After more than a decade of false starts, the most visible sign of progress toward reviving the long-neglected Eagle Saloon building is an 18-by-16-foot banner recently hung from the top of the three-story building.
The banner touts the latest fundraising campaign to save the legendary watering hole.
Located at 401-403 S. Rampart St., at the corner of Perdido Street, the Eagle Saloon is among the city’s few surviving early 20th-century jazz landmarks, a onetime haunt of legendary jazz pioneers Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden. Louis Armstrong lived nearby and played upstairs.
A new group of backers — including community leaders and prominent musicians — is pushing to restore the blighted landmark, a task they expect will cost nearly $2 million.
Plans call for a first-floor performing space, bar and recording studio, with interactive jazz exhibits on the top two floors.
In the early days of jazz, this section of South Rampart Street — part of what was sometimes called “Back of Town” — bustled with activity. These days, the Eagle Saloon joins the former Karnofsky family tailor shop at 427-431 S. Rampart and the former Iroquois Theater at 413-415 S. Rampart among the few survivors of a business district that once stretched from Canal Street to Howard Avenue.
Aside from the Little Gem Saloon in the same block, which underwent extensive renovations in 2012, the area has been largely taken over by parking lots and office buildings during the past half-century.
This is not the first push to restore the old saloon. More than a decade ago, Jerome “PopaGee” Johnson, a fried chicken restaurateur and tour operator, reached a deal to buy the Eagle Saloon from its owner, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Foundation, a St. Bernard Parish nonprofit that still owns the Karnofsky and Iroquois buildings.
Johnson spent years trying to raise money to restore the jazz landmark through a nonprofit he called the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame. He had little success, eventually falling deep into debt and worrying local preservationists as the building fell further into disrepair.
Before Johnson died in 2014, he reshuffled the nonprofit’s board. Now, after a year of straightening out the nonprofit’s administrative affairs, a new group called the Eagle Saloon Initiative is working to raise money to restore the building.
Hanging the banner about a week ago was the first public step. This week, the group plans to release a brief online video that includes a few of the city’s better-known musicians talking about the landmark’s place in local history.
On Thursday, there will be a concert outside the building; it’s slated to include performances by George Porter Jr., bassist and singer of the Meters, and trombonist “Big” Sam Williams.
Tickets for the 2½ -hour show — which begins at 5:30 p.m. — cost $20 and include free beer, with proceeds going toward fixing up the building, said Zach Fawcett, who is spearheading the Eagle Saloon Initiative’s fundraising.
“We wanted to bring focus and attention to the building,” he said. “There are thousands of people who pass by it everyday, who may look at it and say, ‘I don’t know what that building was.’ ”
To Fawcett and others involved in the effort, it’s hard to overstate the role of the old South Rampart Street “jazz corridor” in the city’s history. Its revival will also create a new venue for musicians to perform locally, they expect.
The group is hoping to drum up further donations from the crowd-funding website Indiegogo, a process expected to take a few months. Unique incentive packages will be offered to donors who pledge high enough amounts. That could include a private drum lesson with Terence Higgins or recording a professionally produced song with PJ Morton, of Maroon 5.
“Other than the Cabildo, there is no more important building in the city than the Eagle Saloon,” Fawcett said, referring to the former seat of colonial government on Jackson Square. “To save this building is not just something fun to do; it’s an obligation.”
Some hospitality leaders and preservationists have long suggested that the city should take better care of its historic jazz landmarks to accommodate visitors looking to soak up the ambiance of jazz’s birthplace firsthand — though many of the remaining landmarks have suffered from years of neglect and storm damage.
“Frankly, I think it’s an opportunity that we’ve never fully taken advantage of,” said Leigh Ferguson, director of economic development for the Downtown Development District. “Everybody has heard of Louis Armstrong, but there’s very few people that understand or know that much about his early childhood story in New Orleans, and these buildings are where it happened.”
With the nonprofit’s administrative affairs in order, Mike Sherman, a lawyer and board member of the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame, said the group now is “solely and completely focused on restoring this building.”
The plans call for first stabilizing the building, then redeveloping it and finally operating it in a way that pays tribute to its historic role and is interactive and educational, he said.
Sherman said the group has hired an architect, a structural engineer and a designer-contractor. The building is primarily stabilized, but a “much fuller-scale stabilization effort needs to take place,” he said.
Sherman expects that phase to take about three months. The group is planning to move as quickly as the pace of fundraising will allow.
“This is going to be a place where folks come not only to listen to music but to learn about it and participate in activities,” he said.
Already, they’ve lined up a $250,000 matching grant from the Meraux Foundation.
Todd Ragusa, a foundation spokesman, said the nonprofit has spent more than $700,000 to stabilize and preserve the nearby Iroquois Theater and Karnofsky building — which, along with the Eagle Saloon, are all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s a matter of preserving them at this point for when a developer comes forward that has a sustainable idea (for putting them to use) that also pays tribute to the history that occurred there,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sherman is confident in the Eagle Saloon’s revival in time for the city’s tricentennial in 2018.
“We’ve made incredible progress in a very short period of time,” he said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.