Documenting Preservation History Through Education: The New Orleans Preservation Timeline Project by John H. Stubbs, Tulane University
John Stubbs: Thank you very much. You don’t know what a pleasure it is for me to be here for a lot of reasons, to be among dear colleagues on the line battling to educate new generations of preservationists. It’s a real fraternity, if I may say, and it’s a pleasure to see friends from recent times and in less recent times.
Also, if I may take the liberty of expanding in our director’s words of welcome to Louisiana, I grew up in this part of the state in Monroe, Louisiana and now, I’m teaching at Tulane University and welcome you all to our state. On your way out, if you’re going through Tulane or are going to New Orleans or in the state again in New Orleans, call me. I give a good tour and I would be very happy to show you all around New Orleans.
I can’t resist pointing to a amazing development that happened in this state not three weeks ago. The listing of Poverty Point, the Native American site just east of Monroe, on the World Heritage List, site number 1,001 in North Louisiana was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, so we’re very proud of that.
Things are happening in general for the better in cultural heritage management in this state and it’s about time and it’s a place that really deserves special attention for our awesome history, which brings up another point, big in Natchitoches for this meeting. We’re in the oldest settlement in the region here, full stop, right now, right underfoot so it’s all good. A lot of things are falling into place for this conference. Thank you all for organizing it. It’s an honor to be before you now.
The presentation I’m giving today called New Orleans Preservation Timeline is a story that started exactly three years ago this month when I committed to move from New York City, after 32 years, to head the Master of Preservation Studies Program at Tulane University. Before even arriving there to live, I was saying, “Well, where’s the history of preservation in New Orleans?” and everyone said, “What?”
“Well,” I said, “Surely, there’s a history written about preservation in New Orleans,” and they were saying, “No. We’re just living it.” I said, “No, no. Somebody has written something about it.” “Well,” they said, “I don’t know. The Vieux Carré Commission has something on Wikipedia and I think someone did a thesis on it at University of New Orleans, but there is no history of preservation in New Orleans.”
You know how in life you just don’t see things until you’re looking for them? Well, with the task of moving to New Orleans I was seeing the place in a whole new way because I knew I had to drink it in to learn it to teach it. So I was marveling over the awesome built environment of New Orleans, driving around and every tree you go on is a marvel, some awesome place for history and whatnot, and it’s preserved.
If you’re really game as long as some of us that’s where you begin to wonder toward the end of your life, “Why is all this the way it is?” So, for various reasons I began to say, “Why is all this so well preserved? Who did it? How did they do it?” So, from the outset I was thinking it would be very useful for pedagogical purposes and personal interest purposes to somehow map the history of preservation in that great city.
Nothing much happened for about a year. I was too busy trying to reorganize the program and, by the way, Eugene Cizek who is my predecessor, was going to be with us today, but he has the flu and he couldn’t make it and he sends his regrets and regards to you all. In the first year I was busy reorganizing the program and finally found a way to begin to address this question on the history of preservation in the city.
My first thought was let’s do a book, like Charles Hosmer’s book or something like that, or the book that the Fitch Foundation sponsored for Savannah with the Adlers and then, it wasn’t working. I couldn’t find the money, I couldn’t find the time, the energy. Then something even better happened, the idea of putting it on a website, setting it on a medium for our time.
I’m going to give you now a PowerPoint of a website, which is the best I could do for today, but I invite you all to browse the website, explore it for all its worth. It’s only Phase I. We have much more work to do, but we’re underway.
It goes something like this. I will simply just hit the highlights of the site and maybe, through discussion later on, we could address more specific things.
There was the question of what sort of programs we used and how do we do this. I’ll let others worry about that for the most part and work with my dear colleague Danielle Del Sol in figuring out just what we put on the site, what it looks like, the various features of the site, and we just did it from really asking and looking at comparable and whatnot.
The dean of the school fortunately understood that this is a good thing and said, “John, let’s just put it on Tulane School of Architecture’s website. That’ll be the host for the time being.” He underwrote about half of the cost and wonderful colleague, Ann Masson, paid the difference. She retired from the program and was so jazzed about the History of New Orleans Preservation being put out there some way she paid the balance totaling about 15,000 bucks to set the website up using the Tulane School of Architecture’s webmaster.
Credit for that is given in the About Page of the website that you see right here and the power of it all, as you all know so well, are the links plus, the information we’re developing new knowledge, quite frankly, about things that are essentially the content of the site.
As you would expect it starts with a bit about its purpose. You get into Acknowledgements and this is the other beautiful thing about it from having worried about it and trying to figure out how to do this. I had a brainstorm between Years 2 and 3 to use the students to do the research on the contents of the website as part of the first course they take, one of the first courses they take, my intro into preservation.
