Vieux Carré Commission

(1936–)

This blueprint from 1978 shows a Vieux Carre Commission approval stamp. Learn more »

Created in 1937 to preserve French Quarter buildings “deemed to have architectural and historical value … for the benefit of the people of the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana,” the Vieux Carré Commission (VCC) has survived legal, political, and economic challenges to become an internationally recognized preservation agency. The VCC has control and oversight of the exterior surfaces of all buildings in New Orleans’s French Quarter, including the roofs, facades, and courtyards. The New Orleans Commission Council passed the ordinance creating the VCC on March 3, 1937, and the organization’s first meeting was a month later. Louisiana voters laid the groundwork for its creation more than ten years earlier, however, when they approved a 1921 amendment to the Louisiana Constitution (Article XIV, Section 22A) specifically addressing the neighborhood’s preservation. The VCC also plays an advisory role in many quality-of-life and occupational-use issues in the neighborhood.

Largely defined by the boundaries of the original 1718 French colony of “La Nouvelle Orléans,” the district’s jurisdiction was set as “The [Mississippi] river, the Uptown side of Esplanade Avenue, the river side of Rampart Street, and the lower side of Iberville Street.” As the ordinance details, the VCC consists of nine members appointed by the mayor with the advice and consent of the Commission Council. One member is selected from a list of recommendations made by the Louisiana Historical Society, one by the Louisiana State Museum, one by the Association of Commerce, and three by the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Architects; three more are appointed at-large members. The VCC’s composition and geographic area of jurisdiction have not changed since its founding.

 

The 1920s: Prelude to the VCC

The push for the legal protection of the Vieux Carré began soon after World War I in reaction to widespread antipathy toward the old neighborhood, which had become home to poor immigrant families—in effect, a Sicilian slum. Plans were made to demolish the Cabildo and the Presbytere, landmarks of the Spanish colonial period, but a young New Orleans architect, Allison Owen, successfully fought to reverse the order. In 1919, the French Opera House, a center of Creole culture, burned to the ground; around the same time, artists Ellsworth and William Woodward tried unsuccessfully to save a picturesque eighteenth-century cottage at 1040 Chartres Street.

In response to growing threats to the French Quarter’s survival, preservation-minded individuals began buying the neighborhood’s old buildings to restore as homes and studios. In the late 1910s and 1920s, philanthropist William Ratcliffe Irby rescued several important structures, including his residence, the Seignouret House (520 Royal Street), the Banque de la Louisiana (417 Royal Street), and the French Opera House (which burned shortly thereafter), all of which he donated to Tulane University. He also purchased the lower Pontalba Building and several houses next to the Cabildo, which he donated to the Louisiana State Museum along with an endowment fund to help maintain them. In 1922 architect Richard Koch designed 616–18 St. Peter Street for Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, a significant early example of a modern building designed to blend in with the neighboring historic structures. This renewed interest in the Vieux Carré produced a cultural renaissance that, in turn, fostered a climate favorable for the creation of the VCC.

Although Charleston, South Carolina, created the first legislatively mandated historic district, the Vieux Carré comes in a close second. The New Orleans Commission Council actually established the first VCC in 1925, but it only served an advisory function with no enforcement powers and, as a result, this commission soon faltered.

 

The 1930s

The push for the legal protection of the French Quarter coincided with an emerging national concern for preserving the nation’s past—itself a response to the growing realization that much of the country’s architectural heritage was in jeopardy. New Orleans writer Harnett Kane described the idealistic optimism of the early Depression years: “We began to feel, many of us among the then younger ones, that perhaps there was hope that things can be done for the heritage of America.” Considered the founder of the VCC, Michigan-born Elizabeth Thomas Werlein (widow of music publisher and businessman Philip Werlein III) led the crusade for its establishment. Until her death in 1946, Werlein remained an advocate for the French Quarter, even converting New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri into a preservationist.

At first, however, inertia marked the newly formed commission. Under front-page headlines “City Destroying Rich Vieux Carré Asset,” Kane wrote in the New Orleans Item that the VCC did nothing while historic properties were demolished or defaced with unsightly signs. The city agency’s ineffectiveness forced the preservationists into battle again. In June 1938 the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA) formed. As a private organization, VCPORA has been able to challenge decisions made by the mayor and other city officials in ways the VCC sometimes cannot, limited as it is by virtue of being an agency of city government under the mayor. Werlein, VCPORA’s leader, prodded the commission into executing its mandated duties, including an aggressive purge of illegal signs. Associated with the VCC from 1937 until 1952, Walter Cook Keenan was named “architect of the commission” in 1943 and, in this capacity, took photographs documenting the before and after appearances of the Quarter’s buildings.

