Stewards of the Vieux Carré’s historic buildings since 1937, the Vieux Carré Commission was founded to help save the city’s crumbling architectural heritage from demolition.
By the 1920s, the Vieux Carré was a neighborhood of deteriorated slums that many in the city wished to demolish. The Cabildo and Presbytère were nearly razed at the turn of the century and, in 1919, the French Opera House on Bourbon Street burned to the ground.¹ Meanwhile, however, artists and writers such as William Woodward and Lyle Saxon painted, worked, and lived in the old city’s crumbling but picturesque buildings, inspiring a renewed appreciation of the Vieux Carré’s aesthetic value, and philanthropists such as William Ratcliffe Irby began buying properties in order to save them. This reinvestment in the neighborhood led to the establishment of the first Vieux Carré Commission in 1925, an advisory council that oversaw the maintenance of the neighborhood’s historic resources but lacked the legal power to enact significant change.² It was not until 1937, via an 1936 amendment to the Louisiana State Constitution, that this advisory group gained the regulatory powers of today’s Vieux Carré Commission (VCC).³ Vieux Carré resident and preservation activist Elizebeth T. Werlein led the campaign for the constitutional amendment and is largely considered to be a founder of the VCC, the second oldest commission of its kind in the country.⁴
Werlein was also a founder of the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, Inc. (VCPORA), a neighborhood association that formed in 1938 in part because it felt that the VCC was not sufficiently enforcing its laws.⁵ In 1939, for instance, the VCC did not protest the City's demolition of a half-block of historic buildings bounded by Dauphine, Barracks, and Burgundy streets, which it converted into a public park.⁶ This type of apathy alarmed Werlein and her new association, who worked with then-Mayor Robert Maestri to grant the VCC approval power over all demolition permits issued in the district.⁷ These early tensions led to a reorganization of the commission, which by the 1940s had gained better-defined powers, a professional staff, and improved public opinion.⁸ Dedicated and formidable, the VCC has since prevented countless demolitions and intrusions within its jurisdiction. In the 1970s, it served as the inspiration for the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC), a regulatory agency that oversees the many historic districts outside of the Vieux Carré.
Today, the VCC has the power to regulate repairs and alterations made to the exterior surfaces of all privately owned buildings in the Vieux Carré, including paint color, new construction, and signage.⁹ Its jurisdiction is bounded by Esplanade Avenue, N. Rampart Street, Iberville Street, and the Mississippi River. In addition to tirelessly regulating individual properties, one of the VCC’s primary ongoing challenges and most significant roles is protecting the more intangible tout ensemble or authenticity of place that draws millions of tourists to the district each year.
1. Hilary Irvin, “Vieux Carré Commission,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published April 5, 2013.
2. The Vieux Carré Commission Foundation, “The History of the Vieux Carré Commission.”
3. Karen Kingsley, “Historic Preservation,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published March 11, 2011.
4. Irvin, “Vieux Carré Commission.”
5. 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): 22-23.
6. “Razed for Playground,” Vieux Carré Courier, June 10, 1966.
7. Stanonis, “‘A Woman of Boundless Energy,’” 23.
8. The Vieux Carré Commission Foundation, “The History of the Vieux Carré Commission.”
9. City of New Orleans, “Vieux Carré Commission.”
Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research
The Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carré Digital Survey. The Historic New Orleans Collection.
Heard, Malcolm. French Quarter Manual: An Architectural Guide to New Orleans’ Vieux Carré. New Orleans: Tulane School of Architecture, 1997.
Lemann, Bernard. The Vieux Carré: A General Statement, 2nd ed. New Orleans: Louisiana Landmarks Society and Tulane University School of Architecture, 2001.
Vieux Carré Commission Records. City Archives, New Orleans Public Library
Wilson, Samuel, Jr. Vieux Carré, New Orleans: Its Plan, Its Growth, Its Architecture. New Orleans: Bureau of Governmental Research, 1968.