This story appeared in the September 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!
by Nathan Lott & Liz Jurey
In August, a month after its partial collapse, the remains of the former 109-year-old Clabon Theater still loomed over 1031 N. Claiborne Ave., granting passers-by on the elevated Interstate 10 expressway haunting views into the building’s exposed balcony. The theater was stripped of its facade after the front wall buckled and detached on July 6, partially collapsing onto the sidewalk below. An upper portion also was removed. No injuries were reported in the collapse.
The facade demolition was the latest in a series of indignities visited upon the theater. Its 1938 Art Deco facade was stripped sometime between 2007 and 2011 in a stalled renovation that left the building a vacant canvas for graffiti. City records show multiple citations for demolition by neglect and minimum property maintenance between 2011 and 2016.
The current owner, an LLC whose sole officer is Tracy Williams, purchased the building at a sheriff’s sale in late 2010. Williams is also the sole officer of an LLC that owns 901 Piety St. in Bywater, site of the first Schwegmann’s grocery store. That building sat vacant for years before being consumed by fire in 2020.
1031 North Claiborne Ave. opened in 1913 as the segregated, open-air Harlequin Theater. The building was enclosed and expanded by a series of owners, including Rene Brunet, Sr., father of the late Rene Brunet, Jr. who operated and restored many cherished historic theaters around New Orleans, including the Prytania, Carver and Joy.
It operated as the Clabon Theater from 1938 until 1978, serving an African American clientele during the Jim Crow era. The building subsequently was home to a disco and a church.
If the building is lost, the Clabon will join Club Desire on a list of bygone Black spaces that struggled to retain audiences after integration and suburbanization. (On Sept. 7, the PRC and The Historic New Orleans Collection will co-host a screening for a documentary film about Club Desire. The screening will be a virtual event, free to the public. For details, see page 30.)
There is a growing awareness of the cultural significance of these historic African American places. The National Park Service now offers grants to states and cities to help diversify the National Register of Historic Places. Locally, the recently commenced restoration of the Dew Drop Inn, at 2836 Lasalle St., offers a counterpoint to the Clabon calamity, showing the difference passionate owners and preservation-minded developers can make.
The former theater at 1031 N. Claiborne Ave. was stripped of its facade after the front wall buckled and detached on July 6, partially collapsing onto the sidewalk below. An upper portion also was removed. 1938: Photo courtesy of the Claiborne Avenue History Project. 2007-March 2022: Images courtesy of Google Street View. July 2022: Photo by Liz Jurey.