Southern University aims to restore its oldest and most historic building

It was once the university president’s home … and the administration building … and a dormitory … and a dining hall—and sometimes all those things at once.

Known as the Archives Building and dating back to 1840, the historic structure with just six rooms became part of the original campus when Southern University moved to Baton Rouge from New Orleans in 1914.

Last November, the university received a nearly $500,000 grant from the National Parks Service to restore what was affectionately called “The Little White House.”

Sitting on the edge of the bluff overlooking the turn of the Mississippi River north of downtown, it rests on the highest point on campus—and likely the highest point in the city, too.

“That building, probably thousands of people pass by it regularly. It’s an unassuming building, but it is important for Southern,” says C. Reuben Walker, executive vice chancellor for Southern’s AgCenter and the lead grant writer on the project. “We do not have the funds of other universities. Our ability to restore it is limited. So we’re appreciative of the National Parks Service that they have this program.”

Walker, Facility Services Director Maurice Pitts and several other university administrators delved into the long history of the building in order to secure the NPS grant, which was awarded to 18 historic properties at HBCUs across the country.

Their plans are to repair and restore the structure to use it as an interpretive center for visitors and to store important university artifacts.

Walker sees it as a starting point for visitors and tour groups of the university grounds. “It’s a very important part of the fabric of the university,” he says.

And while rehabilitation work is set to be complete by the middle of the year, Walker already has his eyes on the next restoration project: The Martin L. Harvey auditorium building just two doors down. It once served as a meeting place for organizers of the Baton Rouge bus boycotts and sit-ins of the civil rights era. It also hosted speaking engagements from major civil rights figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois.

At press time, Walker had submitted a grant to the NPS African American Civil Rights Grant Program, with hopes of soon adding the building to the historic preservation already happening at Southern.

This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue of 225 magazine.