The centuries-old vertical log homes of Ste. Genevieve, Mo., are now on the official path to becoming a national park.
The National Park Service released on Friday a study declaring dozens of properties in the 4,000-person Mississippi River town as historically significant and suitable for a park designation.
The study said Ste. Genevieve, about an hour south of St. Louis, holds one of the oldest National Historic Landmark districts in the country, “possessing a large and rare collection of French vernacular vertical log houses.”
“Ste. Genevieve stands alone in terms of the character, quality, quantity and rarity of its resources,” the study says, “… and there are no comparably protected or managed areas.”
And yet many of those buildings, the study says, are inaccessible, and lack “regular comprehensive interpretation.”
“These key resources in the district are currently either rarely or never open to the public, and some require stabilization and preservation to ensure resource protection,” it says of several of the most unusual homes.
The ruling is an important and necessary step toward the creation of a national park site. The park service also opened a public comment period on Friday, running through Sept. 25.
The Park Service will then forward an official recommendation to Congress. National Park designations require either an act of Congress or an executive action by the U.S. president.
Ste. Genevieve city leaders, residents and landowners have been awaiting the study for nearly a decade.
“This is wonderful news. This is the best news,” said Hank Johnson, owner of a historic home and the nearby Chaumette Vineyards & Winery. “This is the news we’ve been waiting for all these many years.”
Johnson owns the recently restored Bequette-Ribault House, built in 1808, one of just five vertical log “poteaux-en-terre” — or post-in-ground — buildings left in the country.
Sandra Cabot, Ste. Genevieve’s director of tourism, said a park service designation would bring “a whole new level of visibility” to the town’s historic sites, and plenty of new visitors.
“It’s a big deal,” she said.
“I haven’t found a single negative,” Johnson said.
Natalie Franz, a Park Service planner and one of the study’s authors, said the service is targeting two basic concepts for a national historical site in Ste. Genevieve. The first draws boundaries around a few houses in two areas: Eight buildings on St. Mary’s Road off Old Highway 61 North; and three properties a bit farther south on the highway.
The second option adds an “affiliated area” encompassing much of the city’s historic district, in which other buildings also could have Park Service signs, interpretation, and, perhaps, funding.
The state owns several of the lots. The nonprofit National Society of the Colonial Dames owns others. And a few are still owned by private residents.
The park, if created, likely wouldn’t have formal fencing and entry gates. Visitors could amble the grounds at their leisure. And, with so many owners of all the buildings in play, the Park Service would have to either buy the properties or negotiate partnerships. Entry into the homes, several of which now charge, could be done building-by-building, or with a park-wide pass.
Franz called Ste. Genevieve “remarkable” for its French colonial architecture, and for the growth in architectural diversity, as the English, Americans and Germans moved in. She also pointed out the continued existence of the “Common Field,” a swath of land south of town still used to grow crops.
Only New Orleans gives modern visitors a better feel for French colonial life.
Still, Franz cautioned proponents not to grow impatient. Even if Congress approves a new national park in Ste. Genevieve, few new sites get much funding at first.
“Parks need a while,” she said, “to get off the ground.”