Since Katrina, just about the only place that the words "It's history" have been warmly received is at the Williams Research Center, the archival repository that's the actual home to the artifacts of the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC). The center's mission has been renewed and enhanced with the opening of a new exhibition gallery and three floors of storage space in the French Quarter.
The Williams Center has gained several new collections since the storm -- most notably the photo archives of photographer Michael P. Smith -- as collectors have given greater consideration to preservation of historical materials. Smith's files of decades worth of photos and negatives of New Orleans musicians, street culture and Jazz Fest are already being sorted and stored in the new space.
Pedestrians in the French Quarter may have noticed the new bright pink facade and green shutters on the 500 block of Conti Street, which have replaced a walled-in parking lot. The center's expansion is a new construction based on architectural drawings of a hotel that occupied the spot in the mid-19th century (and suffered severe damage in a fire in 1887). The new building adds 18,000 square feet of space and allows the HNOC to consolidate materials stored separately in a Tchoupitoulas Street warehouse. The ground floor features a gallery space, but visitors must still enter through the Williams Center entrance on Chartres Street.
The gallery's first show is a collection of portraits by Jean-Joseph Vaudechamp, a French-born painter who spent winters in New Orleans in the 1830s. The show coincides with a just-released biography of the painter, Vaudechamp in New Orleans, by William Keyse Rudolph.
Construction of the new space began in July 2005, just weeks before Katrina. In one of the more unsung success stories about the hurricane and its aftermath, the Williams Center weathered the storm quite well, staff acted as an early resource for the press as well as for locals trying to salvage flooded and molded items, and the center suffered no losses to collections or its facilities.
"We didn't lose a single refrigerator," says executive director Priscilla Lawrence. "We had someone who was able to visit the facility every day." With a police escort, the center's staff was able to move some of its more valuable collections to Alexandria on Sept. 8, 2005. Those materials returned just weeks later, and the center was one of the first local institutions to reopen. Seven visitors showed up on the first day, Oct. 11, 2005.
During the early days of the recovery, the facility acted as a resource for the national and international press corps encamped downtown.
"We had a strong obligation to the community and the people working here to help (the public) understand what happened," says Alfred E. Lemmon, the center's manuscripts curator. "And we gave people something pretty to look at."
Months afterwards, one of the collection's archived maps became famous. The Times-Picayune and other papers published an 1878 map detailing the city's development. That map showed that the city's buildings at that time were generally confined to what are now seen in topographical maps as flood-safe areas and elevations.
"It was one of our most popular requests," says Lawrence. "We sold hundreds of copies."
In the months after the storm, staff from the center held Antiques Roadshow-like seminars in local malls to evaluate and offer advice on how to save and preserve personal treasures like photos and art.
"One woman brought a photo of her grandfather with Babe Ruth," Lawrence says. "You could see by the way she cradled it how much it meant to her."
One of the more fortunate acquisitions to the collection is the records of New Orleans Deutches Haus. The cultural group decided to give its records of the center's activities and collections of reports from other German heritage groups from around the world to the center before Katrina. The Deutches Haus, located on Galvez Street in Mid-City, was flooded after the storm and lost everything on its first floor.
The collection doesn't just preserve history, it also makes history. One current project is to transcribe hundreds of taped interviews the staff conducted with Katrina's first responders from police and fire departments as well as other relief agencies and citizens.
The Williams Research Center is located at 410 Chartres St. The Vaudechamp exhibit is free to the public.
- The Historic New Orleans Collection's extension on Conti Street is the first new construction completed in the French Quarter since Katrina.