This story first appeared in the March issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door each month? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
The first time Danielle Del Sol visited New Orleans, she “knew.”
Friends had told her that New Orleans would captivate her. “I have long been passionate about historic buildings and streetscapes, and I also love jazz,” she said. “So they told me I had to see New Orleans for myself. I decided to visit while looking at graduate programs in historic preservation.” She arrived in the French Quarter late one evening, only to find her hotel overbooked. As an alternative, staff members led her to a charming historic cottage, owned by the hotel, on a residential street. “I couldn’t believe my good luck,” she said. “I dropped my bags and wandered along Chartres Street, captivated by the scale and beauty of the buildings, and by the mysterious passageways lit by gas lanterns. I was hooked.”
The next day she visited Tulane University, and sat in on part of a Preservation Matters symposium planned by Kenneth Schwartz, dean of the Tulane School of Architecture. “I heard preservation greats such as authors Ned Kaufman and Dan Bluestone debating complex issues I cared about, and then heard legend Gene Cizek, founder of Tulane’s preservation program, lecture on the absolutely unique architectural vernacular of southern Louisiana,” she said. “Within 24 hours of arriving, my soul had been stirred and my intellect was buzzing from new information,” she said. “I knew this was the place for me.”
Almost a decade later, Del Sol has been named the new executive director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. “From the time I was accepted into Tulane’s Master’s of Preservation Studies program, blessings have rained upon me like nothing I have ever experienced —an amazing community of friends and colleagues, a fulfilling career and a wonderful family,” she said. “But no other place has ever inspired me to work harder or care more. New Orleans is a treasure — it is an incredible honor to have the opportunity to serve in this role, to protect the historic built environment that gives us all so much.”
Del Sol was named the Preservation Resource Center’s new executive director at the beginning of February, following a several-month-long, competitive national search. Gaynell Lawrence, PRC board member and chair of the search committee that conducted the executive director search, said Del Sol was chosen after the committee looked at almost 250 applications from across the country, then narrowed the candidates in two rounds of interviews. “Danielle has a true vision,” Lawrence said. “When you walk away from her, you really believe that this city is in good care and that it will continue to be the city we all need it to be.”
Readers of Preservation in Print magazine know Del Sol well from her seven years there, first as deputy editor and then as editor for the past four years. In her tenure as editor, she led the magazine to win several first place awards from the New Orleans Press Club, as well as other significant awards and recognition. Del Sol also oversaw positive changes to the magazine’s format and features in order to enliven the content and look of the 43-year-old publication. She has also served as the organization’s communications director for the past three years, overseeing the PRC’s website and social media endeavors in addition to print materials and lobby exhibits.
She now becomes only the fourth executive director since the organization’s founding in 1974.
“I am eager to seize opportunities during this time of transition — for the PRC, for the city of New Orleans and for the field of historic preservation,” she said. Her tenure at the organization — which also includes such work as co-founding the group Melioristica to offer innovative programming to a new, younger audience of preservationists — and deep knowledge of preservation in New Orleans will help her bring stability to the PRC during this time of transition, while also readying the organization for evolution and growth. “There is so much opportunity for the PRC to refine the already impactful work we do and make it better than ever,” she said. “As the city celebrates its tricentennial, welcomes new councilmembers and a new mayor, it will need to address looming issues with infrastructure, public safety and the economy. We have an incredibly talented and driven staff, a committed and engaged board, and big plans. PRC and the field of preservation have answers that can address the challenges that the city faces, and we’re ready to show New Orleans and the nation how we can help.”
For the past four years Del Sol has taught a course she developed called “Preservation Advocacy” in Tulane’s Master of Preservation Studies program. “Every week I take students to talk to a different activist or renovator or nonprofit, and we learn how preservation actually happens, how buildings are restored and neighborhoods are revitalized,” she said. Del Sol also sits on the Central Business District Historic District Landmarks Commission. These roles, coupled with her full-time job reporting on preservation issues and activity as editor of Preservation in Print, has given her unique insight and in-depth knowledge of the field, especially in New Orleans.
“The PRC board was wise in selecting Danielle,” said Jack Davis, the journalist and emeritus trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation who managed PRC as interim director. “She appreciates the organization’s great strengths. She clearly sees where improvements can be made, and has the drive to make them.”
