Meet a few of the far-sighted men who blocked the wrecking ball's path through the Quarter in the early 1900s.
- by Frank Perez
At the turn of the last century, there was serious discussion of tearing down the Vieux Carré to make way for modern development. Developers argued that buildings were old and dilapidated, that the district had become a run-down slum filled with drunken sailors and hookers. Worse, in the minds of some, the neighborhood housed mostly Sicilian immigrants.
Gay men had made their mark on the Quarter as early as 1848 when Gaston Pontalba, son of the fabled Baroness, designed the ornate ironwork “AP” monogram that adorns the buildings that flank Jackson Square—an early example of a gay man setting the trend, architecturally at least .
One of the earliest gay preservationists was Allison Owen . After a successful career in the military, he founded the architectural firm of Diboll & Owen and began sounding the preservation bell. He led the effort to save the Cabildo from being torn down. He also purchased the Greek-Revival home on Chartres Street that would later come to be known as the Beauregard-Keyes House. He also built the Pythian Temple and Notre Dame Seminary outside the French Quarter.
As alarming as a proposal to tear down the Cabildo sounds today, historic preservation was not really on many people’s minds until the entire 400 block between Chartres and Royal Streets was destroyed in 1909 to make way for what is now the Supreme Court building. The modern tourism industry, which depends so much on the “old world charm” of the French Quarter, was not yet born. The Vieux Carre Commission was still years away. It was into this milieu that gay men began restoring and saving historic properties.
Chief among these men was William Ratcliffe Irby. His lifetime of philanthropy qualifies him as one of the most significant gay men in New Orleans history. Irby personally saved several important landmark French Quarter buildings, the most culturally significant of which was the old French Opera House (which unfortunately was destroyed by fire in 1919).
In 1918, Irby purchased and restored the Seignouret-Brulatour Court at 520 Royal Street. Also in 1918, Irby, who was Jewish, donated $125,000 to the Roman Catholic Arch-Diocese of New Orleans for the purpose of repairing and renovating St. Louis Cathedral, which was already showing its age before being ravished by the great hurricane of 1915.
In 1920, Irby purchased the old Bank of Louisiana building at 417 Royal Street (better known today as Brennan’s Restaurant) and donated it to Tulane University. The following year, Irby purchased the lower Pontalba Building on the northeast side of Jackson Square for $68,000 from the grandson of the Baroness Micaela Pontalba. He then donated it to the Louisiana State Museum, which retains it today.
In the 1920s, Irby became a part of what John Shelton Reed calls the “Dixie Bohemia”—a circle of writers and artists and like-minded friends in the French Quarter who would play a vital role in transforming the Quarter from a run-down slum on the verge of being razed into a viable neighborhood that not only fostered creativity but was also worth preserving.
Other gay (and bisexual) men who played a role in this transformation included Lyle Saxon (writer), Richard Koch (architect), Weeks Hall (artist), Sam Gilmore (poet and playwright), William Spratling (Tulane Professor and silversmith), Pops Whitesell (photographer), and Cicero Odiorne (photographer).
Among the Dixie Bohemians, Richard Koch and Lyle Saxon, along with Irby, were strong voices for preservation of the French Quarter.
Saxon championed the Quarter as an artistic haven and restored properties on both Royal and Madison Streets. Koch worked closely with Elizabeth Werlein to establish the Vieux Carre Commission and, in the 1930s, also worked with the Historic American Buildings Survey to identify and document endangered buildings throughout Louisiana.
Owen, Irby, Koch, and Saxon were the first in a long line of gay men who have served as guardians of New Orleans architecture. Subsequent generations would see the likes of Boyd Cruise, Arnold Genthe, Clay Shaw, Curt Greska, Lloyd Sensat, Gene Cizek, Randy Plaisance, Larry Hesdorffer and Bryan Block.
For ages, gay men have served as keepers of culture. That is certainly true in New Orleans. As the Quarter enters its fourth century, the city’s founder, Bienville, who lived into his 80s and never married, would be amazed not only at what he wrought, but also at the role gay men have played in preserving it.
The Vieux Carre Commission is the city agency charged with protecting the historical authenticity of the architecture in the French Quarter. Find more information about the VCC here: Elizabeth Werlein was the first President of the Louisiana League of Women Voters and an early advocate for the preservation of the French Quarter. Find more information on Werlein here.