City officials made grand plans to celebrate New Orleans’ 200th birthday in 1918 and honor the city’s founder, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville.
France was supposed to build a replica of Bienville’s ship and send it across the Atlantic to New Orleans. Rousing speeches, a costume ball, a magnificent parade and an evening banquet all would make it a memorable occasion.
But with World War I raging in Europe, the replica ship never arrived, and local officials canceled the pageantry.
Flash forward: Mayor Mitch Landrieu and civic and religious leaders are planning a grand celebration to mark another 100 years. Naturally, they hope it goes better this time.
Official plans include academic conferences, musical performances, commemorative exhibits, a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, the dedication of at least one statue and lots of fireworks shows.
Institutions such as the University of New Orleans, WYES-TV and the Archdiocese of New Orleans are putting on their own related activities.
City officials and hospitality leaders are hoping that the tricentennial celebration — which will kick off with the annual New Orleans Book Festival at City Park on Nov. 11, including a concert by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra — will engage locals, bring hordes of free-spending tourists to New Orleans and show how far the city has come since Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s important to get our citizens to understand the full depth and understanding of the 300 years of history,” said Mark Romig, the president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., who is chairing the commission overseeing the tricentennial. “We want to give everyone an opportunity to participate.”
The major event, at least from the mayor’s point of view, will be a “state dinner” hosted by Landrieu “with international mayors and dignitaries representing nations that have historical and cultural ties to New Orleans,” according to a document prepared by the commission organizing the official activities.
The formal dinner will take place at historic Gallier Hall, where workers are refinishing floors, repainting and replastering walls and overhauling the art work, with the goal of completing all the tasks by year's end.
Landrieu, with an eye to his legacy and publicity for his possible national ambitions, has been tying several major projects — including redevelopment of Louis Armstrong International Airport and parts of the riverfront — to the tricentennial. Most of the events scheduled so far will occur before his tenure as mayor ends May 7.
Algiers rose opposite the Mississippi River from the French Quarter soon after the city’s fo…
“It’s the opportunity to indulge in civic pride and raise money for projects they wouldn’t have gotten interest in before,” said Robert Dupont, chairman of UNO's history and philosophy departments. “It’s an opportunity to increase tourism and interest in the city. A modest celebration is a good idea. If nothing else, the books and ideas will be left behind, and people can read them.”
What’s left behind from such commemorations can sometimes be a surprise.
“The most visible surviving outcome may still be seen flying at City Hall and on houses: the official flag of the city of New Orleans,” Richard Campanella, a Tulane University professor who has extensively studied past anniversary celebrations, wrote in a 2013 essay published in Louisiana Cultural Vistas.
Campanella also noted that the Joan of Arc statue planned for 1918 was not erected until 1972. "Joanie on a Pony," as local wags refer to it, now stands on Decatur Street near the French Market. A statue of Bienville was not dedicated until 1955, in front of the train station; it's now in the French Quarter.
Campanella believes that the New Orleans International Jazz Festival organized for the city's 250th birthday in 1968 — four concerts over four days at Congo Square and Municipal Auditorium featuring Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among others — paved the way for the creation of the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970.
One big difference between the tricentennial and past anniversaries in New Orleans is that African-Americans are playing a role this time. Sybil Morial, Wynton Marsalis, Donna Brazile, Norman Francis and Russel Honoré are among those planning events.
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New Orleans has plenty of experience pulling off big celebrations, including Super Bowls, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and the 1988 Republican National Convention. The 1984 World’s Fair, however, was a financial bust, although it did spur the building of the Morial Convention Center and redevelopment of the Warehouse District.
The biggest question mark for the tricentennial is whether city officials can raise the money needed for all the planned activities.
Officials are seeking $3.2 million from corporate or nonprofit sponsors for six different events. They have collected $800,000 so far, they said.
Iberia Bank has provided $400,000 to sponsor the state dinner. With that, according to a document obtained by The Advocate, the bank will have a “speaking opportunity during dinner” and the right to invite 30 people to the event.
“With our deep heritage in Louisiana and our significant franchise in New Orleans, it makes sense for us to be involved in their celebration of 300 years,” said Daryl Byrd, the bank’s president and CEO.
Another sponsor is Reily Foods, whose French Market Coffee and Luzianne Iced Tea brands are the tricentennial’s official coffee and tea.
Taking the lead role in raising the money are Norma Jane Sabiston, a longtime Landrieu confidante who is a political consultant and lobbyist, and Yvette Jones, formerly a vice president at Tulane.
“We fundraise for things all the time, like NORD,” said Ryan Berni, a top mayoral adviser, referring to the city’s recreation department. “We’ve raised millions of dollars from philanthropic foundations to support the city. I really don’t think it’s any different.”
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In addition to $10 million in city dollars, city officials are trying to raise $3 million more privately to renovate and redecorate Gallier Hall. They have raised $1 million so far, primarily from family foundations, Berni said.
He was sitting in Ballroom A in Gallier Hall, which served as city hall from the 1850s to the 1950s and now hosts ceremonial events. The wood floor gleams, and the room is nearly ready to host an official event.
“We bring in potential donors to see what can happen,” Romig said.
Across the checkered marble hallway is the Mayor’s Parlor.
“We’re about to have the floors redone,” said Scott Hutcheson, who is in charge of culture and tourism for the mayor’s office.
Moments later, Hutcheson walked to another room, at the rear of Gallier Hall. Portraits of the city’s past mayors — Moon Landrieu here, Ray Nagin there — and giant paintings of George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Andrew Jackson were propped up against the walls. Workers are restoring the frames and the artworks.
The visages of the mayors formerly lined the building's hallway but will be replaced by works depicting the full history of New Orleans.
The scholarship to emerge from the tricentennial will reflect that change in emphasis, Campanella said.
“The chattering class used to adhere to the ‘great man’ theory of history, that there were these special and enlightened officials who had foresight and visionary leadership,” he said. “But there’s an understanding now that you can’t tell the story of New Orleans without including the displacement and eradication of the natives and of slavery. We now have a more reflective and critical view of history where we see both winners and losers, victors and oppressed.”
In that vein, the Historic New Orleans Collection is organizing an exhibit to open on Feb. 27 titled “New Orleans, the Founding Era.”
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In announcing the exhibit, organizers said it will describe the region’s native tribes, “the waves of European arrival and the forced migration of enslaved African people,” reflecting the “complicated and often conflicted meanings that the colony's development held for individuals, empires and indigenous nations.”
Priscilla Lawrence, the collection’s executive director, said, “An exhibition that documents and illuminates the earliest days of the founding of the city has never been done before on this scale.”
The collection and the Midlo Center at UNO are marking New Orleans' 300 years with weekly podcasts on WWNO Radio.
Meanwhile, WYES-TV is broadcasting a 90-minute documentary on Nov. 15, and Errol Laborde, editor of New Orleans Magazine, is overseeing the publication of a commemorative book in September with contributions from 23 authors, including Campanella and Dupont. Both the documentary and the book are titled “New Orleans: The First 300 Years.”
The Archdiocese of New Orleans will open an exhibit at the Old Ursuline Convent Museum on Oct. 13 about the history of St. Louis Cathedral, which was renovated in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of New Orleans. The archdiocese is hosting a special Mass at the cathedral on Jan. 7 and a lecture series throughout the year on Catholicism’s history in New Orleans.