This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
Club Desire: The Downtown Club with the Uptown Ideas by Gail Lazaras
Gail Lazaras: Thank you for allowing me to come and present here. I think that my presentation is going to be an outlier. Club desire that I’m presenting on is neither designed nor at first, was a joint kind of thing. It was very interesting. Club Desire’s in New Orleans, and we’ll get into a slide with the maps so you can see exactly where it’s at. It was built in the late 1940’s, after World War 2, specifically as an African American dance hall and venue. It was built as a fancy top of the line place, that was big lights, big fanfare opening, a place you went and got dressed up to go, and multiple acts every night. We’ll get into actually what was there. There was food- a nice seafood restaurant upstairs, and a lot of entertainment. I work with FEMA historic preservation, and in 2008, we identified this as a historic building.
That brings us into more of an introduction, why does FEMA even care about Club Desire? In 2005, when I learned about FEMA for the first time in New Orleans, hurricane Katrina hit, and the building that was Club Desire was damaged. The city of New Orleans identified it as a threat to health and safety, and they requested FEMA funds to demolish it. There’s the FEMA announcement right there. FEMA, because is federally involved, tax dollars are involved, were required to review all of our projects under the National Historic Preservation Act section 106. Our first job was to say we have historic property there, so they can’t demolish it, we’ve got a project. We dug up some fascinating stuff about this building. You can see a postcard on the left with an unknown date, but probably the late 40’s, with Club Desire in it’s heyday of Charles Armstead prior to where he built it. In the upper right of that postcard is a small picture of the interior custom interior shots, and you can see what it looked like in 2008.
It looks in pretty good shape, we’ll see some pictures of the interior is clearly not in great shape, and it’s gotten worse. It’s still standing today, to our present day. It was opened on Mardi Gras day- well Mardi Gras night, 1948, which was February 10th. The opening had the heralded trucks going all around the city for weeks announcing this club is coming. At the time there was only 1 TV Station, so TV wasn’t a way that people got the word out, so these trucks were on the street. They had the big play lights going on when it was opening, newspaper articles. It was a big deal. It was opened, like I had said before, specifically for the African American community in the day of segregation. They said, “we’re going to have a place downtown.” Charles Amdstead said, “We’re going to have a place for us downtown that’s fancy. People can get dressed and come to, and there’ll be no … “ There’s a big sign outside, I guess that said no boisterous, or rude behavior would be allowed, it was a very classy place.
It was a centerpiece for many years of acts as they came into New Orleans, and start up bands too. You could see on the right is an older picture of the dance floor, and interior. The interior’s large, it has a balcony around the top. I want to point this out here. They have a lot of the glass blocks, which you can see a little bit clearer in the new picture, but a lot of these glass blocks are used, and they had lights on the side at the time. You see the façade and the 2 openings where you come into the building. There are these pillars around the dance floor, and this is what was really cool, the dance floor itself was elevated and put on these lit glass blocks. This is the main part of the middle of that large building, elevated dance floor, specifically for housing dancers.
Personally, I do swing dance, I’m a swing dancer myself, I would totally appreciate this elevated lit dance floor. You had the band downstairs, and upstairs was restaurant. There was landscape, painting in the back. Through it’s years it was a disco establishment, and it was repainted somewhat differently, but this is what the interior looked like in 2008. Who was there? The big story of Club Desire was Fats Domino. He had just started, in 1948 from what I understand, and I’m not really an expert on the little bit I know about Club Desire through this process. He played a few times there, but he was a little uncomfortable because it was just so fancy, and you had to get dressed up and all that. Then he spent a couple years right down the street at Club Hideaway, and eventually after he got to be a big name, he came back for a few acts and then he was out. All kinds of folks played here for many years through the 40’s, into the 50’s.
