Abandoned building in Louisiana

Miller-Roy Building, Monroe Louisiana
Date added: February 23, 2023 Categories: Louisiana Commercial
Main facade (Desiard Street Elevation) and North Eleventh Street Elevation, Northwest (2010)

The Miller-Roy Building served as the business hub for the African American business district in Monroe from 1929 until the 1960s. It served as a small business incubator, leading to the creation of other local African American businesses, as well as housing many long-term businesses. Today, it is the only building that remains representing this once-thriving district.

Just prior to the Great Depression, Dr. J.C. Roy and Dr. J.T. Miller saw the need for a building that would house African American professional and business offices as well as a place where African Americans could go for entertainment. Their forethought led to the construction of the Miller-Roy Building in 1929, built by an African American contractor, J.A. Beckwith. While the rest of the country was feeling the effects of the Great Depression, these two men managed to show the Monroe and Ouachita Parish African American community that business and life could survive in such harsh financial times. The doctors' and building's impact were noticed by the African American community as seen in this quote from Reverend Roosevelt Wright, an expert on the Miller-Roy Building: "It was the place, the calling card. Basically what it said to all the other African Americans was that this can be done. . . .Others came along after it and you ended up with a business district that ran all the way from Fifth Street, called Five Points, all the way down to Fourteenth Street, with heavy traffic."

The first floor storefronts housed businesses over the years such as the Savoy Pool Hall, Marie's Beauty Shop, Houston Boutique, Chicken Shack Cafe, various barber shops, and the Greenfront Pool Room. The second floor had professional offices including several dental practices and doctor's offices including those of Drs. Roy and Miller. One doctor whose offices were located in the building, Dr. Governor McClanahan, was referred to as Monroe's senior physician in an article touting his success both professionally and in the community at large. Other spaces held offices of African American lawyers, tailors, and insurance companies such as Lighthouse Insurance, Keystone Insurance, Standard Life Insurance, and Peoples Insurance, all of which catered to African Americans. The African American newspaper, the Monroe Broadcast, also had offices in this building and was run by Sherman Briscoe. The city directories from the 1930s through the 1960s show these businesses as continually occupying the Miller-Roy Building, sometimes moving from one location in the building to another. Some businesses eventually grew and moved out of the Miller-Roy, thus showing that the building also served as a local African American small business incubator. One such business was Pierce's Pharmacy, which was located at 1001 Desiard from the early 1930s until the early 1940s when it moved to a location adjacent to the Miller-Roy Building. The building also housed the Negro Chamber of Commerce, which was important for African American businesses and for social programs such as vocational education and Civil Rights activities.

In addition to housing African American businesses, the Miller-Roy building also provided space for vocational education within the African American community, which further boosted the breadth of African American professionals within Monroe. In the early decades of the twentieth century, African American leaders were advocating for vocational education. The Tuskegee Institute, which was led by Booker T. Washington, was one such institution that educated its students to learn needed skills that would benefit society. Ibra January came back to Monroe after graduating from Tuskegee and advocated for vocational education in Monroe. Trained as a tailor, he opened up tailoring schools. Meetings were held at the Miller-Roy Building at the Negro Chamber of Commerce where plans were made for these vocational schools in Monroe and Ouachita Parish. Other tailors also opened up schools including Lucius White, whose school was housed on the third floor of the Miller-Roy Building starting in 1949 until the mid-1960s.

Lucius White's Tailoring School and the numerous other businesses housed in the Miller-Roy Building created a significant amount of daily pedestrian traffic. On a daily basis, the Miller-Roy Building was "never quiet," and, "every space in there was occupied with black businesses . . . They didn't have no empties," according to local Zeke Zimmerman. Prior to integration, this black business district along Desiard Street was the only place where African Americans could conduct business. Reverend Roosevelt Wright describes this bustling business district, which was, "killed by integration. Once they integrated, the businesses lost their edge. Many of them could say, well don't shop where you can't work. Well now once they're integrated, you've lost that angle. Then they would say, don't buy clothes where they won't let you try them on. Once that changed, you lost that angle too."

Post integration, the businesses in the Miller-Roy and surrounding area had to compete with larger businesses, much like a mom-and-pop store competing with a national chain. Slowly, the businesses began to be abandoned. Urban Renewal also contributed to the area's decline, and the area that once spanned ten blocks along Desiard Street turned into a ghost town. When visiting the Miller-Roy Building today, Zeke Zimmerman advised, "You just have to imagine a whole strip of buildings just like the Miller-Roy going down Desiard."

The Miller-Roy Building is the only building left in the ten-block area that has connections to the African American business district. It was one of the earliest buildings in the area and served as a business hub for the local African American community on a city-wide and parish-wide level. After integration, the African American businesses lost patronage due to more competition and eventually, many, including those in the Miller-Roy, closed. Disrepair, neglect, and the test of time led to the loss of many of the area's buildings. Today, the Miller-Roy is the lone survivor of this once vibrant district.

