Activist Elizebeth T. Werlein worked tirelessly to save her adopted Vieux Carré at a time when most preferred to demolish it.
Michigan-born Elizebeth T. Werlein was a civic activist who settled permanently in New Orleans after meeting her husband, music publisher and business leader Philip Werlein III, in 1908.¹ Her fearless nature and progressive inclinations led her to become a licensed pilot, an accomplished soprano, one of the first women to fly in an air balloon, the first president of the Louisiana’s League of Women Voters, public relations director of the Saenger Theatre movie chain, a prime mover in numerous civic improvement projects and charitable causes, and a tireless preservationist of the Vieux Carré.²
Werlein’s preservation efforts began as early as the 1910s, when she published a booklet entitled The Wrought Iron Railings of Le Vieux Carré in New Orleans.³ At a time when much of the city believed that the crumbling and immigrant-filled Vieux Carré should be demolished, Werlein was enthralled by the neighborhood’s beauty, especially its architecture. In the early 1920s, she founded and served as president of the Quartier Club, an organization for prominent women designed to combat negative opinions about the Vieux Carré and encourage the restoration of its neglected historic buildings.⁴ In 1926, she moved to St. Ann Street, where she became involved with the community of artists and writers that helped fuel the Vieux Carré’s renewed role as the city’s cultural center.⁵ The following decade, Werlein led the successful effort to convince the Louisiana Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment granting regulatory power to the advisory group that would become the Vieux Carré Commission (VCC).⁶ In 1938, when she became dissatisfied with what she considered to be the VCC’s indifference, Werlein became the founding president of a neighborhood watchdog group called the Vieux Carré Property Owners Association, now known as VCPORA.⁷ In that role she convinced Mayor Robert Maestri to strengthen VCC regulations and increase police enforcement of quality-of-life issues.⁸ According to fellow preservationist Martha Gilmore Robinson, Werlein “virtually policed the Quarter—urging property owners to restore their buildings, persuading others to remove trash and litter and inspiring many creative and influential people with her drive and spirit.”⁹
For her unflagging efforts to promote and protect the Vieux Carré, which she championed until her death in 1946, Werlein is memorialized with the VCC’s prestigious Elizebeth T. Werlein Award for outstanding contributions to historic preservation within the district.
1. Cody Wild, “Elizebeth Werlein,” Media Nola, Tulane University.
2. Anthony Stanonis, “‘A Woman of Boundless Energy’: Elizebeth Werlein and Her Times,” Louisiana History: A Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 46 no. 1 (Winter 2005): 7-16.
3. Stanonis, “‘A Woman of Boundless Energy,’” 15.
4. Media Nola, “Elizebeth Werlein.”
5. Stanonis, 16-17.
6. Marsha Bourgeois, “The Preservation of the Vieux Carré and its Grassroots Beginnings,” Loyola University Student Historical Journals 20 (1988).
7. Stanonis, 22-23.
8. Stanonis, 23.
9. Stella Pitts, "French Quarter Was Love of Activist Elizabeth Werlein," The Times-Picayune, May 9, 1976.
Suggestions for Additional Reading:
Ellis, Scott S. Madame Vieux Carré: The French Quarter in the Twentieth Century. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.
Gallas, Walter W. “Neighborhood Preservation and Politics in New Orleans: Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, Inc., and City Government, 1938–1983.” Master’s thesis, University of New Orleans, 1996.
Mayor Robert V. Maestri Records. City Archives, New Orleans Public Library.
Reed, John Shelton. “French Quarter Renaissance.” In KnowLA Encyclopedia of the Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010-. Article published June 4, 2013.
Werlein, Elizebeth T. The Wrought Iron Railings of Le Vieux Carré. New Orleans, c. 1916.
For Future Research:
"Bronze Memorial Plaque Honors Late Mrs. Werlein" The Times-Picayune, 11-20-1949.