By 1929 there was a noticeable exodus of inhabitants from a section of the Forth Municipal District of New Orleans, which makes up the Garden District today, when a new generation arose who were fully uncommitted to the work involved with the upkeep of the vast and expansive houses built during the Reconstruction and Victorian eras by their forbearers. This new generation was intent on going, “far out on the outskirts of the city to build or purchase homes at very high prices when compared to the selling prices of their old homesteads.” In short, the roaring 20s were just kicking off and this Jazz Age generation was inclined to sell off their parents’ homes for “sacrifice process” wholly unaware of their true value — disinterested in their spectacular and delicate mix of flora and fauna.
In an October 10, 1920 Times-Picayune newspaper article titled, “Would Preserve Trees and Shrubbery from the Garden District,” featuring a seven image photo-spread lavishly framed with illustrations — a revelation and a call to action takes place. A man named P.A. Chopin, who was at the time the state vice president of the Society of American Florists and Ornamental Horticulturalists and president of a local building and loan association, put out a call to form a league of residents that would be charged to “bring back” the “Garden District.” Having deep practical and theoretical knowledge of the “semi-tropical growths of New Orleans,” Chopin was situated as an expert on the topic, so he advocated for the organization of an association that would preserve “that which already has a civic value which cannot be measured by dollars.” Chopin also made a logical argument that the property values should be doubled simply due to the “wealth of rare Southern trees and shrubbery it possesses.” He cites one specific case when the oak trees alone should have been valued purely for their lumber at $10,000, quite a sum even in 1920.
Sure the sidewalks may have been a little uneven and hard to navigate, but improvements would only bring the area back to life, Chopin claimed. He swore as a scientific fact and not just his opinion, that the diversity of local plant life was unparalleled in all the U.S. and that the district contained “a wealth of rare Southern vegetation that cannot be equaled anywhere.” Puzzlingly, Chopin pined in irony, “It appears that the more beautiful the district becomes and the more it is enhanced by the maturity of its rare Southern vegetation, the greater it seems the inclination of some of the present owners to sell and get away.” This was not the only problem, as also a recent restructuring and incursion of small storefronts seems to have caused a housing shortage in some parts of the district, where buildings were being divided into tenement houses — a very common and widespread practice of the time.
But Chopin was persistent and on course, for “Nothing is too good for New Orleans, no effort for its future beauty and attractiveness too great.” He even publicly committed $100,000 of his own money to the cause, played a role in the then upcoming campaign of the City Planning Committee and called for other residents’ involvement. His hope was that this new group would become the next generation of caretakers, set on preserving and updating the area, mainly by tackling a drastic amount of preservation and street reengineering efforts, including: asphalt paving, uniform restructuring of street flagstones and brickwork, removing primitive walls and questionable fences, while also painting and brightening home interiors and generally modernizing the built environment. He knew all too well that those who built up the fine estates of the previous era had not been searching for hasty results and that more than a full generation was required before all their planting projects would “develop to their full measure of beauty.” So his plan of conservation and improvement was sound, had much promise, and was quite worthy of an organized effort.
In elevated praise of how he viewed the district he so loved, Chopin colorfully boasted, “a stroll through the district will reveal a regular fairyland of rare vegetation,” in a playful and magically-realist way, not so unlike the yards and gardens of the district today.
Saturday, May 5, 2018 • 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. • Free & open to the public
Celebrate the weekend of New Orleans’ to-the-date birthday with this exhibit reception, plus birthday cake and margaritas! “Sunday Illustrated” is an archives show that explores the art and photography of the Sunday Illustrated Magazine of the Daily Picayune from 1907-1912. These never-before seen selections from the NOLA DNA archive highlight century-old architectural and natural gems throughout New Orleans as well as hand-drawn graphic art.
Nola DNA is an original archive of over 30,000 historic New Orleans newspapers from 1888-1929, delivering history on demand through clever curation, graphics and print. Curator Joseph Makkos is using materials from the archive to write this special series for Preservation in Print in celebration of the Tricentennial.