The architecture of Edward Tsoi, a Chinese immigrant in mid-century New Orleans

MOD MASTERS

LEONARD SPANGENBERG       BETTY MOSS       EDWARD TSOI
Learn more about three modernist architects who left their mark on mid-century New Orleans from the September issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine.

Born in 1916, Edward Mung-Yok Tsoi was a native of Shantou (Swatow) in Guangdong province, China. He held a degree in civil engineering from St. John’s University in Shanghai, and by 1939, he had completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Michigan. After the Japanese invasion of China began in 1937, Tsoi, like most Chinese students in American universities at the time, was unable to return home and was trapped in this country.

Tsoi began his career as a draftsman in West Virginia and then Alexandria, La., before working for Baton Rouge architect A. Hays Town. During the Second World War, Tsoi moved to New Orleans and worked as an engineer for Consolidated-Vultee, which manufactured the PBY Catalina flying boat at its factory on the Lakefront. After the war, he worked as an engineer and architect for William R. Burk. Tsoi settled in New Orleans permanently after the Communist Revolution in China.

After opening his own architecture practice in 1951, one of his first major commissions was the Chinese Presbyterian Church at 2525 Bienville St. Founded in 1882, the Bienville campus was the third site of the Chinese Presbyterian congregation, and it remained there until it moved to its current campus in Kenner in 1997.

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Edward Tsoi designed the Chinese Presbyterian Church’s Bienville Street sanctuary and education building. Today, the building is home to Mo’s Art Supply.

Photos 1 & 2 from 1963, courtesy of the Chinese Presbyterian Church. Photos 3-5 by Liz Jurey.   

Tsoi designed two buildings for this church. The multipurpose Education Building was completed in 1953, but was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina and demolished in 2007. The Sanctuary Building was completed in 1963 and still exists today. It was recently remodeled for Mo’s Art Supply. Both structures fused elements of traditional Chinese architecture with mid-century modernism. In particular, the facade of the Sanctuary Building features a cast-iron Chinese moongate embedded in a terra-cotta screen, fronting a wall of blue stained glass and laminate-wood doors.

Over his 50-year career, Tsoi designed or made additions to many other public buildings, including other churches. He designed schools and libraries in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, as well as the Korean pavilion at the 1984 World’s Fair. However, Tsoi is best known today as the architect of Schwegmann’s.

Tsoi designed or made improvements to numerous Schwegmann’s supermarket buildings and distribution centers throughout the New Orleans area, especially at the height of suburban supermarket construction in the 1960s. Unfortunately, many of the structures did not survive the bankruptcy of Schwegmann’s or Hurricane Katrina, and have been demolished.

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  1. A 1963 advertisement for the Schwegmann’s store on North Broad Street, published in The Times-Picayune.
  2. Edward Tsoi, pictured here in 1982, was a native of Shantou, Guangdong Province, China. Photo courtesy of the Chinese Presbyterian Church.

One of the survivors was the Schwegmann’s on North Broad Street, which today is a Whole Foods. The first supermarket in Mid-City, the North Broad Schwegmann’s was completed in 1964. The lot, once occupied by a church, was unusually small for such a large commercial structure. To economize on space and accommodate more customers, Tsoi designed a ramp leading to an additional parking lot on the roof of the supermarket, an unusual innovation at the time.

As requested by John G. Schwegmann, Tsoi provided enough retail space inside the supermarket for a pharmacy, a dry cleaner, a barbershop, a jewelry and shoe repair shop, a sandwich shop and an oyster bar. Tsoi also designed the Schwegmann’s on Annunciation Street in the Lower Garden District and the Schwegmann’s on Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie with a similar condensed layout and rooftop parking.

The Schwegmann’s on Veterans was demolished in the early 2000s shortly after bankruptcy and is now the site of a Lowe’s Home Improvement store. The Schwegmann’s on Annunciation was demolished last year to make way for a new apartment complex.

Tsoi retired in the 1990s and moved to Baton Rouge. He died in the months after Katrina and is buried in Metairie Cemetery. His son, Edward Tze Ming Tsoi, an early graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School, is an architect in the Boston area.

Winston Ho is a graduate student in history at the University of New Orleans, specializing in early 20th century China and Chinese American history in New Orleans. He is a native of New Orleans and the son of Taiwanese parents.

 

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