Saturday, March 31, 2018

The History of Fontainebleau State Park

Fontainebleau State Park is often the first thing New Orleans people see of St. Tammany Parish when they come over the lake on the weekends for family picnic escapes. 

Many thousands of Crescent City residents passed through these gates prior to making the decision to move across the lake permanently.

The big attractions for visitors to the park were the sandy beach on Lake Pontchartrain, the bathhouse, the picnic shelters, the beautiful oak trees, the ruins of the old sugar mill plantation, the campgrounds, the playground equipment and many other facets of the huge park. 

Below is an aerial photograph of the beach on Lake Pontchartrain at Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville. I took this picture in September of 1975. Click on the image to make it larger. 

See also:

The History of Fontainebleau State Park

According to the 1999 application for Fontainebleau State Park to be placed on the National Parks Services Registry of Historic Places, Fontainebleau State Park is of statewide significance in recreational history because it represents the beginnings of the state park movement in Louisiana. And, as a major regional park with the heaviest use in the system, Fontainebleau continues its important recreational role up to the present.

The source of the black and white photos is the application
documents for the Historic Places Registry.

Of particular importance in the late 1940s was the construction of the park's first overnight facilities — the group camp on the eastern edge. Fontainebleau also is significant in the area of politics/government because it represents the critical role of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the establishment of Louisiana state parks. 

 Operating from an average of 30 camps across the state, the CCC engaged in a variety of projects such as reforestation, park development, levee work, soil erosion control, etc. However, besides forests, very few tangible resources survive to represent this massive federal relief program in Louisiana.

The park occupies a large tract of land on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain acquired in 1829 by the legendary French Creole Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville. He named the plantation Fontainebleau after the magnificent sixteenth century estate of French king Francis I. This was a country estate for de Marigny, who maintained his principal domicile in New Orleans. 

Originally the plantation had a main house, a large sugar mill, slave houses and other buildings. Today all that remains (at least above ground) are the extensive ruins of the sugar mill along the park's main road (including two brick chimneys towering about thirty or forty feet) and the plantation's oak alley. 

Written sources and site plans from the 1938-42 period show that more foundations and ruins were visible in the park's early years.

In the 1936-37 biennial report of the State Parks Commission, it was observed that "the ruins of the Marigny family's country home and other buildings may still be seen on the site." The previously mentioned site plans show a row of double chimney foundations along each side of the oak alley - i.e., the quarters area. The main section of the sugar mill is estimated as measuring 50 by 135 feet, and numerous other foundations are shown.

Another drawing shows the main house foundation in front of the alley (between the alley and the lake).

A report issued by Roy Edgar Appleman, Acting Regional Historian, National Park Service, in 1939 contains particularly valuable information about the ruins existing at that time. Interestingly, Appleman did not think the park's master plan paid enough attention to the "great number of historical ruins of the area." He specifically noted that they had not been mapped, which is perhaps the impetus for the drawings that were done. 

Paying particular attention to the "old plantation house," Appleman wrote that its foundations were still visible above ground (indicating a house roughly 40 by 70 feet) as were the lower portions of two inside chimneys. Wells, for his part, did not seem to be as preoccupied with the ruins. He wrote: "These [the ruins] will be preserved for those interested in the early history of Louisiana. They are not spectacular, but they do give a decided legend and added interest to the area."


Fontainebleau State Park dates from the beginnings of the state parks movement in Louisiana. While the State Parks Commission (in the Department of Conservation) was created by legislative act in 1934, it did not receive any funding until 1936. Some $20,000 of this initial appropriation was earmarked for the purchase of a state park - money which soon was used to purchase what would become Fontainebleau State Park. 

Department of Conservation officials had reached an agreement with the Great Southern Lumber Company in September 1937 to purchase a 5800 acre tract on Lake Pontchartrain just east of Mandeville. Some of the land was to be set aside for a state park and the remainder was earmarked for other programs within the Department of Conservation such as reforestation, a wildlife preserve, etc. 

The purchase documents were signed on January 31, 1938; however, the State Parks Commission had begun planning the new park already. In November 1937, at the recommendation of the National Park Service, the commission hired landscape architect William W. Wells to prepare a preliminary master plan. The main part of the park one sees today reflects Wells' vision minus components of the original plan that were never realized. 


Fontainebleau, as described in the 1936-37 biennial report, was a place possessing "scenic beauty," "historical interest," and the "natural recreational features" of Lake Pontchartrain. Building upon these assets, Wells created a park where people came to swim, picnic and generally enjoy the outdoors. Although group dorms and other lodging facilities were planned from the beginning, buildings for overnight stays did not materialize until 1947-48, and then on a much reduced scale.

