district could protect you from your neighbor’s bad taste.

A National Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is an honor for the property.

What Makes Something Historic?

To be considered historic a building must be:

  • At lease 50 years of age – but not everything 50 years old is considered historic. There are other criteria to consider. The decision to protect historic places rests in the meaning they bring to our lives as places that define and mark our history.
  •  A building may be historic because it was designed by a well- known architect or was the first county (parish) courthouse or is the place where a significant event occurred.
  • A building may also be historic because it signifies patterns of settlement and trade, incorporated local materials and methods in construction, or because it is typical of the time.

Because there are so many factors in determining what is historic, learn about federal, state, and local interpretations and guidelines.

Types of Historic Districts

There are different types of historic districts.

  • Local Historic District
  • National Historic District
  • State Historic District, in some states, but not in Louisiana

Local Historic District

This is a district that identifies an area of a community. It offers protections to the district’s historic properties. The degree of protection depends on the local ordinance that is adopted to govern the district.

Opelousas has a local historic district that is designated by a local ordinance, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Opelousas Historic District Commission.

What the Local Historic District Does

  • It provides our community with the means to make sure that growth, development and change take place in ways that respect the important architectural, historical, cultural and environmental characteristics of the district within the community.
  • It protects the significant properties and the historic character of the community.
  • It encourages sensitive development in the district and discourages unsympathetic changes from occurring. This happens through a process called design review, whereby the Historic District Commission approves major changes that are planned for the district and issues Certificates of Appropriateness (COA) which allow the proposed changes to take place.
  • It protects a community’s historic properties and areas through a design review process.
  • It protects the historic character and quality of the district with specific design controls.
  • It designates historic areas based on local criteria and local procedures.
  • It sets district boundaries based on the distribution pattern of historic resources plus other preservation and community planning considerations.
  • It requires local Historic District Commission review and approval, based on conformance to local design guidelines before a building permit is issued for any material changes in appearance to the district.
  • It provides for review of proposed demolitions within designated areas; may prevent or delay proposed demolitions for specific time periods to allow for preservation alternatives.

What it does not do

  • It provides no additional protection from the effects of federally assisted undertakings
  • It does not qualify property owners for federal or state grants for preservation purposes
  • It does not restrict the use to which property is put in the district or require property owners to make improvements to their property
  • It does not affect federal, state, or local government activities
  • It provides no tax incentives for preservation purposes unless such incentives are provided by local, state or federal tax law.

A local designated historic district with a strong ordinance and guidelines is the only real protection for a community’s historic properties.

History of the Opelousas Local Historic District

The first Opelousas Historic District was established in 1989 by Mayor John W. Joseph and the Opelousas City Council.  A few months following that designation, the Historic District Advisory Commission, later called the Opelousas Historic District Commission, was named in 1990 with eight members. In 1991, the commission was expanded to include nine members. In 2001 the local historic district was reorganized, and the ordinance updated. New guidelines were developed, and a new Historic District Commission was appointed.

National Register Historic District

A National Historic District is a designated section of the community that is entered on the National Register of Historic Places, our country’s official list of historic places worthy of preservation.  

A listing on the National Register can help build community pride in the history of that community and its built environment.

It is an honor for the community to have a district listed on the National Register. However, the listing offers only limited protection to the district and its contributing elements. That limited protection is from effects of federally funded, licensed or permitted activities. In other words, if a business needs a federal license to operate, or a project gets federal funding or grants, the properties they are operating from, or building on, are protected and must follow certain guidelines set by the US Secretary of the Interior. (For additional information on this, see Section 106 of the US Historic Preservation Act of 1966.)

What A National Register Historic District Does

  • It identifies an area of the community that includes individual buildings, structures, sites, and objects as well as districts that are historically, architecturally, or archaeologically significant.
    • It recognizes the significance of properties and districts.
    • It identifies significant historic resources in a community.
    • Its boundaries are tightly drawn to encompass only concentrated areas of historic properties and does not affect noncontributing elements.
    • It provides information, compiled to nominate a historic district, that can also be used in a variety of planning and development activities.
    • It makes available specific preservation incentives.
    • It provides a limited degree of protection from the effects of federally funded, licensed, or permitted activities. (These protections are outlined in Section 106 of the 1966 Historic Preservation Act.)

History of the Opelousas National Historic District

The Opelousas National Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. The dedication of the national district was held on September 26, 1989. Boundaries encompass the courthouse square, buildings on two sides of the square, and an adjacent row of party wall buildings immediately to the east. 

Most of the contributing elements are historic commercial buildings and the two oldest are known to have been used as law offices. Since this district was created thirty years ago, many of the other downtown buildings may now be eligible for listing as contributing elements. It is possible to expand the national district and add more properties to the Opelousas National Register Historic District today.  

What to know about to better understand the principles of historic preservation, and historic districts.

  • Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties
  • Louisiana Main Street Design Guidelines
  • National Register of Historic Places
  • Historic Preservation Act of 1966
  • Section 106 of 1966 Historic Preservation Act
  • Certified Local Government Program (CLG)
  • Historic American Building Arts Survey (HABS)
  • Federal Historic Tax Credits
  • State of Louisiana Historic Tax Credits

For additional information on the Opelousas Historic District and the city’s National Historic District, contact Jonathan Sebastien, Chairperson of the Opelousas Historic District Commission at 323-252-2447 or email: Jonathan.sebastien@gmail.com; or Melanie Lee LeBeouf, Opelousas Historic Commission at 323-252-2447 – email: Tourism@cityofopelousas.com.