The students were credited in about the fourth paragraph there for each developing about four entries. It was a rocky road, to be honest. Most have just arrived, didn’t know how to do this kind of technical writing, didn’t know how to really do the research, didn’t know what to research, but that was the point, is to learn by doing this kind of work.
Now, I should say that the first idea of what to put on the site came from a meeting at Antoine’s Restaurant where they have in the summer a $20.13 lunch and $0.25 martinis and that drew us in. At that lunch were some of the old guard like Mary Lou Christovich, John Lawrence, Ann Masson, some of the really stalwart preservationists. We lifted about what might be placed on the list and we came up with about 125 names and entries of not just names of people, of course, but places, battles, buildings saved, buildings lost, etc. So we have this long laundry list and it’s that that I divided by 21 students and each student came up with five entries to write. So there we had a start.
Meanwhile, the website was being worked out by the webmaster and we all came together with the help of a deadline this amazing conference we had called Preservation Matters III that happened in the middle of April that I invite you all to look for in our website. We really broke some new ground about … it’s really called the economics of the preservation that we tackled in New Orleans. Anyway, that was the deadline for unveiling this website, the timeline project so it’s a sort of double-header conference that we had.
To continue walking you through the site, as you would expect, Acknowledgements and then mention of the plans for the site going forward and so that … okay, here we go into a little bit more about how it’s put together. We wanted to make it as simple as possible, user-friendly as possible for anyone on the world that wanted to learn about the story of preservation in New Orleans.
We tried the most part to use open-source software. The entries themselves were organized using this Drupal Content Management System, the same management system that’s used on the larger Tulane Architecture website and it mainly was a matter of marrying that with the famous Timeline JS Program that anyone can find on the web for essentially free. The webmaster combined these two to be the program that we’re really using here.
Let me hit some of the highlights of it for you here now. Over on our left would be essentially the outline of the site, what’s where. If you click on Timeline, you come … to the first entry we found thus far, that would be site number one, or at least that is profile number one on the website, so that is the forming of our historical society.
You beg the question of how do we divide history for purposes of this project. This is what we did, come up with time cuts, so you have First Interest up through 1870. There are plenty of interest prior to that earlier entry I just showed you, but this is the framework for it in terms of chronology. Early Public Concern, Initial Organized Efforts, Exemplars and Testing of Legislation happened largely between 1937 and 1966, and then for the lack of a better term, we said everything from ’66 forward we call simply the Period of Federal Support. There you have that timeline constantly on the upper right of each entry.
Another aspect of this, of course, of course, of course, is to layer the stuff. You have not only titles in three or four words, but a byline that might be five or six words and then a short description and then a dig deeper option. Here we dig in deeper on this one entry. You can go to read more about the founding of the Louisiana Historical Society, there’s a long explanation of the whole thing, complete with links and, most importantly, this is why I was saying yesterday, “What are the sources? What is the proof? Where do you got more information?” our references as to where we got the information and suggestions for further reading.
Now, I might say at this point, writing these things up proper was no easy task. We found the need to really resort to one of our best graduates, an architectural historian, Gabrielle Begue, who really went to town combing through each one and checking and vetting and rewriting and harmonizing the language, making sure the links works and interns, students also worked on that as well and getting it right because it has to be perfect and 100% accurate if we’re going to do this properly.
That is a typical entry and then if you want to explore in the Early Interests, just go down the timeline. Here’s another one. The Battle of New Orleans is an event and it’s listed under Events, but it’s also part of New Orleans Preservation History because in 1840, there was a commemoration of that battle that really could be called, for all intents and purposes, a preservation-minded celebration so that’s described.
Just like everything else, there’s the short description of the Battle of New Orleans, its relevance and then along the description of not the Battle of New Orleans as an activity, but the way that historic preservation of the Battle of New Orleans, the preservation of the battlefield, the interpretation and monuments that were built there, who did it, when it was done, why, what was said.
Then you have, again, the power of it all of these fantastic leads that one has by just clicking on Martha Robinson, for instance. That link brings you to another entry that we developed that is more on her said on other websites. So here’s a little profile of Martha, this fearless preservationist that was so intrepid that she really scared the socks off of all the politicians and pretty much got everything she wanted done in the way of preserving the French Quarter, which was her focus, and way up in the 1950s and ’60s. So if you want to read about how the Chalmette Battlefield was preserved, you stumble across Martha Robinson, you can read more about her or go back and read. That’s how it works, as you all know.
Now the entries, People and Entities are all reorganized and stacked chronologically, if you want to browse that way and just like looking through a phonebook, if you will, to see some of the characters and search that way.
