Often called the city’s “dean of historic preservation,” Samuel Wilson Jr. was a New Orleans architect, historian, educator, and activist whose numerous pioneering accomplishments continue to inspire preservationists and architects today.
Over the course of his six-decade career as an architect, historian, educator, and activist, Samuel Wilson Jr. played a major role in defining the field of preservation in New Orleans. In addition to researching and writing nearly two hundred scholarly articles and books related to the history of Louisiana architecture, Wilson rehabilitated some of the city’s most significant historic buildings, including the Cabildo, the Pontalba apartments, Ursuline Convent, and the Pitot House, and tirelessly advocated for the preservation of structures, sites, and neighborhoods across the city.¹
In 1934, three years after graduating from Tulane University’s School of Architecture, Wilson joined architect Richard Koch on the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), which introduced him to numerous historic properties and led to the rediscovery of forgotten archival sources, such as the watercolor plans at the New Orleans Notarial Archives.² In 1938, Wilson received an American Institute of Architects (AIA) scholarship to spend six months in Europe, where he visited the Archives Nationales, Ministère des Colonies, and Bibliothèque Nationale in France. There, he unearthed and photographed French Colonial building records that redefined prevailing scholarship about New Orleans’ early architecture.³
In 1950, Wilson co-founded and served as the first president of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, and later played a role in the founding of the Friends of the Cabildo, Save Our Cemeteries, and the Preservation Resource Center.⁴ In 1955, Wilson was promoted to partner at Koch's architectural firm, and together Koch and Wilson rehabilitated many of the city's landmark historic structures.⁵ In the 1960s, Wilson pioneered the Vieux Carré Survey, an inventory of every structure in New Orleans's original city. Following the survey, Wilson served as principal historian for the Vieux Carré Demonstration Study, a government-funded eight-volume series about the neighborhood's history and development.⁶
Until his death in 1993, Wilson continued to research, write, and speak for the city’s architectural heritage. In 2013, the New Orleans preservation community celebrated Wilson’s centennial birthday with a year of exhibits and lectures about his life, works, and legacy.
1. Robert Cangelosi, “Samuel Wilson Jr.,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published January 25, 2011.
2. Abbye Gorin, ed. Conversations with Samuel Wilson, Jr., Dean of Architectural Preservation in New Orleans (New Orleans: Louisiana Landmarks Society), 10.
3. Gorin, Conversations with Samuel Wilson, Jr., 11.
4. Louisiana Landmarks Society, “About Louisiana Landmarks”; and Cangelosi, “Samuel Wilson Jr.”
5. Cangelosi, “Samuel Wilson Jr.”
6. Gorin, 81-82.
Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research
Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer
Farnsworth, Jean M., and Ann Masson, eds. The Architecture of Colonial Louisiana: Collected Essays of Samuel Wilson, Jr. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 1987.
Gorin, Abbye, ed. Conversations with Samuel Wilson, Jr., Dean of Architectural Preservation in New Orleans. New Orleans: Louisiana Landmarks Society, 1991.
Gorin, Abbye, and Barbara Coleman. Samuel Wilson, Jr. 1911-1993. DVDs. New Orleans: Coleman Gorin Production, 1985-1990. Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University.
Koch and Wilson Office Records. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane University.
Latrobe, Benjamin Henry Boneval. Impressions Respecting New Orleans: Diary & Sketches, 1818-1820. Edited by Samuel Wilson Jr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1951.
Sam Wilson, Jr. Collection, 1747-1846. Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University.
Wilson, Samuel, Jr. 1980. Interview by Dorothy Schlesinger. Tape recording. July 9 and July 17. Friends of the Cabildo Oral History Program, New Orleans Public Library.
Wilson, Samuel, Jr. Bienville's New Orleans: A French Colonial Capital, 1718-1768. New Orleans: Friends of the Cabildo, 1968.
_____. A Guide to Architecture of New Orleans, 1699-1959. New York: Reinhold Publishing, 1959.