PRC remembers C. Elliott Perkins V, a caring preservation leader

The Preservation Resource Center joins with many in the New Orleans preservation community in mourning the loss Charles Elliott Perkins V, the former director of the City of New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission. He passed away in early August. Perkins was a preservationist to be admired.

As a lecturer in the Tulane University School of Architecture’s Preservation Studies Program, I’d annually bring students to Perkins’ office in City Hall to learn about the historic district commissions. What consistently struck me during this annual pilgrimage was his patient attention to nuance — a trait rare in today’s world, but vitally important in our field of work. His presentation to the students always included recent case studies that required careful consideration: modern architecture on a historic block, for example; new materials mixed with old; or the incorporation of new technologies into buildings with historic integrity.

His message was clear: Things in the “real world” are rarely black and white, and in the preservation world, perhaps even less so. Thus, a fair arbiter of preservation rules must be thoughtful, consistent and willing to see all sides before rendering a decision. Perkins was all of those things.

“He was, quite simply, an institution,” said Eleanor Burke, Deputy Director of the New Orleans and Central Business District Historic District Landmarks Commission, who worked alongside Perkins while he was director of the HDLC from 2005 to 2021. “He was an extremely creative problem solver, who was dedicated to preserving the historic fabric of New Orleans. He trained and mentored a whole generation of preservation professionals who have fanned out all across the Unites States, sharing the knowledge and wisdom he imparted.”

One thing that many of us in the field appreciated was Perkins’ sense of humor — another trait important in a field when issues can often get complicated or contentious. “He brought a cheerfulness to our regulatory work that, I believe, made the public’s experience of what can be a rather daunting amount of control more palatable,” said Bryan Block, Executive Director of the City of New Orleans Historic Districts. “Not to mention he made the difficult and sometimes tedious work required by the staff a lot more fun.”

Perkins held an architecture degree with a specialization in historic preservation from the Tulane University School of Architecture, and his life’s work was dedicated to protecting New Orleans’ historic buildings. “He made me not just a better preservationist, but also a better architect and public servant,” Block said. “He shared his keen eye for historic detailing, helping me to more readily see how important correct details are to the integrity of the historic architecture we preserve.”

He also cared about the city’s residents, and he often struggled with the conundrum of ensuring historic district regulations did not place additional burdens on low-income homeowners. In 2018, the PRC approached him with a possible solution to this problem: A new program that would provide free repairs to low-income homeowners to alleviate their historic district violations. Perkins was eager to help us, and he met with our team several times to ensure the program worked effectively. The PRC’s Revival Grants program was born in 2019 in large part thanks to his willingness to collaborate. Today, dozens of residents of historic neighborhoods have benefited from much-needed free home repairs and reduced fines.

Our thoughts are with his husband, Steve Bishoff. Perkins’ legacy as a longtime arbiter of the rules governing our city’s historic districts is one of fairness and deep caring, and his work led to the careful preservation of countless historic structures. We will miss him, and we are grateful for the years of work he did to keep New Orleans authentic and beautiful.