This story first appeared in the September issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door each month? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
The exterior of the Ashé Cultural Arts Center exudes classical style, with its Beaux Arts facade adorned with intricate terra cotta details. Entering the front door, however, visitors are transported into a contemporary space that draws inspiration from the spirit and culture of Africa.
The Ashé Cultural Arts Center, an institution on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City since 1998, is undergoing a $1.3 million renovation of its lobby with the hopes of creating a more welcoming and accessible meeting spot for the community.
The renovation is designed to attract more locals and curious visitors with an information desk serving as the Central City Visitors Center. “For those of us who grew up in New Orleans, the houses were on the shotgun model, where you often didn’t have the ability to have common areas and private areas. The front room was the place where you greeted people, where people were made to feel comfortable and at home,” said Carol Bebelle, Ashé Cultural Arts Center’s executive director. “That’s what this is for us; it’s our front room.”
Photos by Liz Jurey
The building that houses Ashé has been a fixture on Oretha Castle Haley since 1904, when it was built for a department store. It later became the Venus Gardens grocery store. The masonry structure is architecturally stunning, with a facade clad in ornately detailed, white-glazed terra cotta.
Like so many other commercial spaces in Central City, it sat vacant for several decades in the late 20th century. The building was brought back to life in 1998 by the First Commerce Community Development Corp., which also donated a preservation easement on the property to the Preservation Resource Center. A preservation easement is a legal agreement in which the owner pledges to maintain a building’s historic character to a high standard so it will be protected in perpetuity.
Ashé moved into the first floor in 1998, initially as a tenant. Since then, the center has expanded, purchasing the space it initially leased in 2007 as well as 29 residential units on the building’s upper floors in 2009. Ashé rents 18 of the units as affordable housing.
The lobby draws visitors with artwork, performances, events and educational programming, but Bebelle hopes the $1.3 million redesign will make the space even more useful. She enlisted the help of Steven Bingler, principal architect of Concordia architecture, whose portfolio includes the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and the lobby of the Contemporary Arts Center. The goal was to “embed Africaneity” into the Ashé lobby.
One of the most striking features is the Bamboula wall, an undulating wooden design that visually mimics the rhythm of the Bamboula, an African drum and dance brought to New Orleans by enslaved Africans and Haitian Creoles. Voids in the walls display artworks by New Orleans artists and African artifacts. The color palette is African influenced, and copper or brass finishes were chosen over aluminum where possible.
Along with the refreshed lobby, Ashé worked with the Kellogg Foundation to create a posh space where nursing mothers could safely and comfortably feed their babies. It’s called the O-Jam-Men Nursing Lounge to honor Olayeela Daste, Jamila Muhammad and Menhati Singleton, three local community health advocates.
As the renovation wraps up, Bebelle plans to retire by the end of next year as the organization’s executive director. “It’s a good hand-off point,” she said. “My hope and prayer are that the foundation elements, the soul of Ashé, will be easily seen and understood, and it will be brilliantly translated and conjugated into the future.”