We also have places that’s geo-referenced. This is just a start here, but click on any one of these tabs and you actually go down to the site and see it and can drive around it, if you will, and those will head to the relevant entries. You have, so far, a chronological arrangement, People, Entities, Places, and then in the list of Places there, of course, would be Structures or Sites per se, so you have that.
Thus far, we have about 40 entries on it, just as a starter, Phase I, and we recently been generously funded by the State Historic Preservation Office through the National Park Service grant that they give to every state to do Phase II. We’re very excited about that so another 75 entries will be entered in the next eight or 10 months.
In my remaining time, and I’m counting on you to wave at me, let me just talk about the real pleasure of the whole thing is the stuff we came up with. Now, you can imagine in a colorful place like New Orleans, the story of its preservation is extremely interesting and colorful and the characters involved are amazing and its such fun to research these guys.
Grace King, for instance, was an early novelist and antiquarian who, just the first entry to her memoirs of the Southern Woman puts you in the mood. Read this, “In a word, we’re all about our past. We do not cling to it, it clings to us.” These entries need to be written up to draw the reader into it. That’s the task of developing a website, as we all know, and so that’s an example of an early preservation. She was really setting the stage by talking about the importance of respecting our past and what a civilizing thing it is to do, to preserve our past and honor our history, etc.
Later down the line are our amazing battles that I knew nothing about that are absolutely fantastic. Can you believe there is a need to tear down the Cabildo and the Presbytere that are on both sides of St. Louis Cathedral in 1905? This was an insane idea to build a state building around it and surround the building in a U-shape neoclassical building. Crazy idea.
The founder of the School of Architecture who is an expert on the Quarter because he sketched every building, William Woodward, stood up, led the battle cry to save the Cabildo saying, for starters, “You can’t do this. The Louisiana Purchase was signed here in the state planner. “Oh, we didn’t know that,” and so they built that building about five blocks away, but we very nearly lost the whole character of the Jackson Square through that battle.
Then you have other personalities. Who doesn’t like to read about characters and we’ve got the characters and all of the preservationists, I must say, we’re all characters, but you’ve got some humdingers in New Orleans like Elizabeth Werlein who was a snowbird. She moved down from Michigan, saw the places and marvelous situation and devoted a lot of her time to saving the French Quarter. She’s such a character. She was fearless. It was said that she was really regarded as the mayor of the French Quarter and controlled the whole place up until noon every day from her four-poster bed on the telephone, calling the mayor saying, “You can’t do this. You can’t do that.” But it’s these characters that we are profiling here, not just in a frivolous way, but explaining the good that they did.
Just to finish as I talk about some of the entries for your interest would be other significant figures like Richard Koch, who was put in charge of the HAB Survey Task in Louisiana, an amazingly well-qualified architect in his day who studied in France. He was a professor at Tulane and what the right man to organize the HAB Survey of Louisiana with over 150 buildings documented under his watch.
The important thing that you learn from this kind of research and reading is that he went on to train, unwittingly, a whole generation of followers, including his later partner, Sam Wilson, to go on and restore buildings in ways that are very thoughtful in recognition of the significance and their history. Koch made a big splash in the history of preservation of New Orleans by leading the HAB’s effort and that, as you can easily imagine, an invaluable source of information for our purposes going forward.
Then you have other things that have to be there, like the establishment of the Vieux Carré Commission and just that whole story there and especially the origins of it, which really do predate, if I may so, Charleston, so you have that.
You’ve got references to characters. If you have to look at one entry on this website, I beg you to go to the period of the ’30s when the artists and writers and others were living in the Quarter who really developed a love for the place. Here you have a profile of Lyle Saxon who is an accidental preservationist, he and his circle, William Faulkner and Spratling and Sherwood Anderson. This is sort of a New York SoHo bohemian scene in New Orleans that really added the cool to the place, that help draw attention to preserving the joint.
Here you can, through the Lyle Saxon link, to something called Knowla.com, you can read this. You won’t believe the story in French Quarter Renaissance. Please try to look it up some days, incredible story of how these guys were operating in the ’20s and ’30s, all toward preserving … this reference to preserving the French Quarter.
So many profile of others like Sam Wilson, who is really considered the bane of historic preservation in New Orleans. He’s all there written up proper. The founding of the Historic New Orleans Collection, most precious collection of archives actually developed by private owners. The famous founding of our Historic District Landmarks Commission and it’s amazing reach. We have a huge number of historic districts in the city. This is just in the abstract. If you want to get scientific, get into the details, you can search it on this related website.
