Preserving The Past

Preserving The Past

New Orleans’ historic architecture is one of the city’s premiere
attractions for both visitors and those who live here.

Without its backdrop of beautiful, significant, aged homes and buildings New Orleans would simply be another city boasting great music and fabulous food. Fine cuisine and music are nothing to lament, of course, but they are a bit easier to come by than an architectural heritage dating back to the early 1700’s. The greatest pleasures of a streetcar ride down St. Charles Avenue would dissipate without the sweeping view of the grand Greek Revival, Eastlake and Victorian mansions running by on either side of the creaking trolley. Even a night of drinking and carousing in the French Quarter would lose some of its decadence if revelers were surrounded by impersonal, modern structures instead of porte-cochère townhouses, Creole cottages and graceful balconies dripping with elaborate wrought iron.

New Orleans’ historic architecture is one of the city’s premiere attractions for both visitors and those who live here. Since 1974, the Preservation Resource Center (PRC) has played a critical role in both preserving our historic architecture and generating interest among suburban dwellers in returning to the city’s many historic neighborhoods to reclaim, restore and ultimately live in its landmarks.

In 1988, the Lower Garden District, a pitiful, decaying, menacing neighborhood chock-a-block full of galleried townhouses, Creole cottages, raised center hall villas and shotguns, became the PRC’s first target neighborhood for revitalization. The PRC garnered the support of local architects, lenders and the real estate community in magically promoting the Lower Garden District as a potentially lovely place to live. At a time when conventional loans for property renovations were difficult to obtain, the PRC sweetened the pot for buyers, offering renovation financing through a special $1 million line of credit with Whitney Bank.

Urban pioneers began to creep into the Lower Garden District.

By 1992 interest in re-claiming historic properties had grown to the point that the PRC was able to extend its boundaries to include other historic neighborhoods in its area of concentration. The PRC currently classifies New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods as Algiers Point, Faubourg Treme, the Vieux Carré, the Garden District, Lower Garden District, Faubourg Lafayette, Touro Bouligny, Carrollton, Faubourg Marigny, Crescent Center, Holy Cross, Faubourg Treme-St. Julia, Irish Channel, Bywater, Faubourg St. John, Mid-City and Esplanade Ridge. The formerly abysmal Lower Garden District is now a showplace among the city’s neighborhoods. It features chic restaurants, boutiques and clubs speckled amongst gracefully restored mansions. It was recently named the “hippest neighborhood in America” in a poll conducted by Utne Reader magazine.

The interests of the PRC lie not only in preserving the grand mansions for which the city is known but focus essentially on refurbishing the numerous humble dwellings filling New Orleans’ older working class neighborhoods. The problems associated with re-inhabiting vacant and deteriorated houses are addressed through the PRC’s Live In a Landmark program through which active neighborhood associations are trained to attract home buyers for vacant properties. Qualified buyers and eligible existing residents are referred to the PRC’s Operation Comeback for financial assistance with home improvements. Operation Comeback, established in 1988, is unique because it focuses on vacant properties and markets to attract buyers from all income levels. “Most of the properties we have information on are not actually on themarket,” said Stephanie Bruno, director of Operation Comeback.

“They have either been abandoned or they suffer from extreme neglect. It puts us in an unusual position because we must locate and catalogue the properties, locate the owners and often work through a tangle of estate problems that kept the properties off of the open market in the first place.”

Operation Comeback serves as a resource center for prospective home buyers, offering a variety of tools including “neighborhood notebooks,” a renovation library and a computerized database called Homer, which provides visuals of vacant properties. Homer enables a prospective buyer to cross reference the neighborhood, estimated market value, degree of renovation required, and architectural style to access information on what’s out there to suit them. “The Operation Comeback office is the only place you can go to look at images and obtain information on close to 2,000 vacant and/or blighted historic properties,” Bruno said.

In addition to seeking new owners for vacant properties, Operation Comeback works to better the condition of blighted, inhabited properties. Just in time for an early Christmas, once a year the program utilizes community development block grants and organizes teams of corporate and individual volunteers to improve the homes of elderly or handicapped, low-income residents of historic neighborhoods through its

Christmas In October program. “Since 1988, 625 houses, six schools, four community centers, two transitional houses and one courthouse have been improved through Operation Comeback and Christmas In October,” said Beverly Lamm, Director of Development for the PRC. “Volunteers have made a total investment valued at over $17 million. For every vacant house that was renovated and occupied, approximately two properties have been improved, with a ripple effect that continues to grow,” Lamm said.

With that ripple effect continually spreading, more buyers than ever are interested in saving an important part of New Orleans heritage. They want to move back into the heart of the city and be a part of the community that took over 200 years to build. Federal grants and lending institutions are making those options more feasible than ever. Today, lower interest rates on mortgages and new loans designed specifically for property rehabilitation empower Operation Comeback to service more buyers each year. Also working to the preservationists’ advantage is the Blighted Properties Removal Program of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA).

Blighted properties with owners who are unwilling to repair them can be expropriated by NORA, allowing for them to be sold to anyone agreeing to pay a fair market value with the capacity and intent to renovate. Settling back taxes and any liens on the property remain the responsibility of the previous owner. NORA and Operation Comeback regularly conduct joint workshops for prospective home buyers. “It’s the perfect partnership: Operation Comeback finds interested buyers for vacant properties and NORA manages all of the legal intricacies of the property transfer,” Bruno said. “Prospective buyers can begin fresh with a clean title on an historic property. This relationship will enable us to put many of New Orleans architectural gems back into commerce each year—instead of just watching them slip away.”

In 2002, PRC followed its own lead, renovating the Leeds Foundry Building at the edge of the Warehouse District, just steps from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The facility serves not only as a new home for the organization, but as a starting point for architecture and preservation tours sponsored by PRC and as a museum of New Orleans architecture. Find out more about PRC at

This material may be reproduced for editorial purposes of promoting New Orleans. Please attribute stories to New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. Fall 2004.
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