The development of Fontainebleau was carried out by the State Parks Commission in close consultation with the National Park Service. (Most drawings and specifications carry both names.) The labor was provided by Civilian Conservation Corps Camp SP 5, established on the western edge of the park in May 1938 with a capacity of 215 young men, four officers and four foremen. The large camp, which included four 20 x 30 foot barracks and various other buildings (per extant plans), was purpose-built and presumably removed once the CCC unit left. 

The only surviving historic building in the area is the former park office building - now a group dormitory. As noted previously, this small section of Fontainebleau is separated from the main park by two contiguous in-holdings.


CCC boys built Fontainebleau's infrastructure and buildings from 1938 to 1942. The park, initially known as Chefuncte State Park, received its official name, Fontainebleau, by act of the legislature in 1942. It formally opened on July 4, 1943.
Here is the opening day program for visitors to the new park.
Inside the opening day program was the following detailed article on the history of how the park came to be.

 An introduction to Fontainebleau  State Park
By Catherine B. Dillon

      Serving as a sanctuary for the human spirit as well as a refuge for animals and birds, the state park, owned, developed and maintained by the State, is a recreation area that provides for the man of average means and his family and friends the privileges for out­door enjoyment ordinarily afforded only by the rich. 
     Not only does the state park appeal to man's inherent love for the beauty and natural attractions of the coun­tryside, but today its function is more definitely drawn than ever before. According to Jerry Vessels, writing in The Conservation Volunteer, the "word recreation comes from re-create. In these times of national emer­gency the need for re-creating mental perspective, in­spiration, bodily health and vigor is obvious. No sound progressive nation can exist without healthy bodies, minds and souls."

     Originally called Chefuncte State Park because early property records show that the area was known as Chifonta from the nearby river, Fontainebleau State Park consists of 1000 acres of which 880 were acquired any purchase February 24, 1939 for the sum of $10,000.00. 
     This area occupies the site of Fontainebleau, the former summer plantation home of Bernard de Marigny (1785-­1868), an important and colorful figure in the public af­fairs, legends and folklore of 19th century Louisiana. The choice of this land, although the first to be pur­chased by the State Parks Commission, was not a hap­hazard one. 
     A survey of the state was made to de­termine where and what type of recreational develop­ments were needed, and the selection of this St. Tam­many tract was based on its finding.

    In September, 1937, after it had been recommend­ed by both state and federal authorities as an ideal location for a combination state park and conservation reservation, combining a state forest and game preserve, an agreement for the purchase of an area consisting of 5,800 acres on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain was made between the Louisiana State Department of Conservation and the Great Southern Lumber Company. 
     Although the deeds had not yet been signed, in Novem­ber of the same year, the State Parks Commission em­ployed William W. Wells, a landscape architect recom­mended by the National Park Service, to prepare a mas­ter plan for the development of the park. The section, known as the "Nott Tract," but previously acquired in 1829 by Bernard de Marigny from Marcelin and Amelie Bonnabel and Jean Louis Rabaud, combines scenic beauty, historical interest, and natural recreational fea­tures—sand beach, fine fishing, and the opportunity for boating and other aquatic sports. Negotiations for the sale were completed and the deed signed January 31, 1938.

     Of the property purchased, 2,000 acres are situ­ated immediately east of the town of Mandeville, be­tween Bayou Castin and Cane Bayou, south of US 190. The State Parks Commission purchased from the Con­servation Department a triangular tract of this land bounded on the north by US 190, on the west by Bayou Castin, on the south by Lake Pontchartrain, and on the east by a line beginning about 1,000 feet from the park entrance extending approximately north and south half­way between Bayou Castin and Cane Bayou. 
     This di­vision, with its one-and-a-half mile frontage on the best part of the lake and a depth which varies from 2 to 3 miles, its fine trees and structural remains of the grandeur that once was Fontainebleau, was selected as most suitable for recreational development.

     For the reason that it is situated halfway between New Orleans and Bogalusa, near the largest population center in Louisiana, this park promises to be a popular resort. Its unlimited scenic value and historic signifi­cance as well as its accessibility, not only to New Or­leans, but to the Florida parishes and to the population radiating from Bogalusa give this park an enviable ad­vantage over others. 

     An old roadway that probably served the Marigny Plantation in the 19th century, in accordance with the master plan, leads into the park. Demands of modern transportation made it necessary to overrule any objec­tions to changing the historical aspect of this entrance­way, nevertheless, the opinion in favor of its use as a means of approaching the park carried the suggestion to retain the rustic appearance of the roadway as much as practicably possible. So those who make the journey to the park tract will cover, in entering, the ground traversed by Bernard de Marigny's family and guests to the portals of Fontainebleau. 

