Longtime architect Joe Champeaux, who went to Tulane, served as a city planner for Lake Charles from 1968 to 1972. One of the larger projects he worked on during this time was “Operation GRIP,” which used urban renewal grant money to improve Goosport, which the city had just annexed. The GRIP stood for Goosport Responds in Planning. (Michelle Higginbotham / American Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 04, 2012 2:43 PM
Longtime architect Joe Champeaux — whose work influenced public areas of Lake Charles from Goosport to downtown to the lakefront — said working with people in the community is the one aspect of his job he misses the most.
“The rewards that come from satisfying the public is one of the best experiences that I could enjoy,” said Champeaux, 73, who retired in 2010 after working as an architect for nearly 40 years.
He founded his own private architectural firm in the early 1980s and worked with other local architects like Keith LeJune and Tom Landry. In the early 2000s, he partnered with local architect Stephen Hotard and Bridget Evans. The firm Champeaux Evans Hotard, at 2000 Lake St., is in business today.
Hotard and Evans are continuing the business using technology that Champeaux said he never relied on during his career.
“They cut their teeth on a computer,” he said. “I’ve never turned one on or off because I’m afraid I’m going to lose something. I do all the free-hand perspectives of buildings that they design. It worked out as a good partnership.”
Evans — who began working for Champeaux in 1997 as an intern architect — said in an email that working with him “has been my privilege.”
“My favorite thing about Joe is his character,” she said. “He is one of the most positive and talented people I have ever known. Joe has always been a very active member of the community and still volunteers his time to many worthy causes.”
During his career — which included four years as a city planner for Lake Charles — Champeaux said his goal was to provide clients with a quality project.
“Their satisfaction is the most important thing, more than making money,” he said. “I have a lot of buildings in Lake Charles that I’m very proud of.”
Champeaux was born in New Iberia, and his family moved a few years later. Moving was commonplace for the family because his father was in the Air Force.
“I went to 11 schools before I graduated high school,” Champeaux said.
After high school, Champeaux studied architecture at Tulane University. He passed the Architecture Registration Exam in 1963 and enlisted in the Air Force later that year.
Champeaux was a lieutenant in the 1st Air Commando Wing and was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., at the Special Air Warfare Center. He was assigned to the engineering department and worked with the Wing Commander Gen. Gilbert Pritchard on improvements at Hurlburt Field, which is near Eglin AFB.
After serving for three years, Champeaux received the Air Force Commendation Medal for Meritorious Services in 1966.
Champeaux later attended Rice University and earned a master’s degree in urban design and city planning. He found a job in Lafayette after graduation, but he and his wife, the former Rosalie “Poddy” Leveque, wanted to move to her hometown of Lake Charles. The couple married in 1961, and Champeaux said she was crucial to his successful career.
“Her father was a dentist, (and) she knew virtually everybody in town,” he said. “A lot of those people became clients of mine. A good deal of my practice was because of her.”
After moving to Lake Charles, Champeaux said he saw an advertisement that Mayor Jim Sudduth was looking for an in-house city planner. Before that, Sudduth used a consultant city planner. During his interview, Champeaux said he stood out from the other applicants.
“(Sudduth) told me I was the only guy that didn’t have white socks on,” he joked. “It made all the difference.”
Sudduth hired Champeaux as the city planner in 1968. He served at that post for four years. One of the larger projects he worked on during this time was “Operation GRIP,” which used urban renewal grant money to improve Goosport, which the city recently annexed. Champeaux said GRIP stood for Goosport Responds in Planning.
“We put together a plan with public participation,” Champeaux said. “We went to meetings with teachers, librarians and principals and people who were respected in the neighborhood. We talked about what could be done to improve the neighborhood. It made them buy in.”
The plan was met with no opposition from people in the neighborhood. Because of that response, Champeaux said he used the same approach on other projects.
“It’s a great technique to ask people, ‘What do you think,’ ” he said. “I would say it increased the positive nature of city planning. We did things a little bit differently than today.”
Champeaux also worked on the downtown pedestrian mall — an attempt to revitalize Lake Charles’ downtown district — in the late 1960s. He said he came up with “Operation Heartbeat” around the same time as Operation GRIP.
“We used an example of Fresno, Calif., where they had built a downtown mall that was all pedestrian,” Champeaux said. “Their business actually increased. So, I asked the (local) merchants if they would agree to do something like that. Again, we used public meetings.”
Champeaux said Sudduth allowed him to interview each landowner between Mill and Kirby streets. The landowners approved, and the project was completed in late 1971.
