Old Houma firehouse nearing demolition

Gwen Dupre Pitre wasn’t just going to let them tear it down without knowing who built it up.

Pitre stood before the Terrebonne Parish Special Council at a special meeting regarding condemnations in October. She was there to speak about the history of the property at 198 Engeron St. in Houma, including her own times spent there.

“Countless dances and wedding receptions were held there. I learned to waltz there. I even took a dance lesson there,” Pitre said.

The location was once was a vital part of Pitre’s neighborhood. The building at 198 Engeron used to be a firehouse for the Greater Houma Volunteer Fire Department in the 1950s, providing emergency assistance on the city’s east side.

According to Pat Gordon, former director of planning and zoning for Terrebonne Parish, after the city of Houma took over fire duties in the area, the location was leased out to the Krewe of Flames, a Carnival club started in the late 1950s. Pitre, flipping through old photos at her home, said her mother was the first queen of the Krewe of Flames in 1958 because the woman originally set to be queen was bumped out of the running.

“Well, the story is, Momma became the first queen because the lady that was supposed to be queen was with child, and she couldn’t fit in the dress. So Momma became the queen,” Pitre said.

Pitre recalled all the times she spent at 198 Engeron as a youth. She remembered the keno and bingo nights the krewe would host to keep the bills paid. Pitre wasn’t immune from joining in the effort, either, as she would sell popcorn during events to help raise more money. She even recalls the bad times, such as when she got a splinter while sliding around the wooden floor in her socks.

“I’ve got a lot, a lot of memories from that building,” Pitre said.

However, what was once a community staple is no more. In the 2000s, membership has dwindled to a halt, and the Krewe of Flames is now defunct. 198 Engeron is no longer a local spot for revelers during each holiday; it is instead a beat up, worn down building with busted windows and debris both inside and out. It has become a prime location only for vermin.

The old firehouse was one of 36 locations evaluated at the council’s special meeting. While code enforcement officers discover a few of the blighted properties while riding around the parish, most of them come to the department’s attention via neighbor complaints, according to Deon Stewart, a code enforcement officer for the parish’s planning and zoning department.

Code enforcement officers examine properties and notify owners of code violations, advising the owner to fix the violations before the parish council’s next quarterly hearing, when condemnation hearings are regularly held.

The officer will then inspect the property shortly before the next hearing and pass along the information to Stewart, who advises the council what action it should take on the property. If little to no renovations have been made, Stewart will suggest condemnation. However, as happened back on Oct. 19 when the property at 189 Engeron St. was discussed, the council frequently will choose to continue the process until the next hearing, according to Gordon. Councilmembers often weigh in, changing the parish’s direction.

“We may be making a recommendation to tear it down, but the councilman knows the property’s been sold a week ago and the new owners want to renovate the building. Sometimes we don’t know that,” Gordon said. “So it’s very often that the council will take a different approach from staff because they know a little bit more about what’s taking place.”

According to Gordon, in many cases the owners are deceased, and the heirs cannot be found. In such situations, attorney William Dunckelman is assigned as an ad hoc attorney who will put out an ad to find the owner. If nobody can be found, he will inform the council at the next condemnation hearing. The council can choose to continue the process until the next hearing if they have learned about a family having trouble with the succession, or go ahead with condemnation.

“What I like about it the most is that it gets families together to say, ‘We have to do something about Mom and Pop’s house that’s been sitting there vacant for a couple of years. Why don’t we go ahead and renovate it?’ Now that we’ve pushed them to that point, they’ll renovate the house,” Gordon said.

However, owners who drag their feet in repairing the property can wear the council’s patience thin. At the Oct. 19 meeting, the council heard the case of a property on Bayouside Drive. After Stewart presented her information, District 8 Councilman Dirk Guidry immediately moved to condemn the property, even with the homeowner present. Guidry said the owner had been to multiple hearings and done minimal repairs each time.

“It’s time for us to do something and quit playing this game,” the councilman said.

The council backed Guidry’s motion and condemned the property. In the case of the old firehouse on Engeron, no owners could be found. Dunckelman said the property is still listed under the Greater Houma Volunteer Fire Department, but that all original members are deceased. Additional efforts to find leads on owners have been unsuccessful.

Once a property has been condemned, the owner typically has 30 days to repair the property or demolish it. If he or she cannot or does not in that time frame, the parish will proceed with tearing down the property itself, and requesting the owner pay the cost. If the owner does not pay the cost, a tax lien is put on the property, and it will soon go to a tax sale.

Gordon said most of these houses are blighted and uninhabited, and houses with people living in them usually do not go through the condemnation process. While the department has condemned houses in the past, the parish tries to work with those living in houses and requests they fix their code violations. Gordon sees condemning a house with residents as a last-ditch resort to fixing blight.

“That’s not our goal, to make people homeless. Our goal is to create additional housing for people by having the owners renovate the structures that are in poor condition,” Gordon said.

Stewart said that the parish’s condemnation program has ramped up under Parish President Michel Claudet’s administration. Stewart said that over the last four years, her department has demolished 72 properties, while owners have knocked down 176 properties themselves. Since 2014, 56 owners have come into compliance by repairing properties. In a presentation he gave at the Chamber of Commerce membership meeting on Oct. 27, Claudet said there have been 984 structures torn down since 2008.

“I think Mr. Claudet was very, very adamant in cleaning up the parish. Not that the previous [administration] wasn’t, but I think that was one of the more specific areas that he wanted to tackle,” Stewart said. “And so in doing so he made things available to us, he made more funding available to us.”

Stewart said the deadline for the owner to come forth and work on the old firehouse is Nov. 30. If nobody comes forward, the parish will demolish it. As of now, she expects it to be demolished before the end of this year.

At the hearing for 198 Engeron, Pitre, fighting back tears, told the council that she would at least like a keepsake from the demolition.

“I have a lot of good memories of that building. But it is time for it to go. It’s in deplorable shape, and for old time’s sake, I would like at least a brick,” she said. •

Old Houma firehouseKARL GOMMEL | THE TIMES