The third floor of the Miller-Roy Building was designed to serve as a place for African Americans to go for entertainment. There was already such a place in Monroe for whites, but no place for Monroe's African Americans existed. Dr. Miller and Dr. Roy included the idea of creating an entertainment venue for African Americans into the construction of their building. The space was named the Savoy Ballroom and popular big bands and jazz musicians performed there from the building's completion until 1949, when the ballroom was listed as vacant in Monroe city directories. In addition to serving as an entertainment venue, the third floor also served as the local African American high school's gym for a few years in the 1930s and basketball games were played there.

Some of the artists, who would later become well known names, included Count Basie, Turner Bradshaw, Lena Horne and the Andy Kirk Band, the Nina McKenzie Group, the Lucky Miller Band, Billy Eckstine, Rosetta Tharpe, Marie Knight, and Louis Armstrong. Described as "worldly," the Savoy Ballroom was a place where people put on their finest and came from miles away and sometimes from other states, depending on who the act was that night. Patrons listened to the music and danced the popular dances including the Jitterbug.

During segregation, African American artists wanted to play at venues where they were allowed to come through the front door or sleep there as well. Louis Armstrong was known to say that if he couldn't sleep at a venue, he didn't want to play there. Because of the rigid segregation, many African American artists began playing on what was known as the Chitlin' Circuit. It was named the Chitlin' Circuit because after the artists performed, they could get a meal of chitterlings (chitlin's), fried chicken, or whatever happened to be served that night. The circuit had stops all over the eastern and southern United States and one of the stops on the Chitlin' Circuit was the Savoy Ballroom.

Today, some of the buildings that are associated with the Chitlin' Circuit still exist and have become important historical landmarks. Indianola, Mississippi, the home of blues musician B.B. King, has a blues museum, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, which has exhibits about the Chitlin' Circuit and its importance to the African American community and the music world. Other venues, including those in larger cities like New York, Detroit, and Atlanta, are still in operation today. The Savoy Ballroom stopped operating in 1949 and would later house Lucius White's Tailoring School for two decades. During the 1970s, it was attempted to put a nightclub back in the former Savoy Ballroom, but the business did not succeed. The Miller-Roy Building and Savoy Ballroom were significant places for the local African American community, serving as a place that was safe and acceptable for musicians and patrons during a time of rigid segregation.

In addition to its significance in commerce and entertainment, the Miller-Roy Building was also integral to the Civil Rights movement within Monroe and Ouachita Parish beginning in the 1930s. Started in 1935, The Monroe Broadcast, operated by Sherman Briscoe, was run out of the Miller-Roy Building and served as the African American newspaper. Mr. Briscoe was also a teacher at the local African American high school. Some of the issues that were published in The Monroe Broadcast included protests for the anti-lynching laws. Also, early NAACP activities were coming out of the Miller-Roy Building. Drs. Miller and Roy were secret members of the NAACP because at the time, it was illegal to be a part of what was termed a subversive organization. In the 1970s, boxes were found in the building that contained checks made out by the doctors to the NAACP. Proceeds not only from the doctors, but also from the tenants, who would pay their rent and then some on the side to the NAACP, were going to help the fight for equal rights.

The building continued to house NAACP offices throughout the decades leading up to the 1960s. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, also had offices in the Miller-Roy Building during the early 1960s. Local Civil Rights activities including sit-ins and the integration of the bus system, the downtown businesses, the Ouachita Parish library, and the University of Louisiana at Monroe all began as discussions in the Miller-Roy Building. The CORE office served as a regional office and would send representatives out to all of the surrounding communities to advocate for equal rights for African Americans. Meticulous records were kept including daily journals of activities and are now housed at the University of Wisconsin.

Building Description

Located at the corner of Desiard and North Tenth Streets in Monroe, Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, the Miller-Roy Building is a three story brick masonry commercial building. When it was completed in 1929, the Miller-Roy was sandwiched between other commercial buildings in a once bustling African American business district. All of these buildings, including its former neighbors the Ritz Theater, Pierce's Pharmacy and Lounge, and the Lincoln Night Club, have since been demolished. Directly across Desiard Street to the south from the Miller-Roy is the Old City Cemetery. There have been minor alterations done to the building with the updating of the storefront materials and extension of the awnings over the storefronts.