“The PRC and preservationists have had many successes advocating for, and saving, many of the city’s historic buildings and neighborhoods over the past four decades, and we need to continue to be vigilant,” she said. “But we no longer have to convince people to buy and renovate homes in New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods. These districts and the buildings within them are still under threat, but for new reasons now. Short-term rentals threaten our neighborhoods’ authenticity. Affordable housing is scarce, and yet blighted and vacant housing is still prominent in many parts of the city. Broken infrastructure is leading to the flooding of historic neighborhoods. Thus, the need for our work has shifted. Now, historic preservation must help take on those issues, and more, including economic development, quality of life, and encouraging dialogue among diverse groups of residents. The field of preservation has approaches to these problems that can help our city leaders find the best, most well-rounded and holistic answers,” she said. “I’m thrilled for the opportunity to lead PRC at this critical juncture so we can help move New Orleans forward.”
Del Sol is a native of Miami, Florida, who is of Cuban, Syrian, Italian and Polish descent. “I have been fascinated with my family’s history my whole life,” she said, “and I think that is a big reason I was attracted to history in the first place.” Del Sol received her undergraduate degree from Hendrix College in Arkansas, and began her career as a business and real estate reporter in Little Rock. “I quickly became captivated by historic preservation while covering stories about restorations of historic homes and revitalization efforts,” she said. “Little Rock has several beautiful historic neighborhoods, and I realized I could get VIP access to great buildings undergoing improvements if I wrote about them.” Her passion for the subject grew, and led her to New Orleans to obtain a Master’s of Preservation Studies at Tulane University. Under the program founder Gene Cizek and assistant director Ann Masson, Del Sol learned that New Orleans is a living laboratory of real estate, preservation and planning issues — as well as a microcosm of how communities cope with natural disasters, changes in the economy, population loss and growth, and the development of new architecture in a largely historic place.
Del Sol interned with the PRC while pursuing her degree, writing articles for Preservation in Print and working with the organization’s Education and Outreach department. She became the deputy editor of Preservation in Print under longtime editor Mary Fitzpatrick after completing her degree in 2011. Working with Fitzpatrick for three years, Del Sol was inspired by “her unending awe for New Orleans; her thoughtful approach to reporting on historic preservation’s big-picture issues and small, esoteric topics alike; and her generosity of spirit and dedication to others,” Del Sol said. “Mary believed deeply in the work and legacy of the PRC, and she ingrained in me the history of the organization, why its founders did what they did, how and why that work was important. She taught me how much the PRC has helped the city of New Orleans, which has been endlessly inspiring. She was an amazing mentor, and an amazing woman.” Immediately following Fitzpatrick’s death, Del Sol became editor; within months, she also began teaching Preservation Advocacy at Tulane, and gave birth to her first daughter.
Longtime PRC Director Patty Gay, who retired last July, also had a profound influence on Del Sol, who now carries the torch that Gay held for nearly four decades. “Patty lives and breathes historic preservation. It is her core, and it is an amazing commitment to behold,” said Del Sol. “Her passion for preservation is inspiring, and that is a legacy I am proud to carry forward.”
“I am thrilled that Danielle has agreed to serve as executive director of the PRC,” Gay said. “She is highly qualified for the position, having already learned not only the preservation needs and opportunities of the city, but also the needs and potential of the organization. Her dedication to the city and its historic built environment will take the PRC to new heights, as she did while editor of our magazine, Preservation in Print. Under her editorship the magazine has expanded preservation awareness exponentially, attracting new members, reaching more and more civic and business leaders, elected officials and the general public. All of this will continue to grow under her leadership, as will all PRC programs now.”
Del Sol appreciates the work that Gay, Cizek and other preservation leaders began in the 1970s to protect the city’s special building stock and historic neighborhoods. “Because of ongoing advocacy efforts by preservationists, our city enjoys a unique stock of historic architecture and variety of historic neighborhoods that distinguish us from other cities and attract businesses, residents and tourists,” she said. “The economic development ripple effect of preservation is profound,” she said, “and there are few places in the world where that ripple effect is so visible than in New Orleans. The most thriving areas of our city have historic homes that have been brought back to life, and old buildings that now host vibrant restaurants, shops or cafes — that’s not a coincidence. In a city where the economic climate is so reliant on industries that can change dramatically, such as tourism and oil, revitalizing historic buildings and neighborhoods is one of the most reliable strategies we have to create jobs, and to create an environment where people want to live, to start new companies and to expand existing companies. Plus, it keeps people wanting to live here, despite the challenges that residents can often face, like uncertainty in hurricane season. Preservation work protects the city’s authenticity, and that can help gird the city, to a degree, against uncertainties, and keep its quality of life high.”