 

1940s, 1950s, and 1960s

Although VCC’s geographic jurisdiction has gone unchanged, court decisions and legal battles have expanded the group’s control over the area. In the City of New Orleans v. Impastato (1941), a case involving the construction of restrooms in the Napoleon House courtyard without the proper permits, the Louisiana State Supreme Court acknowledged the agency’s jurisdiction over the “sides, rear, and roof of any building in the Vieux Carré section, as well as over the street façade.” The authority of the VCC was further expanded when, in 1941, City of New Orleans v. Pergament formulated the tout ensemble doctrine, establishing VCC’s authority over nonhistoric structures—in this case, a twentieth-century service station. Tout ensemble gave VCC control over all buildings in the Quarter, not just historic ones.

As tourism and commercialism in the late 1940s brought more people into the French Quarter, the number of demolition applications increased as developers attempted to make room for parking lots and transient rooms. In 1946 the VCC voted to comply with a city ordinance, waiving its jurisdiction over fringe areas on North Rampart and Decatur streets, and the square occupied by the Monteleone Hotel. This resulted in the demolition of important nineteenth-century buildings, especially on North Rampart. The lack of a rating system denoting the architectural and historical significance of the district’s buildings sometimes clouded the commission’s decision making. Then, in 1958, the VCC unanimously approved the construction of an expressway in the Quarter, along the Mississippi River. Though proponents of the elevated highway thought the route would alleviate traffic congestion on the narrow streets of the Vieux Carré, the VCC, under considerable negative local pressure, in 1963 reversed its earlier position and voiced opposition to the riverfront expressway. Subsequently, in July 1969, Secretary of Transportation John Volpe announced the cancellation of the expressway plans. In an effort to retain the residential quality of their neighborhood, Quarterites won a victory later that year when a moratorium was placed on the construction of new hotels and the expansion of existing ones.

In the 1960s, as preservation achieved national acceptance, the VCC’s influence grew. In 1961 the Schleider Foundation funded Tulane University’s Vieux Carré Survey, which, under the direction of architect-historian Samuel Wilson Jr., included a block-by-block inventory and evaluation of the French Quarter’s buildings. Made possible through federal funding, A Plan and Program for the Preservation of the Vieux Carré (1968) comprehensively outlines the area’s history and architecture, and provides a master plan for future development. Under the leadership of VCPORA, the original constitutional boundaries of the Vieux Carré district were restored in 1964.

 

1970s to the Present

Over the past four decades, the VCC has matured and become the acknowledged authority on French Quarter architecture. With increased support from the city under Mayor Maurice Edwin “Moon” Landrieu, the VCC added to its staff and formulated institutional procedures and policies in the 1970s. A number of capital projects in the Quarter date from this period, including the renovation of the French Market, the Moonwalk, Jackson Square Mall, Washington Artillery Park, Latrobe Waterworks, and Edison Park. During these years, rifts emerged among preservationists and developers as neighborhood interests were weighed against commercial pressures brought on by increased tourism. The construction of Canal Place, Jackson Brewery, the Aquarium of the Americas, and Woldenberg Park all stimulated discord and debate, as did the renovation of the lower and upper Pontalba buildings in the 1990s. Other issues of controversy included the proliferation of souvenir and T-shirt shops, illegal bed and breakfast establishments, and condominium units, which, although legal, tend to encourage nonpermanent residents. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the VCC staff was reduced from seven to two employees, severely curtailing the inspection and violation process. As of March 2013, however, the staff consisted of five people and the violation process had resumed.

 

Cite This Entry

Chicago Manual of Style

Irvin, Hilary. "Vieux Carré Commission." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published April 5, 2013. http://www.knowla.org/entry/574/.

MLA Style

Irvin, Hilary. "Vieux Carré Commission." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 5 Apr. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

Suggested Reading

Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?

Heard, Malcolm, Jr. French Quarter Manual: An Architectural Guide to New Orleans’ Vieux Carré. New Orleans: Tulane School of Architecture, 1997.

Hosmer, Charles. Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926–49. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1981.

Morrison, Jacob H. Historic Preservation Law. New Orleans: Pelican, 1956.

Wilson, Samuel, Jr. Vieux Carré Historic District Demonstration Study: The Vieux Carré New Orleans: Its Plan, Its Growth, Its Architecture. New Orleans: Bureau of Governmental         Research, 1968.

 

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  • Napoleon House, 2011
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