     The construction plans prepared for the Fontainebleau State Park by the State Parks Commission were designed to give the St. Tammany Parish area all that a state park should have in the way of facilities, and because of the natural advantages of the section, even more attractions than the average recreational grounds.
     The development of this plan has reached its present stage through the co-operation existing among the Civil­ian Conservation Corps, the National Park Service and the State Parks Commission. As the principal portion of the land to be developed lies along the lakefront where the natural advantages and delightful breezes are most evident, the greatest problem confronting the Parks Commission in carrying out its plan was a considerable amount of dredging and filling that had to be done in order to make the work a success.

     To provide a quiet body of water for small boats and fishing, a large lagoon within the State Parks' prop­erty is to be dredged and deepened so that its surface will measure, east to west, 5,000 feet, by, north to south, 300 feet, with a depth varying from three to five feet.

     All of the buildings designed for Fontainebleau State Park are to be kept within the early Louisiana Colonial style of architecture. Landscape planting will be restricted to native flowers and shrubs, so that when completed, the area will reflect a true picture of the indigenous culture of Louisiana. The master plan of the park provides for two separate types of recreational development: one to include a public bathhouse, picnic shelters, a lodge including a lounge, dining-room and dance floor, and a group of vacation cottages for family  use to be located around the dredged lagoon. 
     All of these buildings are to be erected on the east end of the park close to the lake. The second phase of development caters to groups such as Boy and Girl Scouts, fraternal and religious societies, annual outings of corporations and similar organizations. For these, a separate beach and bathhouse will be provided at a special group camp.

     Of the projects incorporated in the original plan, the following are already completed: entrance gateway, ranger's dwelling, entrance road and parking area, con­cession building, picnic shelter, picnic area, colonnades, public rest rooms, pump houses, equipment storage build­ing, the water system, electric system, sewerage system and the bathhouse. The lake has been dredged for bathing purposes and the resultant fill graded to form a beach.

     Besides its recreational accommodations, the Fon­tainebleau State Park will serve as an outdoor laboratory of natural history, where students of nature from edu­cational institutions, as well as born naturalists, who learn by observation, will find much to interest them along the shell-covered woodland trails leading to and from the various projects at this park, where Nature has done her utmost to make things appealing to those who love the beauties she produces.

     The development of Louisiana State Parks is be­ing carried out under the supervision of the State Parks Commission.

     Much of the credit for this work in recent years goes to E. Herman Guillory, District Attorney, Ville Platte, for his active interest as Chairman of the Com­mission. The other members of the Commission, whose aid has been invaluable, are Miss Lucille May Grace, Register, State Land Office, DeWitt L. Pyburn, Direc­tor, Department of Public Works, James Bienvenu, St. Martinville, and Dan W. Stewart, Jr., Minden. William W. Wells is acting as Director during the absence of Captain Carroll L. Wood, Jr., now on active military duty. We are also indebted to Representative Fred J. Heintz, Covington, Louisiana, for sponsoring legislation which made the functioning of the State Parks Commis­sion possible.

Fontainebleau State Park is located just east of Mandeville on Lake Pontchartrain, a huge brackish body of water extending some thirty miles from St. Tammany Parish on the north to New Orleans on the south. Today's park encompasses land on both sides of Highway 190, but only that portion south of the highway was developed for recreational use during the historic period. 



Bathhouse (1939)
Positioned facing "a fine sand beach" (per an early assessment), the large one story brick veneer bathhouse features a system of hipped roofs crowned by a slender cupola. The central section of the facade features a Doric gallery which projects forward under its own hipped roof at mid-point. A CCC-built brick walk leads to the lake, which is now only a few yards away. The rear of the bathhouse has a projecting arcaded porch with a decorative brickwork band above the arches. 


The bathhouse interior retains much of its original character, with changing and bathing facilities for each sex on either side of a central area. Walls and ceilings are sheathed in wooden boards, and changing stalls line each side of the main rooms. Originally the area behind the bathhouse was grassy; today there is a pool there.

The history of the beach development in front of the bathhouse is not documented completely in available primary sources. There was a natural beach there already, but it is clear that this was expanded. For example, the biennial report for 1942-43 has a picture with the caption "newly completed beach," although the same report calls attention to the need for funding to purchase sand. Undated drawings at State Parks show the extent the beach had been encroached upon by Lake Pontchartrain. In summation, the strip of beach at Fontainebleau today is not as extensive as what was there at one time.