That last point is personal to Del Sol — she and her husband, developer and entrepreneur Ramsey Green, renovated a circa 1905 shotgun house off Magazine Street two years ago, and are raising their two daughters in a neighborhood environment she calls ‘village life.’ “We can walk our daughter to school, walk to the grocery store, to several parks, to the library and to the doctor’s office,” she said. “We know our neighbors and have a community in the best sense of the word. Our neighborhood is the most diverse place that I have ever lived. This authenticity of place, the mix of people and the mix of commercial services amongst residences is how New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods originally developed, and that is worth protecting. It’s a wonderful way to live.”
New PRC executive director Danielle Del Sol poses in front of a vacant and blighted single shotgun house Uptown. Luckily for this house and the neighborhood, Jason Riggs will soon restore the home using Historic Tax Credits through his company, HistoricProNola. Photo by Liz Jurey.
While PRC has historically served people across the community in many important capacities, including through the work of Rebuilding Together New Orleans and Operation Comeback, putting vacant and blighted housing back into commerce and helping low-income, elderly and veteran homeowners age in place, preservation in New Orleans suffers an image problem among some, and that’s an issue Del Sol hopes to face head on. “Preservationists are individuals of all races, creeds and economic backgrounds who value history, see the countless benefits of saving places, and are able to interpret the past into power,” she wrote in an essay for the National Trust for Historic Preservation Forum Journal last year. “In order to fulfill its democratizing potential, preservation must be accessible to people of all races and socioeconomic statuses — and be more intentional about reaching historically underrepresented and traditionally oppressed groups. The more inclusive preservation becomes, the more people can access the tools that it offers and use them to transform and uplift their own communities.
“The stories we tell hold power. By shaping the past, we shape the future. There is healing power in listening and learning and in the collective celebration of our individual heritages. Now is a crucial time in our field, and in our nation’s history, to seek such unity,” she wrote.
Del Sol is already working to implement some of this vision into PRC’s programming. For example, she is currently working with PRC’s Education and Outreach department to put together an exhibit focused on the craftspeople whose families, for generations, have built and maintained much of the city’s historic building stock. Simultaneously, the organization’s Advocacy department is working with neighbors in Pontchartrain Park who want to list their neighborhood as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places — a project that will include surveying the neighborhood’s buildings, recording residents’ histories and publishing information about the significance of the predominantly African-American neighborhood.
Ultimately, Del Sol argues, PRC’s programming must capture an audience before it can be effective. “Our programming needs to be innovative, exciting and fun,” she said. “And luckily we have a lot coming up soon.” PRC’s upcoming exhibit opening of the work of local Instagram celebrity ‘the.preservationist’ on March 3, a public photography contest, and this summer’s Mid Mod NOLA series are but a few upcoming events in the mix.
“The vision of the PRC’s board, and the intelligence, passion and drive of the organization’s talented staff will help drive the organization into exciting new directions,” she said, “while maintaining the important work the PRC has always done to help safeguard the city. “ “A concerted effort of planning innovative programs and events, increasing outreach and forging strategic partnerships with organizations that advocate for related causes can help the PRC evolve to meet the needs of the current day,” she said.
An example of the importance of working with allies is the staff ’s recent effort, alongside a coalition of real-estate developers and property owners, to maintain the Historic Tax Credit in the new federal tax reform law. This important tool was threatened for elimination, but advocates including the PRC helped lawmakers, especially Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, fight to keep the credit, and win.
“Louisiana leads the nation in Historic Tax Credit renovations, and we are proud to work with developers frequently to promote this work,” Del Sol said. “We truly work to advocate for policy and projects that balance economic growth and increased opportunities with the protection of the city’s historic built environment and cultural vibrancy.
“Though we have a lot of planning yet to do, I am confident the PRC is growing in exciting ways, and will soon be more relevant and innovative than we could have ever hoped,” Del Sol said. “And that’s important, because there’s still so much work to do. New Orleans is still inundated with blight; there are historic buildings threatened every day; the story of our architecture and the people who activate it is important and needs to be told in better, more engaging ways. And there are still so many families we can serve through Rebuilding Together New Orleans. We’re excited to do all this and more, and support from the community and our members will be key. We’re so grateful for the members and donors who make our work possible.”