While the changes quickly boosted business revenue in the area, several changes in the city shifted attention away from the downtown mall. They included the building of the Civic Center in 1972, and Sudduth’s decision to clear the lakefront of old wharves. Businesses and law firms soon moved from Ryan Street to Lakeshore Drive.
“A phenomenon took place that we didn’t anticipate,” he said. “Instead of the attorneys walking up and down Ryan Street to the courthouse, they drove cars. All the attorneys wanted that status address.”
Part of the mall was torn down and repaved in 1989, and the rest was removed in 1996.
Champeaux left his job with the city in 1972 to work with the private architecture firm of Barras Breaux Champeaux. He founded his own firm in the early 1980s.
One of the larger projects he worked on was the original boardwalk around the lakefront. Mayor Willie Mount hired his firm for the project. Champeaux again arranged public hearings on the project, including one where 300 people showed up at the Civic Center.
“If you pick up the techniques of leading, you break up the mob,” Champeaux said. “And you give people a chance to discuss what they heard, and the best ideas get put up for everybody to comment on.”
Champeaux said the city budgeted up to $1 million per year on the project, and that amount was spent for three years. The entire project cost about $4.5 million.
Because Mount and Champeaux worked long hours together, he said she would often make jokes about it to her husband, the late Ben Mount.
“She told Ben I was her second husband,” Champeaux said. “I would sometimes get phone calls at 10 p.m.”
In the early 1970s, Poddy Champeaux began working as a nurse at Christus St. Patrick Hospital. Soon afterward, Champeaux said the firm he was working for received its first commission from the hospital to remodel several sections of the facility. The project involved Linbeck, a Houston-based corporate contractor. But, over time, the hospital began using local contractors.
“They considered me middle management at the hospital. We still have that as a firm,” Champeaux said. “So, when the (hospital) has an emergency, we can respond virtually instantly.”
The firm also worked on the hospital’s Cancer Center, which took about three years to complete and was finished around 1976. Champeaux said the hospital was “the stability of our practice,” especially during the 1980s when the oil bust occurred.
“People simply stopped building,” he said. “But always having some St. Patrick’s work allowed us to continue our practice.”
George Swift, president and CEO of the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, said Champeaux played a key role in the development of the Southwest Louisiana Entrepreneurial and Economic Development Center.
Champeaux — who served as head of the Chamber Southwest Louisiana in 1978 — congratulated Swift after the Alliance was formed and offered his help pro bono. In late 2004, when officials began thinking of ideas for a business incubator, Swift asked Champeaux to help.
“Joe went back and brought me a sketch,” he said. “I started showing it to Mark McMurry and Mayor Randy Roach. I kept calling him and asked him to change and redraw it. He was probably wondering what we got himself into.”
Hurricane Rita’s landfall in 2005 slowed down the progress of the center, but recovery money from the Louisiana Recovery Authority helped get it off the ground. The SEED center is being built behind the McDonald’s on Ryan Street near McNeese State University. Swift said Champeaux’s concept helped make the project a reality.
“He was always in good spirits,” Swift said. “He was willing to make changes. I appreciated his willingness to get involved. He knows everybody and gets along with everybody.”
McMurry — who served as the administrator for Calcasieu Parish for more than 30 years — said Champeaux worked on several projects within the parish. One was the old District Attorney’s office on Ryan Street. The office recently moved to the 901 Lakeshore Drive building.
“That was my first time to get to know Joe,” McMurry said. “It was a pleasant experience. I always had great respect for him.”
McMurry also praised the work Champeaux’s firm did on Calcasieu Point Landing, which is on Henry Pugh Road.
“Joe and his crew did a really good job,” he said. “It’s a triple-lane boat launch with stainless steel fishing stations. It has a great impact on our citizens and their ability to enjoy our natural resources.”
Champeaux is the only architect in Southwest Louisiana to be named as a Fellow by the American Institute of Architects.
Posted By: Kay Champeaux Bower On: 9/5/2012
Title: Forerunner: Champeaux
As I have known Joe Champeaux from the day he was born [I am his older sister], I can second everything the article brought out about him. He is a brilliant man. May I add 1 more comment? Joe does a lot of good things for people without anyone knowing about his kindnesses. He & his wife Poddy are 2 of the finest people I have in my life. & they raised 3 fine young women who follow in their parents footsteps. Thank you for the article.
Posted By: Doug On: 9/2/2012
Title: Goosport Improved?
What is meant by "...Goosport, which was recently annexed."? When did this happen, and what work was done to improve the neighborhood?,