The founding of the Preservation Resource Center in 1975, that’s there, that story is there with all of its links. Save Our Cemeteries its founding, the Friends of the Cabildo its founding with this great work. The very important thing happened through the Historic New Orleans Collection, the digitization of the Vieux Carré Survey was done in 2012, hugely important resource for search purposes. That’s there. How to get to it, how to work with it is there. The Founding of Tulane University Southeast Architectural Archive, its establishment, it’s rationale, it’s there.
Other things that bring you up to today and I’ll stop for that, such as the great work of the Vieux Carré Property Owners Association, its purposes, its mission, all the way through to some recent battles, the Riverfront Expressway that really rewrote federal legislation for highways in some respects. That story is there. This is an amazing story right here. I won’t dwell on it in the interest of time, but it’s quite a tale, something you all should enjoy reading about, again, through this website.
Had that not succeeded, this view of the Mississippi River from Jackson Square would have right across the top of those lamps an elevated expressway. A dumber idea was never conceived by our planning authorities in this country. The battle to prevent that is explained on this website, for all its worth.
Other battles won and lost, we lost this one, the destruction of the Rivergate, a real amazing modern marvel, got replaced through politics over the casino. A real loss, but we talk about the good, the bad and the ugly.
Even the history of your preservation program, if you develop a timeline for your city or state, you can certainly justifiably place your own program’s establishment that no doubt had a huge bearing on preservation there so our genes has set up our program in 1996 so that story is there.
In other things, I’ll stop at this, really mentioning that including contemporary studies, very smart research and analysis of whole new potential districts, such as Algiers Point or the newest, the National Register area in the city and across the river, Gretna that whole survey and guidelines for preservation. That’s all there to be found through the preservation guideline.
Then, to be fair and honest, of course, you have to include things that hurt like the current battle to save Charity Hospital, which is a nightmare. It’s unfolding as we speak, but hopefully, it will be saved. Got to have that there, too.
I’ll stop at this, really to say that it’s just a start, but I think every city in this country that can claim some success in preservation should have something like this. It’s true, really, because it’s in our face. We know it so well we take it all for granted, but the stories are interesting.
Why we preserve places is a fantastic story, it’s a terrific tool for teaching. This, frankly, was done somewhat selfishly to teach, have this information at our fingertips and teach it in a hurry to incoming students. My program is fairly short and so wanted to have it there so that they could really learn about where they are and why things are preserved in New Orleans the way they are quickly and in a way that students today really enjoy learning through the web.
I will really stop at this, I’m being waved at over here, advise you all to explore it, invite you to help me with it if you’ve got suggestions, and really ask you to think about doing the same thing in your cities and across the country. We need this. It helps to explain the progress of our great efforts in preservation in this country and the world. Thank you all.
Documenting the preservation of America’s historic towns, cities and places through institution-based research projects can be a useful and effective tool for both measuring progress and educating future preservationists. Producing preservation histories allow for instruction in archival research and technical writing and enhances appreciation of why purposefully preserved historic places appear and function the way they do. Such research projects also require getting to know the players and determining cause and effect in heritage conservation practice.
The glaring absence of a single source for the history of historic preservation in New Orleans, Louisiana as late as 2013 begged for a book or research project on the subject. After inquiring with local preservationists about the desirability and feasibility of such a project it was determined that Tulane University’s Master of Preservation Studies graduate program would be the ideal seat for such an investigation. When methods of preferred distribution of such material were considered, digital media was deemed preferable to book form. From this position the web-based Tulane MPS-based New Orleans Preservation Timeline project was established.
The New Orleans Preservation Timeline is an effort to bring New Orleans’ rich and significant preservation past, present and future to life. The events that led to the safeguarding of one of the nation’s most extraordinarily wellendowed historic cities — as well as the losses that have been suffered — have left a legacy from which the world can learn. It also serves as an educational resource for those interested in the progress and key accomplishments of architectural preservationists working in the region of New Orleans since the mid-nineteenth century.
Phase I of the Timeline project was launched at the MPS program’s biennial Preservation Matters conference in mid-April 2014 and can be accessed at http://architecture.tulane.edu/preservation-project/. The initial phase mainly established the custom-designed program containing key time categories, entry templates and cross-links.
The project currently includes the first thirty-five representative entries that were originally researched and written as an inaugural project of graduate students via the MPS program’s Introduction to Preservation class taught by John Stubbs. Over seventy additional entries have been drafted that are currently being refined through the project’s information vetting process, which includes consultation with leading practitioners in the field. Corrections, enhancements, and suggestions for future entries are welcomed by preservationists, historians and the community alike towards producing a resource that is accessible online to a global audience.