New Orleans is a city of festivities – conventions, Mardi Gras balls, graduation ceremonies, entertainment. And for decades, the place where New Orleanians of all races gathered for those events was the Municipal Auditorium, the centerpiece of Louis Armstrong Park.
An afternoon spent at the New Orleans Public Library brings to life a sense of what the auditorium, dedicated in May 1930, meant to this city. Page after page of records and photographs depict ice shows, diving exhibitions, boxing matches, performances by the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo.
One of the two meeting halls was hung with bunting for a 1937 gathering of the National Rural Letter Carriers Association, the pictures show. The auditorium hosted gatherings of morticians, shown looking over the latest double lined caskets and gleaming stainless steel morgue examining tables.
A list of events for 1953 lists Carnival balls every single night in January except New Year’s Day, often two a night. And the auditorium did not limit itself only a white audience. Joe Louis appeared that year in August with singer Ruth Brown (at an event labeled “All Colored.”) Later on, the auditorium was used as a temporary casino, and housed the New Orleans Jazz basketball team as well as hockey.
This auditorium where so many of New Orleans’ festive events took place still stands across from the French Quarter, in use as recently as 2005, when it was a center for the distribution of MREs (Meals Ready To Eat).
But since the aftermath of the storm, the Municipal Auditorium has stood quiet, a looming reminder of the memories locked behind its closed doors, despite years of trying to figure out what can be done with it. It is arguably the single most important civic building in New Orleans that remains shut since Katrina, although there has been plenty of discussion about its future.
%Gallery-170748%In November, the auditorium appeared in the HBO series “Treme,” in a scene set in 2008, in which developers suggest it can become a National Jazz Center. In fact, New Orleans’ former mayor, Ray Nagin, backed a plan to turn it into a state-of-the-art production facility, but that idea fell apart amid criticism from city council members and the city’s inspector general.
There is an inkling of hope, however, that the auditorium may someday be put back into use. In May, the city announced that it planned to use $16.67 million in FEMA grants to begin a restoration, out of a total of $27.5 million that’s been allocated for repairs.
“The city has been very aggressive in working with FEMA to get our fair share of recovery dollars,” Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said in an email. “While these new funds are an encouraging step forward, there is a still a ways to go.”
For one thing, the repairs will have to take place in phases – first, the removal of asbestos and lead from the interior, the replacement of the roof, the stabilization of the roof, and removal of mold which is said to cover much of the walls inside.
But there are no schematics of what the restored auditorium will look like, no architects’ renderings, no visions of how the building could be brought back to life. That’s because more money for the project will be needed, and it simply isn’t there yet, says the mayor’s spokesman.
Its only use, for now, is as the backdrop to events that take place in Armstrong Park, like the Treme Gumbo Festival held in November, and the summer concert series sponsored by People United for Armstrong Park, which had its inaugural season in 2012.
Even though the park has been cleaned up, and is starting to attract a regular stream of visitors, that wasn’t the original goal for Emanuel Lain, one of PUFAP’s founders.
He was actually more interested in the restoration of the auditorium than in fixing up the park when he started canvassing homes in Treme, the neighborhood that backs up to the park. He wanted to know whether neighbors thought it was important to bring the building back to life, and what they might like to see it be used for.
“I saw amazing acts. This was like the center of the universe,” Lain said. “Wrestling matches. Carnival balls. Amazing things happened here.”
It’s surely important to Lain, who attended his high school graduation in the auditorium, which has the indestructible aura of those solidly built 1920s buildings that dot the American landscape. All visitors can see now is its exterior, remarkably unscathed given the damage that Emanuel says has taken place inside.
The words “ART,” “DRAMA,” “ATHLETICS” and “POETRY” are carved in the facade above one entrance, echoing photographs that show the names of famous writers such as “SHAKESPEARE,” “VIRGIL,” “MILLET” and “DANTE” carved on the cornice above the two auditoriums inside. Other words have now joined them. “DO NOT OPEN,” reads a door on the building’s east side.
For now, those photographs, tucked away in the city archives on the library’s third floor, are the only inkling that visitors have to what lies inside. But if Lain gets his way, perhaps those memories can become realities once more. “We did something special,” Lain says of the work that’s taken place to restore the surrounding park. “Now, we want to build on that.”
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[Photo credits: Micheline Maynard]