John Magill jokes that when he first took a job at the Historic New Orleans Collection in 1982, he literally came in off the streets.
“My niche was the city’s streets, drainage, infrastructure, electricity, sewerage, how and why the city spread out like it did,” he said. “I was sort of the ‘street and gutter man’ in a room full of historians.”
Since then, Magill rose from the streets to senior curator, becoming a nationally known urban historian and New Orleans expert, giving lectures and writing articles on everything from Carnival to catastrophes like hurricanes and yellow fever.
Now, as he prepares to retire June 30 after three decades at the French Quarter research institution, friends and colleagues are offering praise.
“He has the kind of information you just can’t Google,” said Pamela Arceneaux, a senior librarian and rare books curator who joined the HNOC six months before Magill did. “I know of very few people in New Orleans who know as much about the structure of the city as he does, from paving to plumbing and everything in between.”
Magill, 68, was born in New Orleans but grew up in Hawaii and California. He returned here in 1964 to attend the University of New Orleans (then LSUNO). History was not his chosen field, however.
“I started in business, wanted to go into advertising and be a ‘Mad Men’ type,” he said, referring to the television series that dramatizes life in the 1960s ad world. “But I did love history and enjoyed learning about cities. When I was a kid, I even drew maps and designed streets and cities.”
At UNO, he said, an early business professor offered a reality check, pointing out that while Magill was failing his business courses, he earned good grades in history. After changing majors and earning a bachelor’s degree in history, Magill pursued a master’s degree. As a student of cities, he considered a thesis on one of the world’s biggest cities. “Instead, my professor, Joseph Treigle, suggested New Orleans: ‘It’s a perfectly good city; why don’t you study it?’ ”
Magill became an enthusiastic student of local history and the city’s inner workings, but he didn’t find a career in it, at least initially. He worked for eight years for the state department in charge of child protective services. Even that experience taught him about his hometown.
“I became more familiar with the city, by getting out into areas I had never seen before, even if I were there for less than ideal reasons,” he said.
In 1982, he applied for a job as a cataloguer at the Historic New Orleans Collection. That grew into other roles, including becoming a curator and later head of the reading room, which welcomes researchers and students from around the world.
In his own research, he became particularly interested in New Orleans history from the 1880s to the 1930s, when, he said, “New Orleans was one of the most important cities not only in the country but in the world.”
He said his interest in Carnival history came about when former HNOC Director Buddy Frazar introduced him to leaders of the Mystic Club, which stages an annual society ball. Magill went on to do freelance research work for the club and even curated an HNOC exhibit about its history. He also has become an often-quoted expert on Mardi Gras float designs, costumes and krewe histories.
“If you work in a New Orleans museum or research center, Mardi Gras becomes a part of what you do, whether you like it or not,” he said jokingly. “Carnival leaves a lot of ephemera, a lot of paper and leftovers, but when you take it all together, it really forms a major part of this city’s art community, culture and the city’s evolution.”
Magill points out that photographs of early Carnival processions also have informed his research into urban history: “You’d be surprised how many pictures from parades also give a good look at what the city looked like. Of course, you have the floats, but you also get a good look at the buildings they’re passing in front of.”
When it comes to photos, colleagues say Magill has a gift for being able to identify the date of an archival picture or its subjects almost instantly, just by looking at it.
“He can look at a picture and date it just by looking at the buildings or the skyline. He has become our go-to guy for identification and background on the nuts and bolts of the city,” Arceneaux said. “He really gets into how cities develop and work, and we are so fortunate to be able to turn to him for that.”
Throughout his career, Magill also has shared his knowledge in a public way, through TV, magazine and newspaper interviews and articles, including many he’s written for New Orleans Magazine and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. He also has co-authored two books with WYES-TV documentary producer Peggy Scott Laborde: one on the history of Canal Street, the other on local Christmas traditions.
“John is a walking encyclopedia of New Orleans history,” Laborde said. “He is very adept at making local history accessible, and thankfully his interests are so varied. We who love New Orleans history are so fortunate to be able to call on John for his knowledge and wit.”
Magill said he plans to continue writing in retirement and has some potential book projects in mind. He also will serve as historian for a local social club with roots dating back to 1898.
History and history lovers both have a way of connecting with Magill, and for that he is thankful.
“New Orleans is one of the most fascinating, multilayered cities you could find anywhere. It really always has been,” he said. “People in New Orleans love discovering more about New Orleans. The more they can learn and see what their city looked like in the past, the happier they are.”