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The French Quarter Stayed the Same

The color had drained from the Vieux Carré.

Wood splintered, paint peeled. Decay took hold of everything. Ivy crept through silent courtyards, the bubble of water fountains long silenced.

The French Quarter of early 20th century was a forgotten place, frozen in time and trapped in poverty.

Abandoned by the well-to-do, the neighborhood became a hotbed of organized crime, filled with pickpockets and petty crooks. The culprits were known by name and by mark: Jim Kelly raided hotels, Ned Lyons picked safes, The Lop-Eared Kid robbed trains.

The town was left to rot. Progress was reserved for parts elsewhere.

Obvious beauty and unrestrained opulence reigned in streets just beyond. The baroque façade of the Cotton Exchange on Carondelet. The fleet of shining streetcars on Canal. The French Quarter was a crumbling relic by comparison. Calls for its wholesale destruction were made by those who believed it beyond repair. There were many.

Elizebeth T. Werlein was not among them.

Photo: Rebecca Todd

Married to a wealthy New Orleans businessman in 1908, the Michigan native fell in love with her adopted home. She quickly came to play an integral role in safeguarding it. The French Quarter became her principal focus of interest.

Unlike the many who had written the area off as a lost cause, Elizebeth saw it as a romantic bohemia of rougher charms. It deserved saving.

Her preservation efforts grew in scope with each passing decade. Her small gatherings to rally socialites eventually paved the way for founding of the Vieux Carré Commission in 1936. A year later, she established the Vieux Carré Property Owners Association.

By the time she passed in 1946, she had set two governing bodies in play that would save the French Quarter from the fate it once faced.

Today, the Vieux Carré Commission doggedly patrols the historic authenticity of its jurisdiction. They are an enemy to eyesores, to ugliness, to untoward change. They determine a building’s character and ambience.

They call it

tout ensemble.

Photo: Rebecca Todd

Their design guidelines read like the story of New Orleans told in galleries and porches, wood trim and wall signs. To the commission, property owners are not simply owners of a particular address; they are stewards of history, heirs to ancient legacy.

The colorful walls of the Vieux Carré, once the backdrop for neglect, are of the utmost concern to the VCC. To understand the body’s guidelines, you must first understand the importance of paint. You must know how ochre and violet creates context, how blue and green evokes era.

Perfection here does not come easy.

Preservation, however, thanks to Elizebeth Werlein and others like her, is a given.

The sherbet-colored streets–of Chartres, of Royal, of Ursulines–offer a step into another time, one where the whims of the future, thankfully, will never take hold.

Visit New Orleans and start your story with #OneTimeInNOLA.

Jenny is a writer of culture both high and low. Her work has appeared in V Magazine, Lenny Letter, and TIME, to name a few. She first fell in love with New Orleans over buttermilk biscuits and strawberry preserves. She’s been a NOLA regular ever since.

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