Hidden histories hold wisdom for the future

This story appeared in the September issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

The imminent revitalization of Canal Street was a celebrated topic du jour in many circles back in 2019. After decades of disinvestment, Canal Street was coming back. The gloriously restored Sazerac House had just opened, and rumors of real estate transfers were swirling. The Preservation Resource Center was operating a project called Canal Street Catalyst to help building owners figure out how to use their upper floors, and in Washington, D.C., leaders at the National Trust for Historic Preservation were watching the street’s progress with a keen eye.

Things were going so well, in fact, that the PRC’s Catalyst project became unnecessary not long after it launched, as building owners — many of whom had let their upper floors sit vacant for decades — were quickly selling or partnering with developers to make use of their entire space.

The majority of owners decided that short-term rental units were the best use for their upper floors, for a variety of reasons. Architects were hired, permits were filed, and construction began on many short-term rental and hotel projects along Canal.

This flurry of activity, like so many parts of life, came to an abrupt halt in March 2020.

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With the return of tourism to New Orleans this past spring, eyes once again fell to Canal Street. A July article in The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate confirmed that developers were once again working to create hundreds of short-term rental units above Canal Street’s ground-floor retail shops.

The article specifically mentioned the Sanlin buildings, located in the 400 block of Canal Street. The owner referenced plans to redevelop the row of 1840s commercial buildings into short-term rentals. The same person also owns three similar buildings next door, fronting Tchoupitoulas Street: 105, 109 and 111 Tchoupitoulas St.

Over the years, the PRC has publicly advocated for these buildings several times when they faced potential demolition. We last had to fight to save these three Tchoupitoulas sites in 2015, when the owner wished to demolish them to make room for a “Las Vegas-style hotel.” The proposal obliterated the permitted height — a request for a 250-foot-tall tower was made in a zone with a 70-foot limit — and was staunchly opposed by neighboring residents. Luckily for the fate of the brick buildings, then-District B Council member LaToya Cantrell agreed that the mega-hotel was a poor idea, and the project failed to move forward.

After reading The Times-Picayune article this past July, I refreshed my memory on that effort, and I was amazed once again by the history of these three seemingly humble brick buildings.

A row of buildings on the corner of Canal and Tchoupitoulas streets circa 1950. Photo courtesy of The Charles L. Franck Studio Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1979.325.4916. Present-day photo by Liz Jurey.

According to historian William D. Reeves, 105 Tchoupitoulas St. was one of five downtown buildings constructed in 1840 by Julien Colvis and Joseph Dumas, both free men of color who were clothing merchants and tailors.

Right next door, 109 Tchoupitoulas St. was constructed around the same time by Paul Tulane, for whom Tulane University was named. Tulane was a white philanthropist who was a major financial supporter of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, as well as remembrances of the Confederacy after the war. His endowment gift that led to the renaming of the University of Louisiana in his honor specified that the school could only admit white students. Despite that, the university integrated in 1963.

The juxtaposition of these three developers working side by side is nothing short of incredible. Colvis and Dumas were part of a thriving and hardworking class of Free People of Color in New Orleans that didn’t exist elsewhere in the United States at that time. Life was far from easy for the Free People of Color; their rights did not come close to those of white residents, and their freedom was constantly threatened.

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So the fact that Colvis and Dumas were able to develop this building and others nearby, despite the challenges they faced — even right next door to a future supporter of the Confederacy — speaks to the unique complexity of society in New Orleans at that time, as well as their own strength as individuals.

New Orleans was a fascinating metropolis back in those days. In the 1840s, one block of Tchoupitoulas “included one single woman, several Anglo merchants, a French merchant, two African-American businessmen, a prominent Jewish (person) and an Irish merchant. …The history of these buildings demonstrates an important aspect of the history of New Orleans in the antebellum era,” according to a 2015 Times-Picayune editorial that quoted Reeves.

There’s less to commend the buildings in recent years. They’re not in great shape, and they clearly aren’t being used to their best ability. But their history holds lessons for the future — about tolerance, or perseverance in the face of intolerance, community, risk and success. Whatever the future holds for these brick buildings on Tchoupitoulas Street, they need to be saved so that their history can be honored. The complex stories from their past hold keys to future wisdom.

Danielle Del Sol is the Executive Director of the Preservation Resource Center.

 

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