The Preservationists who Saved New Orleans

The Early Rise of Preservation Sentiment in New Orleans

There are so many phenomenal events, publications, speakers, and reasons to gather as a community in celebration of 2018, the 300th anniversary of the City of New Orleans. At the Preservation Resource Center, we are using the milestone as an opportunity to reflect on the city that we have today: the historic buildings that still stand, because they’re protected or by happenstance; the memorable structures and streetscapes that have been lost; and the celebrated and storied neighborhoods that have housed, and still house, generations of New Orleanians.

The impact that preservationists have had on keeping our historic urban fabric intact cannot be overstated. Through waves of modernization spanning centuries, New Orleanians have fought to save the sites that matter to them. From public fights to individual activists to writing and art, the preservation ethos that has long lived in this city was born even before the oft-cited first official protection of the French Quarter, the establishment of the Vieux Carré Commission in 1936.

One of the earliest examples of preservation activism in the city arose in 1895 as New Orleans’ City Council proposed to demolish the Cabildo and Presbytère and construct two new modern, capacious court buildings in their place. The buildings, some of the oldest surviving structures in the city, are iconic for their multitude of uses through the years, including serving as the site of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as New Orleans City Hall, and as various courts. Amazing as it is to fathom these 123 years later, in 1895 the Cabildo and Presbytère were seen as weathered and dingy, inadequate and embarrassing. Judges and politicians wanted newer digs, hence the proposal for demolition. Luckily, the proposition drew immediate, vehement opposition from a range of groups who protested loudly. These included the Louisiana Historical Society and the Artists’ Association, who held that, as some of the few remaining relics of the Spanish Colonial era, the historic structures should be maintained; the groups proposed adaptively reusing the buildings to house a museum complex devoted to the state’s history. This came to pass, and the Louisiana State Museum was headquartered on site in 1911 — and is still there today.

These concerned citizens were able to preserve the integrity of beloved Jackson Square, but unfortunately were unable to maintain momentum as the Courthouse Commission searched for a new location to house newly constructed, modern chambers for the courts. After the footprints of the Cabildo and Presbytère were rejected as possible sites for new construction, the Courthouse Commission looked west to a block in the French Quarter that some described as tenement-like. As Italians faced discrimination and as the French Quarter was deemed by many as an immigrant slum, proposals for razing whole swaths in the name of ‘neighborhood improvement’ came from many sources, even the Works Progress Administration. In this spirit, the Courthouse Commission pinpointed a whole city block between Conti and St. Louis streets and Royal and Chartres for decimation. It was densly developed with early 19th-century residences and shops, just like the rest of its surrounding neighborhood, but it was razed nonetheless. As pointed out in Tulane University’s New Orleans Preservation Timeline, the loss was felt keenly by the very artists and activists who fought to maintain Jackson Square: In June 1903, as the demolitions took place, a Daily Picayune editorial lamented the loss of “one of the most historic sites in New Orleans. It is the very heart of the vieux carré…and while still palpitant with memories of pioneer bravery and colonial splendor, it must be torn to pieces that progress may continue its onward march.”

And so there were wins and losses, just as today. Luckily for the residents of this city then and for generations to come, the replacement for that French Quarter city block was a handsome, white marble and terra cotta Beaux Arts-style building. Few demolitions come to mind where the building replacement was one that could boast such timeless elegance.

It was the original city, the oldest of the old, so naturally these early preservation fights, and the people who fought them, focused largely on the Vieux Carré. There were several notable characters who saw riches in what other saw as a slum that are worth remembering as preservationists who pre-date organized efforts. Artists William and Ellis Woodward, for example, were hired in 1884 to teach drawing classes at Tulane University — the first such offering at the school, and the predecessor to an architecture department that William would be involved in forming. William especially gleaned great inspiration from the street scenes of the Vieux Carré, as evidenced in his watercolors, and became an activist as well in the fight for the Cabildo and Presbytère. Writer Lafcadio Hearn saw beauty in the chaos of the Quarter in the late 19th century and wrote romantic essays for national publications about the neighborhood — such essays inspired people to visit and even move to the French Quarter. Prominent civic activist Elizabeth Werlein published a booklet titled The Wrought Iron Railings of Le Vieux Carré in New Orleans in 1910, a time when the Quarter was looked upon unfavorably. She saw such beauty in the French Quarter and in the craftsmanship of each building’s individual architectural details that she worked passionately and tirelessly for the neighborhood’s preservation, including forming local clubs to working to influence politics at the local and state level. William Ratcliffe Irby’s interest in preservation stemmed from the destruction resulting from a 1915 hurricane, and he began buying buildings to save them — the French Opera House and the Lower Pontalba Building, for example — as well as donating funds for historic building repairs, such as a sum given to the Archdiocese to repair St. Louis Cathedral. Architect, educator and military leader Allison Owens was another notable figure who designed several iconic structures and fought to save others in his roles as dean of Loyola’s architecture school, head of the Louisiana chapter of the American Institute of Architects and as longtime editor of Architectural Art and Its Allies.

The city actually supported two journals devoted to architecture in the early 20th century: Architectural Art and Its Allies (1905-1912) and Building Review (1913-1923). What an era for public interest in the built environment!

As part of PRC’s celebration of the Tricentennial, every issue of 2018’s Preservation in Print will feature essays that explore, in new ways, the reasons why our historic built environment as it stands today exists: the activism that saved it, the happenstance that shaped it, and a little lagniappe too. Please stay tuned.

Early fans of the city’s historic architecture had two journals at the onset of the 20th century to keep them inspired, including Architectural Arts and its Allies (a 1910 issue shown here). Courtesy Southeastern Architectural Archives, Tulane University.

CHAPTER I:  The Resurrection of the Original City, the Vieux Carré

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