Affluent entrepreneur William Ratcliffe Irby significantly aided Vieux Carré preservation through his generous property donations and institutional support.
Wealthy businessman and philanthropist William Ratcliffe Irby was a significant early proponent for the preservation of the Vieux Carré. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, where he began his career in tobacco manufacturing, Irby eventually became an executive of the North Carolina–based American Tobacco Company, at one time the largest tobacco company in the world.¹ He was also an influential banker and served as president of several institutions, including the Canal Bank and Trust Company, and he was a member of Tulane University’s board of administrators.²
Irby’s interest in the Vieux Carré’s protection began in the years following a 1915 hurricane that exacerbated the historic neighborhood’s state of deterioration. He began purchasing buildings in an effort to save them, including the French Opera House, which he donated to Tulane University before it burned in 1919, the Lower Pontalba Building, built in 1849–51 by the Baroness Pontalba, and the Banque de la Louisiane on Royal Street, which he also donated to Tulane.³ His then-anonymous donation to the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans financed storm-related repairs to St. Louis Cathedral.⁴ In addition, he supported preservation-related projects such as the Louisiana State Museum’s indexing and translation of its colonial judicial records, which was completed in part by Heloise Hulse Cruzat in the early 1920s and continues be a valuable resource for researchers of the colonial period.⁵
Upon his death in 1926, Irby’s estate was worth over $3 million. While Tulane University was the primary beneficiary, Irby’s bequest also included the Louisiana State Museum, to which he left the Lower Pontalba Building and sufficient funds to create the William R. Irby Trust.⁶ In addition to renting shops on the ground floor and residential units on the upper stories, the museum restored one of the Pontalba townhouses to its 1850s appearance. The 1850 House opened to the public as a historic house museum in 1948.⁷
1. Ned Hemard, “William Ratcliffe Irby,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published November 8, 2013.
2. “W. R. Irby Calls at Undertaker’s and Shoots Self,” The Times-Picayune, November 21, 1926.
4. Hemard, “William Ratcliffe Irby.”
5. Henry Putney Beers, French and Spanish Records of Colonial Louisiana: A Bibliographical Guide to Archive and Manuscript Sources (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 13.
6. “Irby Estate Goes Chiefly to Tulane,” The Times-Picayune, November 24, 1926.
7. Louisiana State Museum, “The 1850 House.”