This is another interior shot of the front side of the building. You can see the bar here, and what remains of the bar and the glass blocks there. I promised you a map, here we go. We went through kind of the basic history. We realized it was historic in the historic preservation office, to determine that it was definitely eligible for the national register of historic places. It was located, like I said, it was downtown. There were plenty of white only places in the French Quarter. There were several bars at the time up here, kind of in this downtown in central city area. This was where Club Desire was, is still there. It was on a commercial corridor at the time, it wasn’t a big area, it wasn’t a central area. After the storm, that area, in the 40’s, in the 50’s was kind of it’s heyday, where it was attracting a lot of not well off, but clearly not very poor folks who had the money to go out to do these things.
As we got through the 50’s and into the 60’s, that area had less and less money to roll on in the late 50’s. There was a big housing project built right near it. It knocked down a lot of commercial corridor. The owner, Charles Amdstead, died in the early 50’s, and it kind of began to take a gradual slow decline. Club Desire was a business through the 20th century. We could find no evidence of it being opened at any time in the 21st century. It looks like it closed down prior to 2000. We have this clearly … The building had been abandoned for quite a while, and had decades of demolition by neglect at some point. The city had condemned it. They’re asking FEMA to knock it down, so what do we do next?
We determine that clearly it was going to be an adverse effect to knock it down. As a federal entity, we have to resolve that adverse effect through negotiating an agreement, and reaching out to as many people as we possibly could. The first thing we tried to do, is can we find a credible buyer? That’s not FEMA’s job to go out and find funding sources for this. We tried to do our best to encourage folks to do that. We outreached to everyone that we could possibly think of, and everyone that we talked to, we said do you have anyone else who would be interested in coming to the table and talk with us about this project? There was some good newspaper ads, we did outreach on social media, we had a bunch of folks who helped us as the preservation office who did a bunch of legwork to help us talk to people, encourage people to find someone who had money that would be happy to save it. The fact of the matter is, it’s in a very … A place that was hard to find in the storm, just like some of the places that are not a vibrant area at the moment.
The woman who lives next door, who is the spokesperson for the [inaudible 00:09:56] community, she has been very vocal that she would like to turn this into a community center for at least 10 years, I think more. She’s been trying to work on turning that building into a community center, and has not gotten any purchase on it. As far as she’s concerned where it sits right now, open, she would love to see it go live again. Without the funds with it being sort of open to vandals right now. It’s literally falling down, she’s happy to have it move forward however it does. Doing our best with trying to find a buyer, but it just didn’t happen. Where we stand on it right now, is it’s still condemned by the city, nobody has stepped forward to purchase it, and it has not yet been demolished.
The next step, since we weren’t able to avoid that adverse effect to avoid the demolition, the last thing we did, what I think actually is the reason I’m here today, but what I think is some good that will come out of the final death part of this building if it does get demolished, if someone doesn’t step forward, but it could happening. We left an opening for it. We kind of came out of it saying if this building is going to get knocked down with federal funding, what can we do as the federal entity to bring some public benefit out of it, out of this demise. That’s where we worked with all those people that engaged us and sat at the table and negotiated these things that we’re going to do afterwards. I got to say right now, we wrote this all out in the written agreement. The city has not signed it yet. They’ve had it since early December, there’s not a lot it can do, but once it’s signed, we will keep moving on.
We’re going to do what I call a memorization package. Our quality of photography … The photos that were in here, I wanted to pull some of the photos that we’ve already taken, because we’ve already taken them through 80 megabytes, and I just put the big ones in. We got really good quality digital photography. We are going to be writing a narrative history that includes the context of that commercial corridor, so it isn’t just about Club Desire, it’s actually about that small little commercial neighborhood, and what happened there is clearly at the time, although Club Desire was an anchor, it wasn’t all about that club. It was also about Club Hideaway, it was also about the other things in the area. We’re going to put some context into that.