The main facade, facing south on Desiard Street, has five bays on each of the three floors. The first floor has three storefronts. Two are angular and recessed; the third (located at the facade's center) is straight and stands within the plane of the facade. A flat awning above the storefront runs the length of this facade. Located directly above the awning, there are three multi-light transoms topped by a decorative soldier course. While this building is simply styled, it does have several areas of decorative brickwork above and below the window openings. The brickwork on this facade is laid in a 5 to 1 common bond with five stretcher courses alternating with one course of Flemish bond. The second and third floors of this facade have five one-over-one wood windows with a decorative brick sill. Like the transom windows on the first floor, these windows also have a decorative soldier course above them. The most decorative elements of the building are located above the third-floor windows and at the cornice line. Centered below the cornice is a recessed terra cotta panel with the building's date of construction and name. Three stretcher brick courses, each recessed slightly from the other, border this element. Flanking the terra cotta ornamentation are two more decorative brick elements that feature rectangles of soldier courses bordered by headers. Topping this facade is a corbelled brick dentil pattern that also runs along the North Tenth Street facade. Because of the building's location on a corner, both the Desiard and North Tenth Street elevations have the most architectural details. The Adams Street and North Eleventh Street elevations have less detail as they were formerly covered or blocked by adjacent buildings.

The North Tenth Street elevation, facing west, also has storefronts on the first floor. In fact, the Desiard storefront appears to wrap around the corner from the front although a thick pier actually separates the two areas. There are also three more storefronts with multi-light transoms located near the north side of the North Tenth Street facade. The storefronts also feature recessed entries. An awning on the west elevation originally covered only the storefront areas, but the awning was later extended to cover the entire length of this elevation. Currently, the awning covers approximately half the length of this elevation. The transoms have been covered with wood to protect them from vandalism. Centrally located on this facade is another recessed entry that retains remnants of a pressed tin ceiling. The second floor has a large central arch-topped multi-light window flanked by four, one-over-one wood windows on each side. An archivolt surrounds the top of this window. The third floor has a central set of double windows also flanked by four windows on each side. The same decorative brickwork is found on this elevation as well as the corbelled brick dentil course along the cornice.

The rear elevation, facing north towards Adams Street, has fewer decorative masonry details and has a similar fenestration to the main facade. The brick used on this elevation and the North Eleventh Street elevation is a lighter red color than the North Tenth and Desiard Street elevations and has all stretcher courses. The first floor has two central doors at the ground level; each door has a single light transom. Two, one-over-one wood windows flank these doors. The windows appear to have a large single-light transom above them. A fire escape stair begins at the lower western corner of the first floor and crosses the width of the building ending in the upper eastern corner. The second floor has five, one-over-one wood windows and a door located just west of the central window. This door serves as an emergency fire exit. The third floor has four, one-over-one windows and the first bay to the east of the central window is another door serving as a fire exit. There are two vertical downspouts on each edge of this elevation. A simple masonry band runs along the cornice continuing onto the North Eleventh Street elevation.

The elevation opposite the North Tenth Street elevation, facing east towards North Eleventh Street, has the same general fenestration as the North Tenth Street elevation except that there are no large central bays. Rather the second and third floors have nine, one-over-one wood windows. The first floor has eight single-pane square windows beginning at the second bay. These windows are at the same height as the transom windows on the Desiard Street facade. The same simple masonry band that runs along the cornice on the rear elevation also runs along the cornice on this elevation.

The interior of this building has been vacant for some time, but the floor plan has been used for the same purposes throughout its history. The first floor housed businesses whose storefronts faced Desiard and North Tenth Streets. The second floor housed office space and the third floor served as a ballroom and entertainment space. It was not possible to access the interior of the building, but it was visible from the exterior that there is significant roof damage, which has led to the failure of the ceiling and floor structure. It is likely that the majority of the interior decorations have been lost due to damage.

Miller-Roy Building, Monroe Louisiana Main facade (Desiard Street Elevation), North (2010)
Main facade (Desiard Street Elevation), North (2010)

Miller-Roy Building, Monroe Louisiana Miller Roy Sign near cornice on main facade (Desiard Street Elevation), North (2010)
Miller Roy Sign near cornice on main facade (Desiard Street Elevation), North (2010)

Miller-Roy Building, Monroe Louisiana Main facade (Desiard Street Elevation) and North Eleventh Street Elevation, Northwest (2010)
Main facade (Desiard Street Elevation) and North Eleventh Street Elevation, Northwest (2010)

Miller-Roy Building, Monroe Louisiana North Tenth Street Elevation, Northeast (2010)
North Tenth Street Elevation, Northeast (2010)

Miller-Roy Building, Monroe Louisiana Pressed tin ceiling above central entrance on North Tenth Street Elevation, Northeast (2010)
Pressed tin ceiling above central entrance on North Tenth Street Elevation, Northeast (2010)

Miller-Roy Building, Monroe Louisiana Corner of North Tenth Street Elevation and Adams Street Elevation  (2010)
Corner of North Tenth Street Elevation and Adams Street Elevation (2010)