Armstrong Park, the subject of half-realized plans and angry debate for decades, has a continuing problem on its hands: the uncertain fate of four vacant and crumbling historic buildings.
They were supposed to form part of a National Jazz Historical Park run by the National Park Service. Mayor Marc Morial gave the federal agency a free, 99-year lease of the buildings and the 4 acres of land they sit on in 1998. Congress pitched in with $3 million for renovations.
But more than 15 years later, the buildings in question are still vacant, and all but one of them — Perseverance Hall — continue to deteriorate. It’s a state of affairs that worries neighbors and activists who have been waiting for years to see the buildings rescued and put to use.
“There are holes in the roofs, weatherboards are missing, and water is seeping in,” said Leo Watermeier, an activist who was the official park manager in the early 1990s, during the administration of Mayor Sidney Barthelemy. “Vagrants have been getting in and sleeping there. One of them started a fire in the Rabassa House last winter.”
Watermeier said the Park Service had originally planned to move its headquarters into the park buildings from the present location on North Peters Street in the French Quarter. Instead, the agency has stayed put, and it does much of its programming at the French Market and the Old U.S. Mint on Esplanade Avenue.
“I have to question if they haven’t moved on,” Watermeier said, “and if the Armstrong Park complex is no longer a priority.”
Lance Hatten, the park’s superintendent, denies that the Park Service has lost interest in the project or abandoned its plans to renovate the buildings. He said the agency has spent all of its $3 million allocation, much of it on renovating Perseverance Hall.
But where money will come from to finish the job is unclear.
Hatten said the buildings were already in sorry shape when the agency took them over in the late 1990s, and hurricanes Katrina and Rita did additional damage.
Hatten, who has been in his position for about a year, said he met for the first time last week with officials at City Hall and was pleased with the city’s response.
“My takeaway is it was the beginning of an important dialogue to work together to understand what’s best for Armstrong Park’s future,” he said. “We are really in the idea phase right now, and I wouldn’t want to speculate about a timetable.”
The four buildings leased by the National Park Service are regarded by preservationists and historians as New Orleans treasures.
At the top of the list is Perseverance Hall, which has been listed on National Register of Historic Places since 1973.
A two-story masonry structure built in 1820 as a Masonic lodge, it is the oldest lodge building in the United States still standing. In the early 20th century, it became a social center where black jazz performers and bands played at dances. It also served as a site for concerts, banquets and a host of social functions, and even as a convalescent hospital during the yellow fever epidemic of 1853.
A second building on the site was built in 1830 as the kitchen building and caretaker’s cottage for Perseverance Hall. Radio station WWOZ occupied that building from 1984 to 2005, when it moved to the French Market. The building has been vacant since.
Also vacant and boarded are the Rabassa-de Pouilly House and the Reimann House.
The Rabassa-de Pouilly House, built in 1825, is a rare example of a raised, brick-between-post Creole cottage with a double pitched roof in the rear to accommodate what were originally cabinets and a gallery. It was home to celebrated French architect J.N.B. de Pouilly, who designed St. Louis Cathedral. The building was moved to its location from its original site on St. Ann Street, where it served as an annex of a McDonogh school for a time. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The Reimann House, built around 1880, was originally a fire station and was moved to the park site from South Gayoso Street to protect it from demolition. In the mid-1990s, it housed offices for the Armstrong Park manager, but it has been vacant for 16 years.
Neighbors in Treme are growing impatient to see the Park Service or the city put the complex back into use.
Jessica Knox, president of the Historic Faubourg Treme Association, said the neighborhood is fed up with the neglect of the historic buildings.
“Something needs to be done,” she said. “These buildings have been an eyesore for years, and we have not received any indication that all involved entities are working together on a solution to renovate and put them back into commerce. These buildings could anchor our community and help in our revitalization efforts.”
Still, it may be some time before anything is done.
Hatten said the first step will be to evaluate the condition of the buildings, then to take any “short-term action” deemed necessary. Next, he expects to discuss with the city future programming that will “build on the history of why Armstrong Park is so important to the city of New Orleans and the community of Treme.”
Hatten acknowledges, however, that he will have to get creative with funding. There is no money in the Park Service budget for repair, maintenance or programming at the buildings, but he remains hopeful about finding financial partners.
“Congress is not the only source of funds,” he said.
R. Stephanie Bruno is a frequent contributor. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter, @rstephaniebruno.