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How Gay Men Helped Save the French Quarter

St. Louis Cathedral (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

St. Louis Cathedral is one of the most photographed buildings in America, but it might not be there today if not for a gay man. There might be a t-shirt shop there. Or a daiquiri shop. Or a shiny new CVS. The same can be said for the Cabildo, the lower Pontalba Building or countless shotguns and Creole cottages in the Vieux Carré – they, too, were rescued by gay men. A lot of gingerbread and wrought iron remains because the LGBTQ community came to the rescue.

So What’s With Gay Men and Old Buildings?

According to Will Fellows, author of A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture,” gay men, perhaps more than others, have a passion for “identifying things that are in need, things that are broken, things that are not whole, not complete, and restoring them to a state of wholeness. Allan Gurganus, who authored a first-person narrative in Fellows’ book, wrote, “There’s some magical relation between gay men and restoration. You can always tell an urban neighborhood in transition by that harbinger of change – the corner Art Deco shop opened by two gentlemen friends.” All we know is, here in New Orleans, gay men have long been “keepers of culture.”

The gay community saved many of the French Quarter’s most cherished buildings. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

When new neighborhoods began to develop in New Orleans in the second half of the 19th century, many in the city would have been just fine with, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, “paving paradise and putting up a parking lot .” Fellows quoted preservationist architect Samuel Wilson, Jr. who remembered, “When the French Opera House burned down my mother was all in a tizzy. My father said, ‘The whole place ought to burn down. It would be the best thing that could happen to the city.” Instead gay men got together and breathed new life into these old walls, starting nothing short of a renaissance.

The Good Fairy of Frenchtown, Mr. New Orleans & Clay Shaw

Apparently, the need to beautify New Orleans goes as far back as 1895 when gay Boston architect Allison Owen set out to form a society to preserve our colonial landmarks. His passion led to the transformation of the Cabildo into a museum. Then in 1918, bachelor tobacco magnate William Ratcliffe Irby (who Lyle Saxon called “the good fairy of Frenchtown”) bought and restored Vieux Carré landmarks such as the Seignouret-Brulatour House at 520 Royal Street, which is currently being turned into a museum by the Historic New Orleans Collection, opening sometime this year. Irby also bought and restored the lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square (he gave it to the Louisiana State Museum), and financed the rehabilitation of  St. Louis Cathedral which was in terrible disrepair at the time.

According to BillNorrisTours.com, writer Lyle Saxon fell in love with New Orleans in 1914 and became involved in the preservation movement that swept the French Quarter in the 1920s and 30s. Saxon not only fought for the preservation of historic French Quarter buildings, he also encouraged his writer and artist friends to move to and visit the city (he hung out with Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson, among others). All this helped spark a renaissance of sorts.

And then there was Clay Shaw . While serving as Managing Director of the International Trade Mart (soon to be the Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences), Shaw became passionate about renovating French Quarter buildings. When he retired from the Mart, the city awarded him its highest honor, the International Order of Merit, for his many contributions to the city. Then Jim Garrison swept in and the rest is history (and a bad movie). In what has been called a gay witch hunt, Shaw was, and still is, the only man ever indicted in connection with the murder of JKF. (He was later acquitted.) Today you can see homes Shaw lived in at 1313 Dauphine Street and 1022 St. Peters Street. Read about Shaw here.

What They Were Fighting For

Take a walking tour and hear fascinating tales about the gay men and women who walked these streets before you. (Photo: GoNOLA)

Over the years, the French Quarter has been filled with LGBTQ residents who have thrown all they are and have into restoring dilapidated homes and businesses in the Vieux Carré.

According to Faubourg Marigny resident Loyd Sensat, one of three New Orleanians who tell their stories in Fellow’s book, “Gays are not given enough credit for saving America’s inner cities and historic neighborhoods…They’re not afraid to tackle these old buildings and do this transformation, and they’re not afraid to move into areas that might be a little risky.”

To learn more about the many contributions the LBGTQ community has made to New Orleans, visit GL-F Villiers Tours. They offer The Twirl!, a Gay Heritage and Drinks Tour that features great drinks and original, unscripted stories.

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