When Charlie Armstead built Club Desire in the Upper 9th Ward back in 1948, he was inspired by high-end New Orleans clubs like the Dew Drop Inn in Central City.
Both Armstead’s club and its crosstown counterpart were locales where black patrons turned out in their finest suits and dresses to enjoy an evening of music and libations. That’s why Armstead dubbed Club Desire “A Downtown Club with Uptown Ideas.”
For six years, until Armstead’s death, Club Desire hosted the likes of Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine and Count Basie, not to mention New Orleans legends including Dave Bartholomew and Antoine “Fats” Domino.
But now the landmark club may have a date with the wrecking ball.
The city’s Department of Code Enforcement cited the building for multiple code violations in January before submitting an application for its demolition to the Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory Committee. The NCDAC recommended unanimously that the City Council approve the demolition, and the city asked to use FEMA funds to demolish the property at 2604 Desire St.
“It would be a shame to see the club demolished without giving someone a chance to buy it, even if it would be expensive to fix up,” said music historian Rick Coleman, whose biography of Domino, “Blue Monday,” won the ASCAP award for Outstanding Musical Biography in 2007.
Coleman said the iconic New Orleans singer and piano player not only performed at Club Desire but ignited his career on its stage.
“The first time he played there, he was sitting in during the intermission of Dave Bartholomew’s band,” Coleman said. “Earl Palmer, the drummer, was friends with Fats and would let him sit in, but Bartholomew didn’t like it because Fats would wear overalls from his day job as a mechanic. Dave would say, ‘I thought I told you not to let that guy in the overalls play,’ and Palmer would say, ‘I forgot.’ ”
Thanks to the crowd’s positive response, Domino earned a spot in Billy Diamond’s band, which eventually became the club’s headliner. Until that time, Domino was known as Antoine, but Diamond noticed he was putting on pounds and started calling him “Fats.”
Coleman said Domino stood out because of the type of music he played, including favorites like “Swanee River Boogie.” It wasn’t long before he was lured away from Club Desire by the Hideaway — described by Coleman as “a little hole in the wall two blocks away” — with the promise of having his own band.
In 1950, after Domino’s single “The Fat Man” rose to No. 2 on the national R&B charts, Armstead got him back to Club Desire by giving him a car. “It was an old broke-down Buick, but it was Fats’ first car, and he loved it,” Coleman said.
Not long after that, Domino went on tour, and Ray Charles began his sojourn in New Orleans. According to Coleman, Charles went back and forth between the Dew Drop Inn and Club Desire. It was during the year or so that Charles lived in New Orleans and played at those clubs that his music took on its gospel overtones and then segued into soul music.
Armstead died in 1954 and his wife managed Club Desire for a while, but its heyday was over. For the past 60 years, it has been sorely neglected. Attempts by a nearby resident to purchase it in 2008 failed, in part due to its murky ownership.
“Really, it’s amazing that the building has stood as long as it has. It has survived neglect, Hurricane Betsy, Hurricane Katrina and everything else,” Coleman said.
But the city isn’t as positive.
“The property … has extensive roof and structural damage. This property is one of 383 structures damaged by Hurricane Katrina that FEMA has deemed eligible for demolition reimbursement cost,” said Brad Howard, the mayor’s press secretary, in an email.
Councilman Jared Brossett detailed the building’s issues in an email to preservationist Rob Florence, who has rallied others to join the Save Club Desire group on Facebook.
“As you noted, there are many dangerous conditions associated with the property,” Brossett wrote to Florence. “Specifically, the site is infested with rodents, it is not structurally sound, and the roof, exterior walls, parapet wall, windows and doors are rotting, leaking, cracking and unsecured.”
Brossett said his staff is researching the matter and listening to constituents’ concerns.
As dire as the fate of the building appears, there could be hope for it yet should the city offer it for sale at an upcoming tax adjudication auction and a benefactor comes forward to purchase it. Tax records indicate that more than $90,000 in back taxes are owed on the property going back 25 years.
“A tax sale was held for this property in 1990. There were no buyers, so the property was adjudicated to the city,” Howard said, adding that the city is exploring “the possibility of selling the property through the adjudicated property auction process.” The second such auction was held online last week. The next one is slated for Sept. 2.
Meanwhile, FEMA is holding Section 106 review meetings as required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to determine whether federal funds should be used to demolish the structure, in view of the fact that it has been deemed historic. The agency has also posted a request for comments online at crt.state.la.us/culturalassets/fema106. The comment period will close Aug. 17.
Coleman, Florence and the Save Club Desire group are hoping for a solution other than demolition, one that will honor the club’s musical importance as the spot where Domino and Bartholomew first worked together and where Domino got his start.
Underscoring the significance of the relationship between Bartholomew and Domino, the Carver Theater plans a musical tribute to the two legends in early September, even as Club Desire could be bound for demolition.
“I’ve been in the building, and it’s like being the first one inside an Egyptian tomb that has been sealed for centuries. There are still remnants of Club Desire’s past,” Coleman said. “You can feel the history.”