Bringing The Picayune’s History Home

This story first appeared in the November 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!

It all started with a Craigslist ad.

Joseph Makkos was browsing the ‘Antiques’ section of the online message board when he stumbled upon the ad — original newspapers, including issues of the Daily Picayune, the Times-Democrat, and the Times-Picayune, spanning from 1888 to 1929 — tens of thousands of issues, free to the right person. The only con­dition? Whoever wanted the collection would need to take it as soon as possible.

Makkos’ interest was piqued, and he sent a note to the ad’s author. One hour later, his phone rang. “Can you come see the papers now?” the voice asked.

“They were being stored in an empty storefront Mid-City, and I lived at the end of the Bywater,” Makkos said. “I hopped on my bike and rode as fast as I could. I got a flat tire in front of Betsy’s Pancakes, so I left the bike and went the rest of the way on foot.”

He knocked on the door and a woman let him into the storefront. There, Makkos saw his future: boxes stacked floor to ceiling, each filled with long plastic tubes — 30,000 tubes in all, he would later realize. The four decades of daily newspaper issues had been separated by individual day, and each issue had been preserved in Mylar and rolled into an airtight tube. Despite their age, the issues were largely in pristine condition.

Some of the 30,000 tubes, each holding a vintage issue of the Daily Picayune, Times-Democrat or Times-Picayune dating from the late 19th or early 20th century, in Joseph Makos’ collection. Photo by Liz Jurey.

For Makkos, a printer and historian, it was love at the first sight. The newspa­pers had originally been acquired by the British Museum, which as an institu­tion had subscribed to dailies from around the world “as newspapers reached an era of technical mastery,” Makkos explained. The museum collected volumes of the papers for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then kept them archived for a century or more. The museum divested itself of its Ameri­can newspaper collection in 1999, selling the papers to the highest bidders at auction. An antiques dealer in Pennsylvania bought a lot that included the New Orleans collection; he then sold it to a Realtor and rare books collector in New Orleans, who brought the papers back to their original home city. After moving the collection several times and letting them sit for years in the Mid-City store­front, the Realtor wanted the papers gone, Makkos said.

It took him six trips with a 17-foot U-Haul truck to move all of the news­paper tubes from the old storefront to his home. As he began to read through them, Makkos realized that the archive spans a fascinating era where news­papers blossomed. The collection starts with papers that are basic newsprint, columns of printed text. Within a few years, in the 1880s, illustrations in the Daily Picayune soar in popularity, and soon front pages are filled with intri­cate drawings of people, events and buildings. Around 1900, Makkos said, the papers begin to feature photography.

The span of subject matter covered in the decades of newspapers in his collec­tion also astounded Makkis. The start of aviation, the introduction of the auto­mobile, the debut of photography and color printing — the dawn of the modern age, as it played out in New Orleans, is unfolded day by day, year by year.

Trends like women’s fashion, architecture and land development are fea­tured, as well. Federal policy’s impact on the city is seen in fascinating ways; for example, a regular section called the “Creole Cookbook” was transformed during Prohibition, Makkos said — all of the traditional recipes had to be reinvented to avoid using alcohol.

Makkos spent the first year trying to wrap his head around his new collec­tion. He was fascinated by the papers, spending hours every day rifling through them. Still, there were problems. “They took up my whole house. I was living with them,” he said. What irked him even more was the overwhelming question of how to organize his newfound archive. “I met with every curator and research center in town,” he said, becoming known at archives like The Historic New Orleans Collection and the Notarial Archive. He wanted to explore ways to partner with other research institu­tions, but he also wanted to learn and brainstorm with oth­ers on ways he could best utilize his new treasure trove. After talking with every possible interested party in New Orleans, he moved on to meeting with officials at venerable institutions in Washington, D.C., including the Library of Congress and the Newseum, all of whom offered helpful insight.

Makkos decided to sort the newspapers not by date, but by type. “So for example I’ll put all the comics together,” he said, “and then I’ll organize them by type of comic. Or I’ll put all the magazine supplements together. The reason I think that’s smart versus just chrono­logical is because then we can do studies” on the different subjects. “I’ve been pulling out building and architectural supplements, and there are hundreds,” he said.

