Caddo Hall’s tile murals hold historical importance for community

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By Times Staff

Caddo Hall, an aging and now-empty dormitory on Northwestern State University’s (NSU) campus, is set to be demolished as Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts (LSMSA) students will occupy a new dormitory beginning this school year. Many might be unaware of the beautiful tile murals that have been housed in the hall since it was built in the 1960s.

Caddo Hall began construction in May 1960. An article published by the university’s newspaper, the Current Sauce, reported around 300 female students occupied the new dormitory the following summer just before the three-story building was fully complete.

The beautiful tile mosaic art in the entrance is a creation of the late Orville Hanchey, a renowned artist who taught at NSU. The art gallery in the Creative and Performing Arts building bears his name. The murals were created on site during construction.

The tiles depict facets of campus life at NSU circa 1960. The last residents were students at LSMSA who vacated it in the spring.

A musician playing a cello, the water tower, theatrical masks, gymnastics, nursing, students dancing, a graduate and more are part of the mural. Probably the most poignant icon is of the gates at the entrance to NSU.

Jason Church, Chief of Technical Services for the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), said they were approached by Thomas Whitehead to see if saving the tiles was feasible. “We’ve worked with him for years. When he heard the building was going to be demolished, he came to us and we said ‘absolutely,” said Church. “There’s not a lot of public art in Natchitoches or on campus. We need to do everything we can to save them.”

Whitehead has called this a case of rescuing “public art” that is in danger of being lost. Only six tiles have gone missing since the murals took up residence in the 1960s, but otherwise they are in excellent condition. Whitehead said these tiles were perfect- also considering their location has been semi-exposed to the elements in the entrance of the building.

Church called the murals a neat “snap-shot” of campus life at the time. “Thousands and thousands of both NSU and LSMSA students have walked up and down Caddo’s staircase, passing by the tile murals countless times. “They have become a part of an institutional memory of NSU and LSMSA,” said Church. “We should try to save every bit of art that we have.”

“[The tiles] are really well constructed. The sub-structure of that building is really amazing,” said Church. “The tiles are very well intact and worth saving. What would become of them is beyond our scope.” Northwestern State University is currently working with the NCPTT to determine how the murals can be detached and moved before demolition begins.

Interim NSU President Dr. Marcus Jones says he has seen the murals and agrees they should be saved. He says Director of University Affairs Jennifer Kelly has the task of determining if the murals can be detached and safely moved to another building.

“Tommy Whitehead is working with the NCPTT to determine the costs to move these,” said Kelly. “He is also trying to locate a place on campus for relocation. Once we have an estimated cost and plan on relocating these murals, Mr. Whitehead will work on raising the necessary funds for the relocation.”

Church said they are bringing in a preservation expert in September to consult on a plan to effectively remove the murals. As of now, the plan to take out the tiles is to remove the backside of the building wall. “Ideally, we’ll pick areas between the artwork. There are gaps of color between some of the scenes. We’ll remove strips of those tiles, cut the top and bottom and lower the back into the building, then take them out the front of the building.”

Caddo Hall is scheduled for demolition in six to eight months. A new location for these tiles is still up in the air, but the artwork is lucky having so many figureheads working to preserve its legacy.