We’re going to work with Marguerite to identify folks who would be able to give some history into Club Desire, particularly as what we administer as preservation, and what we look at as it’s heyday, which was really the late 40’s and through the 50’s. I know that it continued past then, into the disco era and such, but it’s sort of a different thing. We’re going to do oral interviews. We’re going to do a video, that’s a short enough clip that can hold a short attention span with videos like myself, who actually watch online, and we’re going to distribute it without … Just give it to folks to be able to use whenever, however they want to. That will help engage people. Marguerite was really the community member who lives right there, is sort of an unofficial caretaker. She was kind of excited about that, because she wanted that as a way to help, and hopefully we can get some of those oral interviews into that clip, is the idea.
We’re going to do a marker on site, and I’m going to present at the symposium, which I’m here. I’m trying to think if there was anything else. I think that those were the main things that we agreed to do, coming out of that to give … It’s a memorization that this club requires. It’s an amazing building. It’s amazing history that went on there. There are very few snippets of it being sort of our popular New Orleans history. That R and B era is something that … Jazz has been documented, we got that rolling. The R and B era is just from what I can see as a residence there, really starting to kind of be paid attention to and listened to a little bit. That was the last thing, this sign. There’s a sign above the main bar in the front that says, this is the downtown club of good times. We’re saving that. We’re going to hopefully be able to roll that into the community center if it happens in the neighborhood, and if it doesn’t, then Marguerite can keep it.
In 2008, FEMA identified Club Desire as a historic building and eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office. Club Desire is one of the few remaining examples of a 1940s nightclub that arose in segregated New Orleans to meet the cultural and social needs of the African American community.
Why was FEMA interested in Club Desire? Once the center of a vibrant Ninth Ward neighborhood and commercial corridor, Club Desire, had been abandoned and deteriorating since it sustained damages from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2008, the City of New Orleans identified it as a threat to health and safety and had requested FEMA funding for its demolition. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, FEMA is required to take into account the effects of this demolition on historic Club Desire.
Club Desire opened on Mardi Gras Day in February 1948 with much fanfare, a deliberately swank night club designed to provide top notch entertainment, ample room for dancing and excellent food. Opening night featured Dave Bartholomew’s orchestra with his two singing stars, Theard Johnson and Earl Palmer. Antoine “Fats” Domino first played at the Club Desire with Bartholomew’s band in 1948 and later played there as a headliner in 1950.
Club Desire was a destination spot for local and nationally-recognized jazz, blues, and R&B artists, as well as patrons drawn to its outstanding musical performances, floor acts, and ambiance. It played an important role in the growth of R&B in New Orleans, partially because of the part it played in the careers of both Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, who gained exposure at the club early in their careers. Through the decades, however, Club Desire slowly eased into disuse and was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina
The City of New Orleans did not pursue FEMA funding for the demolition of Club Desire in 2008, however it again requested FEMA funding for demolition in 2014. In 2015, FEMA initiated consultation for the proposed demolition of Club Desire and sought ways to avoid the demolition and, should there be no feasible way to avoid this loss, to develop treatment measures to offset the demolition of Club Desire.
As of the date of this abstract, Club Desire is slated for demolition. No credible developers have stepped forward. Yet this story is not lost and the outcome is not entirely negative. FEMA is capturing the story of Club Desire through various venues and it will be more available to others in the future. FEMA will highlight other venues from the same era in the hopes of engaging interest in these properties and their scenes. The public outreach last summer gave an opportunity to interested people to engage and seek alternatives to demolition. Could this interest provide incentives to honor and reinvigorate other remaining venues from the mid-20th century?
Gail Lazaras began work for FEMA in Historic Preservation shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Gail supports the recovery from this storm by helping to fulfill FEMA’s regulatory requirements under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Initially, Gail supported NHPA compliance for FEMA-funded demolitions in Southeast Louisiana and is now focused on resolving adverse effects to historic properties. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Gail worked as a GIS specialist and archaeologist on both coasts and has degrees from Western Washington University and Tulane University