By T. Scott Boatright
It was a divisive and emotional enough debate that it took up more than 25 minutes of discussion during Ruston’s monthly Board of Aldermen meeting held Monday night at City Hall.
And in the end, no decision was made. At least not yet.
At stake is the fate of the beloved building that housed Sarah’s Kitchen restaurant on Lee Street, owned and managed by the late Sarah Albritton and her husband Robert. Sarah died last November at the age of 84.
It was the go-to soul food restaurant for area residents in the 1980s and especially the ’90s. The restaurant’s quaint look was Albritton’s idea harkening to her days growing up in poverty here in Lincoln Parish.
The restaurant at 609 Lee St. has been closed since 1999 and is now on the list of Substandard Buildings being considered for abatement based on a Ruston city ordinance.
Albritton’s daughter, Daphne Albritton Large of Trussville, Alabama, attended Monday’s meeting to plead her case for keeping the building intact and as is.
“I feel offended, personally,” Large told the Board of Aldermen. “I know this is standard business for you all, but my mother only closed her eyes six months ago. And we have this particular ordinance being discussed by you all. So it’s very difficult to have to stand here and have to defend Sarah’s Kitchen as it is known. To ask that it not be demolished.
“Sarah’s Kitchen is part of the history of this particular town. It’s brought this town notoriety from magazines, and television stations. etc.”
In 12 years of operation from 1987-99, Sarah’s Kitchen received extensive publicity with feature articles in north Louisiana newspapers, urban newspapers such as the Atlanta Tribune and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, as well as regional magazines including Louisiana Life and Southern Living. Albritton’s television and film appearances range from KNOE’s “Good Morning Ark-La-Miss” and Louis Redden’s “Backroads” to Louisiana Public Broadcasting Chef John Folse’s “A Taste of Louisiana” and a documentary produced in France, “Good Things of America.”
Large went on to say she did not believe officials understood what the building formerly known as Sarah’s Kitchen is supposed to look, and maybe more importantly, feel, at least aesthetically.
“The building official (City Inspector Bill Sanderson) has described the building as being substandard,” Large said. “However, if he was familiar with Sarah’s Kitchen, it was designed to look that way historically. My mother wanted to give a flavor of the olden days … of the natural wood. And that’s what exists on the building. It hasn’t deteriorated any since 1999 when the Kitchen was officially closed if you go back and look at pictures.”
Large admitted that the yard surrounding the building could use some upkeep.
“I would say it hasn’t been kept up in the best of shape,” Large said. “Because as your parents decline, so do their activities. So our parents did let the yard grow up some — it wasn’t kept and maintained. So I agree with the building inspector that some maintenance to the yard does need to occur. And we’ve done that and will continue to keep that up.”
Large said electricity to the building has never been cut off.
“Since 1999 it’s been used as a storage facility for the family,” Large said. “My mom kept some of her antiques there. We don’t mind doing some basic cleanliness. But we don’t want to change the way the structure itself appears. By painting it, that would change the way the structure appears. … It feels like a bit of overreach by this council, by the building inspector and officials, to actually put this on the (abatement) list.”
Mayor Ronny Walker, who told Large he had eaten at Sarah’s Kitchen many times and loved doing so, asked Large what is the family’s intent for the building moving forward.
“The intent for the building moving forward, and we have not — this is all still very new for us, but the plan was to think about opening a museum,” Large said. “Now we would have to do some major renovations in order to do that and we would ensure that it met any additional new codes and stuff like that. But for right now, it’s just a place where we keep things.”
When Walker asked Large what kind of timeframe is in place for considering turning the building into a museum, she said that has not been discussed yet.
“We haven’t discussed it as a family,” Large said. “And I would have to say that’s not going to happen in the short term, to be honest with you. So that would not happen any time this year.”
Sanderson said the building is considered substandard by city codes.
“The standards that the city adopted — the 1997 standard housing code, which this has been reviewed against, this building does not meet the minimal standards for that code per the city’s ordinance,” Sanderson said.
Walker told Large that with a plan of action the city is “more than willing’ to work with the family.
“We’ve done this many times — given people more time,” Walker said. “But we want to know what’s going to happen. We don’t want this to come back up every month or two and have to add more time.”
Walker also said what is coded as a residence being used as a storage facility is part of what must be figured out.
“When there’s a residence or commercial-leased property there can be an unattached storage building,” Walker said. “What you’re saying though is that you’ve taken a residence and changed it into a storage building. And all I’m saying is, let’s be sure that that meets code.”
In the end, the Board of Aldermen along with Large decided to delay discussion on the property for 30 days to give the Albritton family time to try to come up with a better defined plan of action to bring back during next month’s board meeting.