She speaks for history when history cannot speak for itself.
That’s how Tulane professor of architecture John H. Stubbs describes Patty Gay, the director of the Preservation Resource Center, who retired last month after four decades of advocating for the value of the old in New Orleans.
Six years ago, when Stubbs and his wife arrived in New Orleans from New York for his job as director of the Master of Preservation Studies program at the Tulane School of Architecture, his first, astonished question was to ask who was responsible for the preservation of the city's unmatched, historic built environment.
Gay was among those deserving a nod. The grande dame of New Orleans preservation, Gay, 74, has focused on mainstreaming the movement, envisioning it as a mission for all New Orleans neighborhoods.
“There is the misconception that preservation is only for people with money, that it’s only for the grandiose and palatial structures, but preservation includes bungalows, Creole cottages and shotgun houses,” Gay said.
At the world’s fair here in 1984, the PRC sold bricks to fund an exhibit featuring an 1830s Creole cottage that was relocated to the exhibition hall for more than 500,000 visitors to see.
And when the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005 brought devastation from boulevards to back-of-town in more than two-thirds of the city, the battle between demolition and preservation took the international stage. The multilayered tragedy of people and their reality of place was under a microscope. Recovery was crucial.
“We were ready. That’s what we do,” Gay said.
The PRC teamed up with the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an advisory source for those returning to restore their homes. The organization set up the Preservation Salvage Store in its Marais warehouse to save and resell architectural elements as demolitions were decimating the bones of old buildings, as well as its Rebuilding Together program where over 4,300 volunteers contributed over 130,000 hours to renovate 97 homes to bring families back to New Orleans.
“Patty made preservation one of the strongest forms of eco-friendly development in New Orleans, creating well-being for everyone, and it doesn’t leave town like movie trucks,” said Jack Davis, a former board member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and interim director while the PRC searches for Gay's successor.
Pairing people and places
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Gay grew up in Baton Rouge and graduated from Baton Rouge High. She headed to New Orleans for university, graduating from Newcomb College with a degree in social studies and history.
In 1973, the Junior League asked Gay, as a young volunteer, to conduct interviews surveying historic preservation needs. It was an assignment that kindled her passion for preservation, and the organization's funding got the PRC off the ground.
In 1978, she became president of the PRC's board and in 1980 its executive director.
The pairing of people and place is well-documented in the PRC headquarters at 923 Tchoupitoulas St., in the Warehouse District — a Gothic Revival building that itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.
While the building serves as an office and resource center, the PRC is also a museum of preservation, where visitors can learn not only the difference between a standard shotgun house and a camelback but also why New Orleanians have found a sense of pride announcing their distinctive neighborhood — whether it’s the 9th Ward, Algiers Point, the Vieux Carre, Mid-City, Holy Cross or the Irish Channel.
In 1994, the PRC hosted its first Shotgun House Tour, and the organization keeps an archive of before-and-after photographs to inspire potential homeowners looking to restore the homes that are so much a part of the fabric of New Orleans' working-class neighborhoods.
“The PRC was thought by many to be an Uptown white organization, but Patty’s focus was to get diversity and to address other neighborhoods, including diversity on the board. … The PRC wasn’t just about Uptown or the French Quarter or the Marigny or Treme,” said Naydja Bynum, a former president of the center's board and the founding president of the Historic Faubourg Treme Association.
Bynum met Gay after Bynum returned to her hometown in 1992 to work on a doctorate in nursing.
“After living in Maryland and in Los Angeles, I realized how distinct our architecture was. I also realized it was more affordable to buy here,” Bynum said.
The young nursing student had a home in Gentilly and was restoring her grandmother’s house on Austerlitz Street near Magazine. Turning to the PRC for guidance, she met board member Adolph Bynum, who would later become her husband. At the time, he was working on a row of houses on St. Claude Avenue.
“Patty is the one who crowned Adolph a preservationist. He just thought he liked old houses,” Naydja Bynum said. Before Naydja and Adolph were united in matrimony, they became partners in an LLC to restore houses.
“Our dates were planning layouts and crawling under old houses to see if the floors were wood; we would measure ceilings and check out transoms,” Naydja Bynum said. "You could say Patty brought us together."
Bynum says she calls her matchmaker and mentor "the Energizer bunny."
"She is passionate and in love with the city and its history and architecture," Bynum said. "And she is very knowledgeable. What she did not know, she found out. What she learned, she shared."
Any romantic connections Gay may have made through preservation are sweet lagniappe. Connecting people with their sense of place was at the heart of her job. She believes that if the houses are there, the people will come.
The past is the future
The new executive director will be taking over an organization whose future rests on the momentum of its history, starting with the PRC’s bold move two years after its formation in 1976 to purchase 604 Julia St. in an area of downtown known as Skid Row. With a grant from the State Historic Preservation Office, the property, one of a row of 13 town houses built in 1832, would become an example of the PRC putting its money where its mantra was.
That development spread throughout the Lafayette Square neighborhood and the Warehouse District, anchoring residential development in all neighborhoods. It's still the accomplishment of which Gay is most proud.
In 2000, Gay purchased one of those town houses on Julia Row, with living spaces above a gallery operated by longtime friend George Schmidt, a musician and artist.
Last year, the PRC organization held its 40th annual Julia Jump benefit, with funds now going to provide critical home repairs for low-income, elderly and disabled people across the city, as well as transforming blighted properties into family homes and training new homebuyers in purchasing and renovating their own homes.
Gay also advocated for the economic incentives of federal and state tax credits, for those willing to invest in New Orleans by restoring homes or income-producing buildings.
Those who see conservationists as tree-huggers might categorize preservationist Gay as a building-hugger. But with tourism at the city’s economic core since the oil bust in the early 1980s, the PRC’s outgoing director says New Orleans' antiquity plays as vital an economic role in attracting visitors (10.5 million last year) as its food, music, festivals, sporting events and convention center.
Convincing the public of the economic power of preservation is one of the great challenges of the PRC's work, Gay said.
"In spite of so much revitalization success, and the expertise that has come from decades of implementing preservation programs, there remains much work to be done that would bring more and more prosperity to all citizens," she said. "Yet there is so little awareness of this great potential."
“Patty’s core message is that preservation keeps intact the city that the world loves as New Orleans,” said Davis.
Delivering that message requires a sense of purpose — and diplomacy.
"She is compassionately firm, and firmly compassionate," Davis said. "She manages not to give unnecessary offense where she argues an issue, and that makes her very effective."
“I regard her as an advocate first and foremost. … The PRC is respected and admired all over the country,” said Tulane’s Stubbs, who for two decades directed the Manhattan-based World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit that works to protect iconic sites such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and buildings in Venice.
“This sense of place, richness and authentic variety of Louisiana history is a very special thing that we should preserve most carefully at all costs,” he said.
Gay has a very practical view. “One building at a time” is how she describes the ripple effect of preservation.
“Where people reside is where businesses thrive,” said Gay, who predicts a revitalization of Canal Street once people see the upper floors of neglected buildings as residences and the main floors as places for business. “It is, after all, Main Street New Orleans.”