When the Preservation Resource Center bought 1423 N. Claiborne Ave. in 2009, it wasn’t the first time the nonprofit had stepped in to save a historic building. But it wasn’t evident then just how important the renovation would turn out to be.
“We didn’t learn until we began researching the history of the house that it was the last building still standing that had been part of Straight University, or even how important Straight was in educating African-Americans after the Civil War,” said Rachel Cockrill, a PRC staff member and primary researcher on the project.
The PRC collected so much information about Straight that it now has a blog chronicling everything that can be accessed from the website by searching "StraightUpHistory.”
Today at 2 p.m., a ribbon-cutting will be celebrated at the house by the PRC, along with the Amistad Research Center, Dillard University and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, partners in rehabilitating the 3,400-square-foot house into three condominiums.
The event includes tours of the house, an exhibition of materials related to the renovation and the installation of two plaques recognizing the importance of Straight University. One of them, from the Orleans Parish Landmarks Commission, attests to the university’s importance to New Orleans during and immediately after Reconstruction. The other, from the National Register of Historic Places, recognizes the university’s national importance as an early institution of higher learning for black Americans.
“When we bought the property, we just wanted to keep it from being demolished,” said Becky Gipson, the organization’s Operation Comeback director. “Then, the more research we did, the more we realized how incredibly important the house was.”
The American Missionary Association, the parent of Straight University, bought the property in 1871 from Elise Bienvenue, who had built the residence between 1866 and 1869. Named for abolitionist Seymour Straight, the school’s most generous benefactor, the AMA founded the university in 1869 with the mission of providing “higher education for the freedmen of New Orleans,” according to the application for the building’s addition to the National Register.
By the time the university bought the building on North Claiborne to serve as a boardinghouse (and later a dining hall), the main building of the University had been constructed at Esplanade Avenue and North Derbigny Street just around the corner. After the Esplanade Avenue building burned down in 1877 due to arson (likely because of the university’s role in the early civil rights movement), the building on North Claiborne was sold. In 1930, Straight merged with New Orleans University to become Dillard University.
Straight University offered an array of programs including liberal arts, mathematics, theology, medicine and law, and many eminent African-American scientists, doctors and lawyers were educated there.
“I love being in a room and thinking that I might be standing where Louis Martinet might have stood,” said Cockrill, referring to the Straight University-educated lawyer prominent in the Plessy v. Ferguson case.
The building is a classic sidehall double-galleried house, with elements of both Greek Revival and Italianate in the façade. With its Greek Key door surrounds, mantels, tall baseboards and plaster ceiling medallions, the house reflected the architectural tastes of its era. A rusticated façade (with planks of wood subbing for stone faces), wooden quoins, elaborate entablature and fluted columns with Corinthian capitals all added grandeur.
Visiting the restored building today, it’s difficult to imagine the condition of the house when the PRC acquired it. With columns missing on the second-floor gallery, it appeared as though the entablature might collapse. Other columns on the first-floor gallery were badly deteriorated, and the gallery itself was screened in.
The rear gallery had been enclosed to accommodate baths for multiple apartments in the 20th century. Ceilings throughout had been dropped and the heart pine floors covered with linoleum. The rear ell addition was also in poor condition, and many weatherboards were missing from the rear gable of the main building, exposing the attic to the elements.
The PRC undertook two rounds of stabilization while finances and architectural plans were worked out.
“Despite the poor exterior condition, there were plenty of original features inside that we were able to restore or replicate — mantels, baseboards and trim,” Gipson said. “There was one ceiling medallion remaining, so we made a mold of it to make medallions for other rooms of the house.”
Rehabilitating the building into three condo units led to additional challenges.
“We had to devise a floor plan that interfered as little as possible with the original layout of the spaces, so we put one unit on the first floor of the main house and one on the second, then a third in the ell addition in the rear,” Gipson said.
The nonprofit hopes the rehabilitated building will not only honor the achievements of Straight University in the early civil rights movement, but serve as a reminder of what North Claiborne Avenue looked like before the elevated expressway was built in the late 1960s.
“We’re all hoping that the elevated expressway will come down one day,” said Jack Davis, interim director of the PRC. “Tremé residents brought it up in planning meetings after Hurricane Katrina, and funds were spent on a study. So I bet the house lasts longer than the expressway.”
Should Davis prove right, the Straight University boardinghouse and dining hall will once again face a green neutral ground, lined with oak trees.
Straight University Boarding House and Dining Hall
Ribbon-cutting and celebration
2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4
Free, but preregister at prcno.org