Picnic Colonnade/Pavilion (1940)

On one side of the bathhouse is a long low colonnade with a hipped roof open pavilion at one end and a large open octagonal pavilion with a faceted roof at the lake end. The building is formed of brick piers with an openwork brick balustrade. A  distinctive feature of Fontainebleau, the decorative brickwork forms cruciform cutouts. The colonnade with its pavilions is completely unchanged, including exposed truss ceilings and a brick fireplace in the hipped roof pavilion.

Flanking Colonnade
As noted previously, this colonnade originally ended (on the land side) in a handsome two-story faux French Creole plantation house. While about half of the original construction survives (lake side), due to this serious loss, the building is being counted as non-contributing for the purposes of this nomination. The hipped roof pavilion on the lake side with its signature openwork balustrade and the first seven bays of the colonnade survive. The remaining colonnade bays are reconstructed, and the present hipped roof pavilion is where the plantation house-cum-restaurant stood.

Picnic Area Restroom (1940)
This hipped-roof brick veneer building with a "kick" at the eaves is very Louisiana in overall feeling. Actually very little space is for bathrooms, with most of the building being given over to a columnar porch across the front and down most of each side. The Doric columns rests on concrete bases with a concrete floor at grade level. 

Picnic Shelter (1946)
While this moderate size building has received some alterations, it still retains most of its character-defining appearance and hence is being considered a contributing element. The main hipped roof rectangular part of the shelter terminates at one end in a faceted section containing a fireplace with a chimney. There is also a forwardprojecting section with its own hip roof. All roofs have a flare, or "kick," at the eaves.

Originally, the shelter had a largely open character, with the exception of sections which were "enclosed" by decorative openwork brick of the type found elsewhere at the park. Today, the previously open sections between piers have been enclosed with wood and screening, and the openwork brick walls on the faceted end section have been bricked in.

A small group camp on the eastern perimeter is the last of the park's components to be added during the historic period (using the Register's fifty year cutoff). Built in 1947-48 in a secluded spot near Cane Bayou at some distance from the park's day use area, this development marked the beginning of group camp facilities at Fontainebleau, the lack thereof having been a considerable weakness. As noted previously, the master plan provided for various group camp facilities, although in another location.

Work consisted of building a road to the site, building a dam and creating "a naturalistic swimming lake," and the construction of three buildings — all of which survive. The road leading to the group camp is about one mile from the main park entrance. It extends in a curving fashion about half a mile from Highway 190 to the camp site, ending at the dam. The "naturalistic lake" is shaped like one of New York's "finger lakes." Located between it and nearby Cane Bayou is the group camp, which enjoys a peaceful setting among large pine trees. The surrounding area is heavily forested.

The three wood frame one-story buildings are grouped around an open area, which is now crisscrossed with sidewalks and has a paved barbecue area. The two long dorm buildings are sheathed in board and batten and originally had a deep inset screened porch at the center. (The porches are in the process of being enclosed in board and batten.) The main roof is gabled, with a hipped roof section at each end. 

The dorms retain their original floorplans and spartan interiors. A large dorm room, accessed from the porch, is on each side. Off the rear of each dorm room is a tiny counselor's room and a bathroom. The walls are sheathed in boards with a slight bevel, the ceilings are sheathed in flushboards, and the flooring is wooden. Interior modifications have been confined to the conversion of the counselors' rooms in one building to bathrooms and general bathroom modernization. On the exterior, in addition to the porch enclosures, handicapped access ramps have been added to both dorms.

Drawings show that the group camp's kitchen/dining room building is a 1948 remodeling and expansion of a small building on site. Essentially the roofline of an existing gable end building was raised, and a long lower gable end wing was added. The former contains the kitchen and two bedrooms, the latter the dining room. It appears that the existing building was completely renovated on the exterior, with the bungalow-style screened porch dating from that time.

The kitchen/dining room building is very well preserved on the interior, including even its bathroom. The dining space is one long room with numerous windows down each side which open upward to the ceiling where hooks hold them in place. The kitchen section with its two small bedrooms and a bathroom definitely has the feel of a rustic park. There is a massive brick fireplace in the kitchen and distinctive wooden window and door frames throughout."

That ends the extensive quote from the 1999 application to place Fontainebleau on the National Registry of Historic Places. 
Public officials meet at a lakeside park pavilion to discuss the future of the park. They represent environmental, business, Mandeville, tourist, and state legislative interests.


See also:

Native People of Fontainebleau State Park

Golf Course Planned for Fontainebleau State Park in 1937