State endorses National Register nomination for Freedom House

On Aug. 3, Louisiana’s National Register Review Committee unanimously endorsed a proposal to list 917-919 N. Tonti Street on the National Register of Historic Places for its unique role in the Civil Rights movement.

Identified as the Castle Family Home in the nomination and also known locally as the Freedom House, the Arts and Crafts-style double is already a “contributing” element of the Esplanade Ridge National Historic District by virtue of its age and architecture. Individual listing, however, elevates the honor and establishes a new “period significance” for the early 1960s, when Vergie and Johnnie B. Castle provided safe haven to Civil Rights activists, including contemporaries and friends of their children, Oretha, Doris and Johnnie Jr. The family home would serve as the unofficial headquarters of the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded by Oretha Castle, Jerome Smith and Rudy Lombard.

CORE staged sit-ins that would lead to a landmark court ruling in Lombard v. Louisiana in 1963. Freedom Riders and celebrities such as James Baldwin found welcome shelter in the Castle Home and a detached dependency dubbed the Safehouse. Today, a nonprofit, Friends of the Freedom House, is operating a portion of the building for community events and curating exhibits for future display on site.

Photo 1: 917-919 N. Tonti Street.  Photo 2: 1661 Canal St. Photos by Dee Allen.

Also at the Aug. 3 meeting, the committee also voted to advance the former Canal Ford building at 1661 Canal St. for individual listing on the National Register because of its significance as a rare example of midcentury brutalist design in New Orleans. Designed by the firm Curtis and Davis, the automobile showroom and service center was clad in vertical concrete fins that to this day mask the fenestration behind them. One of the first service centers to tout computerized diagnostics, Canal Ford offered downtown employees a convenient place to leave their vehicles for maintenance before walking to work in the Central Business District. Though it was converted for office use long ago, the structure remains highly visible from the elevated Interstate 10 expressway, which was completed within just a few years of the building.

Nathan Lott is PRC’s Policy Research Director and Advocacy Coordinator.