Even before starting its efforts with the Preservation Resource Center, the League was committed to reviving Metropolitan New Orleans. Pictured in Lagniappe of February 1968 is Post Office Station B, which was purchased and revitalized to become what is now JLNO's Headquarters. Photo provided by: Louisiana State Museum Historical Center. Gift of the Junior League of New Orleans. The Junior League of New Orleans Collection, record group JLSB36, 2014.011.01 – 2014.016.039
It's hard to imagine the City of New Orleans without its celebrated historical architecture or its passionate commitment to preserving that treasure. However, in the early 1970s, members of the Junior League of New Orleans who wanted to save remarkable buildings across the Crescent City found themselves in the minority. These women began to fear a city without storied buildings dating back more than a century was in the near future for New Orleans. Blocks of history were disappearing underneath bulldozers to make way for modern apartment buildings and offices, but few people seemed concerned. Progressive modern buildings were in demand, not rehabbed older structures.
“There were very few historic districts or local protections for buildings outside of the French Quarter,” remembers JLNO Sustainer Ann Masson, who was a key part of JLNO’s early preservation efforts. “People didn’t want old floor plans. Empty lots and abandoned buildings were prevailing across the city. Demolitions were constant. We lost tens of thousands of structures between the 1960s and mid-1970s. We knew what they were tearing down was incredibly valuable, but our opinion was not popular. We were seen as obstructionists to progress and the future.”
The first step to saving New Orleans’ historic architecture was changing public opinion about “old” buildings and their value. JLNO members brainstormed about how to accomplish that feat and, in 1973, launched an initiative called the Building Watchers Tour, the pre-cursor to today’s Preservation Resource Center (PRC).
JLNO volunteers, not paid guides, led people on tours of neighborhoods like Central City, the Central Business District (CBD), the Garden District, the Warehouse District, Lafayette Square and the Irish Channel. JLNO members were so passionate about the mission of saving New Orleans’ architectural history that this became one of the Junior League’s most popular placements.
“We believed that the Building Watchers Tour was the most important thing being done when it came to historic preservation. We all just jumped in because of the desperation of the situation,” says Ann. “The point of the tours was to get people interested in the city’s neighborhoods. It was a huge marketing idea that was an outgrowth from a series of books published by the Cabildo. We wanted people to appreciate the history in these neighborhoods. If we could do that, we knew it would be easier to save them.”
Indeed, the impact of the JLNO’s Building Watchers Tour was more powerful than even most founding members had hoped for. It only took a few years for this effort to blossom in the hearts of the public as now-revered buildings, like the row houses on the Warehouse District’s Julia Street, narrowly escaped destruction. As the project grew its own wings, the tour first transformed into the Preservation Alliance of New Orleans and then the Preservation Resource Center.
Ann, who is now an Architectural Historian at Tulane University, became the PRC’s second Executive Director and served from 1978-80.
“Truly, I now marvel at the impact and importance of what the PRC has become,” says Ann. “I’m so proud that the League recognized the problem, was brave enough to act and act in a way that had such a long-term influence on this city. I do look back at those years though as a mixed success. I’m so proud to have saved all that we did, but I do get sad driving by many places and remembering what was there once.”
Rooted in the passion of JLNO members from the ‘70s, the PRC is now a nationally-recognized organization that cities across the nation strive to learn from and emulate. It’s impossible to calculate the exact number of minds that were opened or buildings that were saved by the JLNO’s early efforts. Nevertheless, this story’s triumphant outcome should be remembered and appreciated whenever we visit or even pass by an historic structure.
“It’s astounding to me how huge and powerful the preservation effort in New Orleans is now,” says Ann. “People shouldn’t take for granted the treasure we now have. The truth is — we came close to losing so much of it. We had to fight and fight and fight to convince the public and city government that these buildings were worth saving. I don’t know that we could have done better at that time, but we certainly could have done worse.”
Ann’s one request now is that newcomers and younger generations remember the battle to save New Orleans’ history and keep the preservation torch always glowing.