Curtis, Nathaniel Cortlandt Sr. (1881–1953)

Educator, architect, and preservationist Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis Sr. produced one of the first typological studies of New Orleans’ historic buildings.

“The composite face of New Orleans is an old face and a young face, worn, and some think repellent, in places, but fair and sweet and good to look upon in others. But whether worn or fresh it is an interesting face, a face of charm and character.”¹ So wrote Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis Sr. in New Orleans: Its Old Houses, Shops and Public Buildings, his influential documentary study of New Orleans’ historic building typologies that was published in 1933. An architect, preservationist, and first dean of Tulane University’s School of Architecture, Curtis completed his study, which he called a “physiognomy of New Orleans,” at a time when local organized preservation efforts were gaining momentum after the Vieux Carré’s cultural renaissance of the 1920s.² The study includes a historical overview of the city followed by chapters on the historic architecture of the Vieux Carré, the Garden District, Bayou St. John, cemeteries, and nineteenth-century churches, providing an important roadmap for identifying which buildings needed to be saved and why.³ Curtis was also one of the first to introduce the term Creole architecture, a colonial building tradition seen almost exclusively in Louisiana and a valuable moniker that continues to be used today.⁴

In 1915, a younger Curtis attempted to save the Vieux Carré’s St. Louis Hotel from demolition. Completed in 1838, the stately structure designed by French architect Jacques Nicolas Bussière De Pouilly had been vacant for many years and had recently sustained serious hurricane damage.⁵ Curtis documented the structure and developed a scheme to adapt it into a convention and exposition hall in order to return the building to commerce. The hotel was nevertheless demolished in 1916, although Curtis’s efforts did succeed in drawing some much-needed attention to the historic value of the old city at a time when it was almost universally ignored.⁶

 

1. Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis, New Orleans: Its Old Houses, Shops and Public Buildings (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott Company, 1933), 7.

2. Vieux Carré Commission Foundation, “The History of the Vieux Carré Commission”; Curtis, New Orleans, 8; and Abbye A. Gorin, “Professor Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis, Sr. (1881–1953), A Renaissance Man,” in The Rivergate.

3. Curtis, table of contents.

4. Gorin, “Professor Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis, Sr. (1881–1953), A Renaissance Man.”

5. Curtis, 174.

6. Vieux Carré Commission Foundation, “The History of the Vieux Carré Commission.”

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