Control of two of New Orleans’ few surviving early 20th-century jazz landmarks has shifted to a prominent real estate developer, raising hopes among jazz fans and preservationists that they finally can be restored after years of decay.
The Arlene and Joseph Meraux Foundation, a nonprofit based in St. Bernard Parish, has swapped the former Karnofsky family tailor shop at 427-431 S. Rampart St. and the former Iroquois Theater at 413-415 S. Rampart for land on Archbishop Hannan Boulevard in St. Bernard that adjoins property the foundation already owns, the group said Thursday.
Now, the fate of the two buildings rests with River Park One LLC, which is led by local businessman Joseph Georgusis.
“We look forward to placing these buildings back into commerce in a way that pays tribute to their rich history and importance to our community and country,” Georgusis said in a statement Thursday. “The public can expect work to begin restoring the historic façades of both buildings and a plaque installed to honor what took place inside.”
He offered no details about how the buildings might be used.
The Meraux Foundation said it has spent more than $1.5 million on the Iroquois Theater and the Karnofsky shop to stabilize the buildings and prepare them for future development.
“Nine months ago, the Meraux Foundation entered into an agreement to sell the Iroquois Theater and Karnofsky Tailor Shop, and we are excited to announce that the sale has occurred,” Meraux Foundation President Rita Gue said in a statement. “This has been a long time coming, and we are pleased to have found a purchaser with the experience, capability and financial wherewithal to redevelop these historic properties.”
In jazz’s early days, this stretch of South Rampart Street was busy with activity.
After opening around 1912, the two-story Iroquois building was a venue for early jazz for about a decade. Meanwhile, the Karnofsky family had close ties to a young Louis Armstrong, who is believed to have worked at the Rampart Street shop for the family. Some suggest the Karnofskys loaned him the money to buy his first real horn.
The Meraux Foundation also used to own the nearby Eagle Saloon at 401-403 S. Rampart St., a onetime haunt of legendary jazz pioneers Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden. Armstrong lived nearby and played upstairs.
The three buildings — all listed on the National Register of Historic Places — have suffered from years of neglect and storm damage.
Other than the Little Gem Saloon at the Poydras Street end of the block, which underwent an extensive renovation in 2012, this area that was once called “Back of Town” largely has been taken over by parking lots and office buildings during the past half-century.
Now, after years of delays, a new group of community leaders and prominent musicians — calling itself the Eagle Saloon Initiative — is raising money to revive that building, an effort they expect will cost nearly $2 million.
Plans call for a two-phase restoration that will include a first-floor performing space, bar and recording studio, with interactive jazz exhibits on the top two floors.
Georgusis’ pledge is a good sign to Mike Sherman, a lawyer and board member of the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame, a nonprofit that owns the Eagle Saloon. “We feel great momentum on the block,” he said.
Work to stabilize the building started this week, a two-month effort expected to cost about $500,000, said Sherman, who is confident in the Eagle Saloon’s revival in time for the city’s tricentennial in 2018.
So far, that effort has attracted donations from about 300 people, mostly small amounts totaling about $200,000. The Meraux Foundation also has chipped in $800,000, which was what the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame paid for the building nearly a decade ago.
The nonprofit Music Hall of Fame’s four-member board also has changed in recent weeks, adding musician “Deacon” John Moore. Floyd and Rita Gue, who oversee the Meraux Foundation, left the board.
“This entire corridor is going to come alive in short order,” Sherman said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.