The Orpheum Theatre Avoids Demolition

Dec 1, 1979

Once flooded, abandoned, and threatened with demolition, the historic Orpheum Theatre has been resurrected amidst a downtown theater renaissance. 

Located near Canal Street in New Orleans’ Central Business District, the Beaux Arts–style Orpheum Theatre was designed by architect G. Albert Lansburgh with local architect Samuel Stone in 1918 and completed in 1921.¹ It was originally a vaudeville theater, and later served as a movie palace, an events rental space, and home of the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra

The Orpheum was threatened with demolition in the mid-1970s, when the building’s owner planned to replace it with a parking lot.³ The ensuing battle to save it helped lead to the formation of the Central Business District Historic District Landmarks Commission (CBD/HDLC) in 1978.⁴ The theater was threatened again in 1979, when a developer proposed to build a 23-story hotel on the site.⁵ Hundreds of letters arrived in the CBD/HDLC’s mailbox pleading that the commission vote against the locally landmarked theater’s demolition, and in September of that year, it voted 8 to 1 to deny the request.⁶ City Council deferred its vote on the matter several times until, finally, the developer withdrew his permit application altogether.⁷ In 1982, the Orpheum was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and the preservation-focused group City Lights, Inc. convinced the theater’s owner to donate the building to the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra in exchange for a sizeable tax break.⁸ At that time, the building underwent an award-winning renovation.⁹

The Orpheum sustained significant damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and it sat vacant for a number of years. In 2009, the Louisiana Landmarks Society included the building on its annual list of the city’s nine most endangered sites.¹⁰ In 2014, amidst a downtown theater renaissance, the Orpheum was finally purchased and renovation efforts began, with plans to utilize the theater as a multi-use space that will once again house the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.¹¹

 

1. Mary Lou Widmer, New Orleans in the Twenties (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1993), 81.

2. Katherine Sayre, “Orpheum Theater renovation underway in hands of new owners,” nola.com, July 25, 2014.

3. Mimi Landry, “Lighting Up the CBD,” New Orleans Preservation in Print 10 no. 5 (July 1983): 15

4. Ibid.

5. “Will Curtain Drop on Orpheum?,” Preservation Press 6 no. 6 (July 1979): 1; and Joe Massa, “Council Postpones Ruling on Orpheum Demolition,” The Times-Picayune, October 12, 1979.

6. Orpheum Theatre records, Central Business District Historic District Landmarks Commission; and Central Business District Historic District Landmarks Commission, “Memorandum: The Demolition Appeal for the RKO Orpheum Theatre,” October 8, 1979.

7. “De Gustibus,” Our Opinions, The Times-Picayune, December 16, 1979.

8. Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, “Orpheum Theatre,” National Register of Historic Places, August 1, 1982; and Landry, “Lighting Up the CBD,” 15.

9. Mike Montgomery, “Orpheum, bank among four design winners,” The Times-Picayune, November 26, 1983.

10. Bruce Eggler, “Louisiana Landmarks Society names New Orleans’ 9 most endangered historical sites,” nola.com, August 24, 2009.

11. Sayre, “Orpheum Theater renovation underway in hands of new owners.”

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