When the longtime director of the Preservation Resource Center in New Orleans retired eight months ago, the nonprofit faced the task of finding the right person to lead it into the future. Patricia Gay had led the organization for nearly 40 years and had overseen acclaimed initiatives such as Operation Comeback, Rebuilding Together, the African American Heritage program and façade easements.
Jack Davis, the group's interim head, said a nationwide search ensued.
“After reviewing nearly 250 applications from across the United States, the committee interviewed 10 candidates,” Davis said, and it “found the best person for the job here in New Orleans and already on staff at the PRC," editing the organization's magazine.
"It is truly a tribute to Danielle Del Sol that the board voted unanimously to make her the PRC’s new executive director," Davis said. "Her talents, her passion and her knowledge of preservation make her a national standout.”
Del Sol, 34, moves into the director’s office at the PRC’s Tchoupitoulas Street headquarters on Monday as the fourth executive director in the group’s history.
“Patty Gay left incredibly huge shoes to fill, and her leadership over the years has helped the city more than we can ever measure,” said Del Sol. “I am so glad that I got the chance to work with her and learn from her for the last seven years.”
Del Sol first worked at the PRC as an intern on Preservation in Print magazine beginning in 2010, when she was pursuing a master’s degree in historic preservation from the Tulane University School of Architecture.
Her mentor, the late Mary Fitzpatrick, recognized her fresh take on preservation issues and how to communicate them. Del Sol was hired as assistant editor in 2011 and then promoted to editor in 2014.
Under her leadership, the magazine has won eight awards from the New Orleans Press Club, including four first places in community news reporting.
Del Sol said the challenges of historic preservation today are different in many ways from those faced by leaders in the movement's early years.
“Forty-four years ago, when the PRC was founded, we were trying hard to keep everything historic from being demolished. The Riverfront Expressway had been defeated, but there were rampant demolitions of historic buildings in the lower St. Charles corridor, and the entire Lower Garden District was at risk because so many homes were vacant and abandoned,” she said.
“Today, the challenges are somewhat different: How do we balance preservation and commerce? How do we protect the authenticity of our neighborhoods? How can preservation promote affordable housing and social justice? How do we make it relevant to people my age who love the city and its architecture but don’t see themselves as preservationists?”
Social justice was the thrust of an article Del Sol wrote recently for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in which she argued that preservation holds the promise of uniting communities by celebrating all cultures.
“In New Orleans, as elsewhere, preservationists are not always popular. At best, we’re labeled as obstructionists — anti-progress, ornery, and probably old. At worst, we’re elitist WASPs working only to protect our own heritage,” she wrote. “I take exception to these stereotypes not only because I’m a young-ish Latina American who doesn’t fit them but also because I know they’re wrong — the field has evolved."
Del Sol is a native of Miami whose mother is Italian and Syrian and whose father is Cuban and Polish.
When she was a student at Hendrix College in Arkansas, she discovered her passion for the historic built environment, an interest that blossomed further when she was a journalist in Little Rock. Her work there led her to apply to Tulane’s master of preservation studies program. Today, she is an adjunct lecturer for the program and teaches a course in preservation advocacy.
“Preservation advocacy is key to communicating how the field has evolved and how inclusive it is today,” she said. “We have to pose important questions if we are going to get our message across: ‘Why do people visit New Orleans? Why is it such a joy to live here? What attracts business?’
"The answer is it’s our historic architecture and neighborhoods. They are the foundation of our remarkable culture. It’s up to us to get people to understand that the built environment fuels our economy and that preservation is a tool for economic development.”