Once a proponent of the controversial Riverfront Expressway project, civic leader Charles Keller Jr. became instrumental in preserving the historic Central Business District.
Detroit native Charles Keller Jr. was a businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist who moved to New Orleans in 1939 after marrying local Coca-Cola heiress and social activist Rosa Freeman Keller. A graduate of West Point and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Keller received a Bronze Star and other honors for his service in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II.¹ As a founder and chair of the New Orleans Central Area Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, Keller supported the controversial Riverfront Expressway, a proposed elevated six-lane expressway that would have separated the Vieux Carré from the Mississippi River had preservationists not defeated the project.² By 1973, Keller had developed a new perspective on urban planning through his involvement with the Central Business District Growth Management Plan, a planning process initiated by Mayor Moon Landrieu and the Chamber of Commerce in one of the city’s first public/private partnerships.³ After the report was published in 1975, Keller became involved with the preservation-focused Central Business District Improvement Association (CBDIA), led by Diane Manget, as a consultant in forming a non-profit revolving fund to rehabilitate CBD historic buildings, most notably in the area around Julia Row. Keller’s experience as a businessman and civic leader prior to his interest in preservation gave him the stature to convince the business and political communities that historic preservation could be an effective tool for economic development.⁴
In 1976, the RosaMary Foundation funded a $50,000 grant to establish the Historic Faubourg St. Mary Corporation (HFSM), of which Keller was board chairman and Manget was executive director. Through a contract with the Downtown Development District, HFSM created a revolving fund through which at least ten CBD buildings were saved.⁵ The group also operated the first façade servitude program in Louisiana, supported historic districting and downzoning in the CBD, provided assistance with rehabilitation tax credits, initiated the Warehouse District Demonstration Study, maintained files on historic CBD buildings, and commissioned a CBD photographic survey, along with other programs.⁶
Keller and the HFSM were recognized in 1983 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for their preservation work in the CBD and for their involvement in legislation that led to the neighborhood’s revitalization. Economic development and preservation efforts were so successful that property values rose and fewer buildings required rehabilitation, rendering a revolving fund ineffective. In 1997, HFSM transferred its assets, including the façade servitudes, to the Preservation Resource Center.⁷
1. John Pope, “Charles Keller, civic leader, business owner, dead at 87,” The Times-Picayune, April 11, 1996.
2. Diane Manget, in discussion with the author, October 2, 2014; and Richard F. Weingroff, “The Battles of New Orleans—Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway (I-310),” for the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Division, October 27, 2013
3. Diane Manget, email to the author, November 9, 2014.
4. Diane Manget, email to the author, November 7, 2014.
5. Manget, in discussion with the author, October 2, 2014.
7. Preservation Resource Center, “PRC History: 1994-1997.”