This article was the cover story of our October/November issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
For decades, four forlorn buildings have sat in terrible disrepair in Armstrong Park. Sagging, vacant and broken, these structures — each a treasured piece of New Orleans history and culture — have been forgotten, left to rot while visitors to the park question why these hulking shells are even there.
But now, the PRC is stepping up to champion this valued site and bring some much-needed care to these buildings, thanks to a $750,000 bequest from the Louisiana Legislature to fund urgent repairs to these historic, but blighted, structures in Armstrong Park, as well as another one in the 7th Ward.
The funding, secured by State Rep. Alonzo Knox, is targeted, specifically, to be used for repairs to the “National Historic Jazz Park” structures in Armstrong Park:
- Perseverance Masonic Lodge No. 4, also known as Perseverance Hall, built in the 1820s by free people of color. It is the first Masonic hall in Louisiana.
- Perseverance Hall’s kitchen dependency, built in 1830, also is known as the “Tree House Studio” from its days serving as WWOZ radio station’s office.
- The de Pouilly-Rabassa House, the former home of famed architect J.N.B de Pouilly, known as the mastermind behind the designs of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries, St. Louis Cathedral’s renovation, and St. Augustine Church, among other buildings.
- The Riemann House, built in the 1880s.
The funding also will be used to aid in the reconstruction of Perseverance Benevolent Society Hall, known today as Holy Aid and Comfort Spiritual Church of Eternal Life, located on N. Villere Street in the 7th Ward.
Photo 1: Holy Aid & comfort Spiritual Church of Eternal Life in the 7th Ward. Photo 2: PRC will focus its efforts on restoring Perseverance Masonic Lodge No. 4. Photo by Liz Jurey.
The PRC will not occupy any of these buildings or dictate their future uses, but we will bring much-needed repairs to historic structures that have cried out for significant investment for years.
To be clear: this amount of money is not nearly enough to complete renovations for more than one building, as they are all significantly blighted. But it’s a start, and we hope it will kick off more work in Armstrong Park and in the 7th Ward.
Vacant for more than a decade, the Armstrong Park buildings suffer from rot, termite infestation and structural issues. All four were further damaged during Hurricane Ida. A wall blew off the two-story kitchen dependency, leaving its interior exposed to the elements for over a year. After the City of New Orleans, which owns all of the properties in Armstrong Park, confirmed to the PRC that it had no plans to repair any of the Ida damage, the PRC’s board voted in 2021 to dedicate $30,000 in funds to seal up openings and fix the most serious damage.
This emergency work, performed by Trine Builders, was completed last December, but it is clear that millions of dollars will be needed to fully repair the complex’s four neglected buildings.
These repairs would be well worth the investment. Armstrong Park, which also encompasses Congo Square, the Municipal Auditorium and the Mahalia Jackson Theater, is a sacred space for New Orleans residents, particularly residents of the Tremé neighborhood. And these buildings are culturally important as well as historic. Perseverance Hall and its kitchen dependency are the only remaining buildings from the original street grid of that section of Tremé — they were located at the corner of St. Claude and Dumaine streets — which was demolished in the 1960s. The other two buildings were moved from other parts of the city. The Riemann house was originally located on S. Gayoso Street and moved to Armstrong Park in the 1970s. The de Pouilly-Rabassa house — a rare, raised Creole cottage with brick-between-post construction — was built on St. Ann Street in the French Quarter in 1825.
Perseverance Hall No. 4 and the de Pouilly-Rabassa house are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photo 1: Architects and contractors with Albert Architecture and Entablature LLC advise PRC’s staff on needed repairs to the Armstrong Park buildings. Photo 2: The de Pouilly-Rabassa House is a rare, raised Creole cottage, originally located in the French Quarter. Photos by Liz Jurey.
Albert Architecture has generously donated its time to prepare measured drawings of Perseverance Hall, which will allow us to create a scope of work for the building’s restoration. While the PRC would love to fund work in all four buildings, the state allocation simply isn’t large enough to do so, and investing small amounts into buildings that have massive problems isn’t prudent, according to PRC’s construction consultants. Our plan is to prioritize spending on Perseverance Hall; though it’s dilapidated, PRC’s team feels confident that the funding will be enough for a full renovation, leaving a building that’s safe, sealed and ready for use at the end of the project.
We will hold a public bidding process to find the contractor who will complete the work.
The PRC will continue to advocate for more funding to further renovate buildings in Armstrong Park, and we hope the city will find a future use for the structures that brings them back to life. We also will continue to engage neighborhood stakeholders through this process, including the Save our Soul coalition, the Greater Tremé Consortium, the Historic Faubourg Tremé Association, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation and others, to keep them apprised of our plans and progress.
PRC Board Member Chris Kornman, owner and principal of Entablature, LLC, is leading PRC’s renovation plans for these buildings, along with PRC’s Director of Conservation and Education Michelle Shoriak.
Photo 1: Perseverance Masonic Lodge No. 4 was built in the 1820s by free people of color. It was the first Masonic hall in Louisiana. Photo 2: Riemman House, built in the 1880s. Photos by Liz Jurey.
Holy Aid and Comfort Church had been in a state of disrepair for several years when Hurricane Ida’s high winds knocked the building over, save for the front façade, which was miraculously left standing. Built in 1880, this site had been an incubator of early jazz as a social aid and pleasure club from the late 19th century into the 20th century. The façade remains precariously braced as money is raised to rebuild the structure in a manner compliant with the Secretary of Interior’s standards for historic reconstruction.
The Preservation Resource Center helped Rev. Harold Lewis, the church’s pastor, receive a $100,000 Saving Black Churches Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2022 and also to get the church named to the Trust’s 2023 Most Endangered Sites list. This additional funding from the state will make the building’s framing possible in coming months. The architecture firm Cushing Terrell is generously working pro bono with Rev. Lewis and the PRC to craft plans to carefully reconstruct the historic site. Rev. Lewis has hopes to revive his small congregation and grow his ministry, especially through programs that engage the neighborhood’s older population.
Rep. Alonzo Knox is the perfect champion for this funding; not only is he a long-time resident of Tremé, but he and his wife Jessica are also owners of a thriving coffeeshop on Basin Street, Backatown Coffee. As a resident and business owner, he understands implicitly how degraded structures that are left to molder for decades take an economic — and emotional — toll on neighbors and visitors.
“I firmly believe in the power of preserving our heritage and strengthening our communities,” he said recently. “The revitalization of Armstrong Park and the support for Perseverance Hall in the 7th Ward stand as testaments to our commitment to safeguarding our past while building a vibrant future. By partnering with organizations like the Preservation Resource Center, we ensure that our cultural legacies thrive, and our neighborhoods flourish. Together, we’re not just restoring the buildings; we’re revitalizing the very essence of our community.”
Danielle Del Sol is the Executive Director of the Preservation Resource Center.
Interior of Perseverance Masonic Lodge No. 4. Photo by Liz Jurey.