Remembering the MB Building
His name was Broussard. He was a good, kindly old man who had a hearing aid in one ear but who kept a sharp eye on the traffic in his little domain.
He always addressed me as “my friend” and was eager to tell me about the notables who had come and gone from the building.
Mr. Broussard was the last of a kind, an elevator starter. His job was to keep the traffic flowing vertically in the office tower of the Maison Blanche building.
In this, our annual issue in which we look at the best of new architecture, I’m reminded about some of the great old buildings. The MB building once housed a department store and an office tower. Ultimately it found new life, and renovation, as The Ritz-Carlton hotel.
I worked in the MB building for several years, though by the time I did it was already in its decline. The old downtown office buildings were suffering as newer buildings were drawing clients away and as the nature of businesses changed. There were, for example, once many doctors offices in the MB building, especially dentists and ophthalmologists. Canal Street was a medical center before that term became fashionable. But doctors, like retailers, would follow their customers to the suburbs and mall-like settings.
It was a great building for exploring. On the top floor was the studio for WSMB, an a.m. radio station whose last two call letters carried the name of the building. Many of the notables that Mr. Broussard spotted taking the elevator were likely going to the radio station.
Only the MB building and the Whitney Bank building still had operator-driven elevators. The operators stood at the left of the elevator moving levers, one that controlled the doors and the other that caused the craft to move. In the building’s latter days there was usually only one or two elevators operating. Sometime Mr. Broussard was pressed into service and took over the controls.
During the late 1980s the Regional Transit Authority yielded to pressure from City Hall and moved its offices to a couple of abandoned floors in the building. But the RTA never had its heart in it. It shunned Mr. Broussard and the possibility of creating more jobs for elevator operators. Instead, it spent thousands of dollars to create a new entrance and to install its own self-service elevators. So, instead of the RTA drawing people through the public part of the building, it channeled them away. After a couple of years the RTA announced it was moving for several reasons, including one that was ironic for a public transit operator: There wasn’t enough parking. It too would forsake downtown for the suburbs, in this case eastern New Orleans.
Eventually the radio station would relocate from the building whose initials it carried.
By the time I moved from the building Mr. Broussard had taken semi-retirement. It was just as well. One day in the future the building would achieve new glory, but for the moment the stories to be told were not of those of who was going up, but of those who were coming down.