Recalling the day, decades past, when the childhood home of Louis Armstrong was demolished still makes Robert Ice and Robert McIntrye wince. They remember the grassroots effort to save the house, a ramshackle structure with immense historic import, and how in the end it was bulldozed anyway to make room for a complex of modern municipal buildings.
It’s the kind of memory that keeps McIntrye, Ice and their colleagues in the nonprofit preservation group the New Orleans Jazz Restoration Society motivated as they continue their years-long effort to save another endangered jazz landmark today, the Halfway House.
“There’s a trend in this city of tearing down historic, invaluable property and when it comes to jazz history we just don’t have a whole lot of it left,” says Ice, who along with McIntrye is a member of the Last Straws jazz band.
The building, named for its location approximately halfway between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, was a jazz club and dance hall from around 1900-’30 – primetime in New Orleans jazz development. Its stage hosted many early purveyors of the city’s most celebrated musical form. Later, it became an ice cream parlor and remained a popular stop for New Orleanians as they traveled to lakefront attractions. In more recent history, however, the building was used as the office of a pest control company, was damaged in a fire and sat shuttered, though currently the landowner has leased the property to the police department, which runs its 9-1-1 operations center on a portion of it – a highly visible but wounded landmark on City Park Avenue by the Interstate 10 overpass.
The building sits on a 5.5-acre property owned by the Fireman’s Charitable and Benevolent Association, which owns several adjacent cemeteries; in 2001, this group filed for permission to demolish the Halfway House. That spurred the Jazz Restoration Society to action. It successfully petitioned to block the demolition and in the years since, its members have raised $150,000 from private sources, which they want to use in stabilizing the structure. Their aim is to essentially pave the way for a third party to put it back into commerce as a jazz-themed restaurant and music venue.
“But our vision for that place is much more than bringing it back as a roadhouse,” says McIntyre. “We want to have classrooms, programs for children to learn the traditional jazz instruments, even a recording studio upstairs.”
McIntrye says the Jazz Restoration Society is in final negotiations to sublet the Halfway House itself. The group plans to soon begin advertising development opportunities to restore the building to its former glory.