I’m a Preservationist
Daniel Hammer is the president and CEO of the Historic New Orleans Collection. In the September issue of Preservation in Print, he talks about THNOC’s new exhibition center and its role in preserving New Orleans’ history.
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Earlier this year, The Historic New Orleans Collection unveiled its new $38 million exhibition center after restoring the 200-year-old Seignouret-Brulatour house and adding a new contemporary, glass-walled wing to the property. What role will the exhibition center, at 520 Royal St., play in the future of the collection?
The new exhibition center anchors THNOC’s future as a big part of what people do when they spend time in the French Quarter. Basically, we’ve expanded our space in order to grow our audience. Why grow our audience? Because the more people who experience the place by learning about the place, the more the cultural and historical identity of the French Quarter will remain intact.
The exhibition center strikes a beautiful balance between historic architecture and new construction. How important was that to the collection when planning for the space?
Achieving good architecture was an intrinsic objective to the planning of this project. We did not know from the outset how this objective would be achieved, but the realities of the project led us there. The first factor was the dilapidated, and in some cases, unrecoverable condition of the existing structures. The second was the history of the site and the many changes to the structures over 200-plus years of use. In consideration of these two things, we determined that retaining or re-building the brick building that used to be at the rear of the courtyard was not an option, and our attention turned to building something new on that portion of the site.
Throughout the entire project, we charged our architects (Waggonner & Ball Architects) to retain historic fabric whenever possible, to make the history of the site and the structures tangible, and to incorporate truthfulness in all aspects of the design. I think the courtyard-facing façade of the new construction portion of the facility speaks directly to this charge. Using the scale and materials of the historic buildings that comprise the other three courtyard walls, the fourth wall of the courtyard is meant to keep the experience of being in the courtyard predominantly characterized by the historic ambiance of that space, while also being true to the newness of that structure. I think it is wonderful that the first thing you see when you look at the new building is the reflection of the surrounding old buildings in the glass.
The Preservation Resource Center and the Historic New Orleans Collection both work to preserve the city’s history. What does “preservation” mean to you personally?
I think preservation means understanding the past, preventing it from disappearing, and proactively using it now. I think that last one gets left out of the definition sometimes, but it is of utmost importance. At THNOC, we don’t just collect materials and lock them up in dark, cool, dry boxes for safe keeping; we also make them available to the public however and whenever possible. The material of history must be made meaningful. In this way, preservation is progress.
You have extensively researched the history of New Orleans’ German community. What contributions did German immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries make to help shape the city we know today?
The German-Americans of New Orleans made many contributions. They had an outsized influence in a number of areas of importance, such as building and engineering, social and political community organizing, printing, music, theater, food and drink. I guess, if you wanted to, you could make a big deal out of the fact that a German did this, or a German-American did that, but I take more of a Chaos Theory view of the whole thing — you know, a butterfly flaps its wings in the South Pacific and, eventually, a hurricane forms in the Gulf. Everything about our city today is simply the result of what came before, and the story of German contributions to New Orleans is one of many stories of human migration, cultural exchange and the creation of our city in the world. The special contribution of the Germans of New Orleans, though, to my mind, is the incredible documentation they created and subsequently preserved. There is so much existing material related to the German-American experience in New Orleans, meticulously recorded and maintained by 19th and 20th century social organizations, further preserved by the Deutsches Haus organization starting in 1928, and, eventually, donated to THNOC for perpetual preservation. It is a remarkably intact group of materials, and there are not many collections out there that compare to its breadth of relevance to the social history of an American city over a period of more than 150 years. The Germans of New Orleans created and preserved this material, but the stories it tells are not German stories, they are New Orleans stories.
We hear that you grew up in New Orleans and now live in a mid-century modern house in Lakeshore. What do you love most about your home?
I actually live right across the street from the house where I grew up. I’m not sure how familiar your readers might be with the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond, but that is basically my life. As for the house itself, I consider myself to be a very fortunate person in general, and our house is the ultimate expression of that. It was built in 1958, and we are the second people to ever own it. It is brilliantly designed to be a family home, with both privacy and sociability provided for in the arrangement of the rooms. It is in great condition, and, when we bought it, we were able to acquire a great deal of furniture and furnishings from the original owners. Sometimes I guess it even feels a bit like a museum.
Susan Langenhennig is PRC’s Director of Communications and the editor of Preservation in Print.