His countless hours of reading through papers have yielded find after fascinating find. For example, he recently dug up the first printed rendering of what the Roosevelt Hotel was sup­posed to look like, and the drawing included a rooftop observation deck that was never built.

Makkos’ efforts garnered him a little press in local newspapers, and restaurant owner Chris DeMers read about Makkos’ collection eagerly. He was three months from opening the Picayune Social House, a restaurant housed in the 1850 townhouse on Camp Street known as the ‘Picayune Building’ — it was the home of the Daily Picayune from 1850 to 1914, and after that, the Times-Picayune from 1914 to 1920 — and he wanted a way to prominently display the building’s history in the restaurant. “I have 42 years of history,” Makkos told DeMers. “We can do anything you want.”

The Daily Picayune newsroom pictures around 1900. This photograph is blown up in perspective of where it was taken in the Picayune Social House, a restaurant in the historic Picayune Building. Historian Joseph Makkos believes the woman pictured in the middle is famous advice columnist Dorothy Dix.

“With this much history in this building, it wouldn’t have been right to do anything else” other than to feature the newspapers printed in the building, DeMers said.

Makkos came up with the concept of blowing up some of his favorite front pages and mounting them on top of lightboxes. The result is a collection of glowing historic papers that give the space an ethereal light at night.

The framed lightboxes start with the first-ever Daily Picayune, printed in 1837. The rest of the newspaper pages are from later dates, between 1900 and 1930, so as to include il­lustrations and/or photographs. Shown are front pages featuring Carnival, the Southern Expansion, the first ladies’ fashion page to be printed in color, and others.

The lightboxes, meant to be a permanent collection, line one whole side of the restau­rant. On the other side, Makkos will curate and regularly change a rotating exhibit of imag­es. In October, the wall featured historic post cards from throughout New Orleans’ history, blown up so that the pictures’ details — and the personal, often humorous notes written on the postcards — could be easily seen. In November, Makkos will put up an exhibit of newspaper pages featuring ladies fashion through the years.

At the back of the restaurant, a historic photograph that shows the Piacyune Building bus­tling with reporters and staff fills the entire back wall. Amazingly, the image, which was taken in the very same building around 1900, lines up perfectly with the layout of the restaurant today, meaning one could have walked into the building 117 years ago and seen that very scene, in the same exact place and scale as show in the blown-up wall décor.

“I feel it’s epic to bring this history back into the building it was printed in,” Makkos said. “If [DeMers] hadn’t been open minded, he could have turned this into another boring CBD restaurant. But to have these papers on the walls in here is really special. So many people restore a building, but that’s as far as it goes. They’re not as interested in what went on in the buildings back in the day. The owners of the Picayune Building are.” According to Makkos, the building’s owners have led it through an extensive renovation — stay tuned to read more in a future issue of Preservation in Print.

The building’s owners have also asked Makkos to decorate the rooms in the upper floors, which will eventually operate as a small hotel. Each room has a different newspaper theme — investigative journalism, Carnival, and more.

Makkos has used this concept — commercializing his collection to help museums and local companies who want to know more and perhaps display their legacy, while also allowing him to operate a business and pay for the expensive care of his archive — to establish a company, NOLA DNA. “There’s so much potential in this com­mercial work, which nonprofit entites typically don’t do,” he said.

He has since rented warehouse space to house his collection. Makkos’ ultimate goal is to be able to fund the digitization of his collection, using the highest scanning technology out there, as well as using Optical Character Recognition technology, which would make the archive searchable by keyword. Look for his work in the Picayune Social House and around town, including an upcoming partnership with the Art Council of New Orleans’ LUNA Fête this holiday season.

Makkos enlarged historic front pages of the Daily Picayune and mounted them on light boxes to adorn the walls of the Picayune Social Club, a restaurant housed in the building at 326 Camp St. that was once home to the Daily Picayune. Photos by Liz Jurey.