Municipal Auditorium

1201 St. Peter
New Orleans LA 70130
Location Status: Location threatened, damaged or not in use
Curated by
The Ponderosa Stomp Foundation
To visit this site, enter Armstrong Park at 801 N Rampart Street and once inside turn left.

The Municipal Auditorium opened in January 1930 as “at once an opera house, a stadium, a concert hall, a Greek theater, an exhibition room, a setting for Carnival balls and a little theater for amateur dramatics.” It was a state-of-the-art facility customized for the city’s elite, including a makeup room with a special passageway to the stage for Mardi Gras royalty to make grand entrances, and a glass wall so patrons could smoke in the lobby and still see the show.

Business leaders intended the auditorium to attract conventions and restore New Orleans’ cultural prestige following the loss of its beloved French Opera House to a fire in 1919. Their proposal, endorsed by the mayor, was to build the venue directly on Congo Square, where enslaved Africans and their descendants had introduced profoundly influential traditions of music and dance to the city. Opposition thwarted the plan, but not because hallowed ground was at stake: in the 1920s the square contained a park and swimming pool, and the Playground Community Service Commission objected on behalf of the (exclusively white) children who played there.

The auditorium wound up on an adjacent block, where it hosted concerts of every description over the next 75 years. Homegrown heroes including Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Fats Domino performed here, as did Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Run DMC, and just about every other marquee name in popular music. A few dates stand out in local lore: On October 19th, 1952, Hank Williams staged his wedding here at 3pm and again at 7pm, just months before his untimely death. On December 30, 1962 New Orleans’ own R&B star Ernie K-Doe “battled” James Brown, and, at least in K-Doe’s estimation, bested the Hardest Working Man in Show Business with mid-song suit changes and acrobatics with the microphone stand.

Beginning in the 1940s, traditional jazz enthusiasts helped revive interest in the style by promoting concerts at the Municipal Auditorium. There were plans for a jazz festival here in 1965, but they foundered in part because the facility was segregated. Civil rights organizers had challenged the color line here practically as soon as it opened. In 1940, black concertgoers protested to gain access to the balcony to see the Black opera singer Marian Anderson. In 1948 the jump-blues star Louis Jordan risked arrest when, from the stage, he called for integrating the audience. In 1953 a coalition of social aid and pleasure clubs managed to hold an integrated event here, but years would pass before the city let go of the color line.

The first major jazz festival at the Municipal Auditorium came together in 1968, featuring modern as well as traditional players. Another followed in 1969, paving the way for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which kicked off here in 1970. Even after Jazz Fest moved to the Fair Grounds in 1972, nighttime concerts associated with it continued at the auditorium.

From the 1970s onward the Municipal Auditorium hosted all kinds of audiences, from Mardi Gras Indian gatherings on St. Joseph’s Night to minor league hockey games. In the 1980s it was a home for Mid-South Wrestling, which featured The Junkyard Dog, an African American wrestler with an avid fanbase in New Orleans (he would later adopt the persona of Stagger Lee, the folk hero namesake of R&B hits by New Orleanians Archibald and Lloyd Price). In 1994 its official name became the Morris F.X. Jeff Auditorium, in honor of the creator of many of the city’s recreational programs for Black children during segregation.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, floodwater from levee breaches inundated the auditorium’s basement, and the city spent years haggling with FEMA over a settlement for the damage. The figure reached after arbitration was half of what the city said it needed to renovate, so, while Congo Square has seen a surge in public interest since the flood, the onetime “monument to the business community” sits vacant (a current proposal from the mayor, as yet unfunded, would convert it into a new City Hall).

About Armstrong Park

Spanning 32 acres, Louis Armstrong Park comprises the Municipal Auditorium, Congo Square, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, a cluster of historic buildings including Perseverance Hall, and sculptures related to New Orleans music arranged around a series of lagoons and bridges. It’s a placid landscape belying nearly a century of contentious political maneuvers for control of the grounds and the culture presented on them.

The park took shape in the 1970s on real estate the city had spent decades appropriating in Treme, the neighborhood directly across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter. The first acquisition was in the late 1920s, when the city cleared two half-blocks of what was then a diverse, working-class neighborhood, to build the Municipal Auditorium.

Discriminatory public policy and business practices increased segregation in New Orleans in the 1930s and 40s, and, by midcentury, this section of Treme was solidly Black. Mayor “Chep” Morrison then targeted it for “slum clearance” in the 50s, part of the same effort to remake the city center that wiped out Louis Armstrong’s old neighborhood along South Rampart Street.

City planners had long regarded the Municipal Auditorium and Congo Square as a potential anchor for a larger complex of public buildings. Morrison ran with the idea, acquiring land adjacent to them that set the table for his successor to develop a “cultural center” here in the late 1960s. Based on Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the designs were meant to entice white audiences migrating toward the suburbs to spend money on live entertainment in the city.

The ensuing demolition displaced hundreds of low-income Black residents from Treme, which had long been a cultural center of its own, home to some of the city’s greatest musicians and parading organizations. The bulldozed buildings included the multi-generational homes of musical families, historic early jazz venues, and businesses like the Caldonia Inn, a home base for second lines and Black Masking Indians. (Preservationists were able to spare Perseverance Hall, but attempts to open it as a jazz museum came up short.)

In 1969 Treme residents organized opposition to the city’s plans for the center, calling for their Afro Creole and African American heritage to be integrated into its Eurocentric program. Despite their objections, the city opened the Theater for the Performing Arts as a new venue for opera and Western classical music (it was renamed for Mahalia Jackson decades later). The theater was meant to be the first piece of a larger campus, but a lack of funding and waning public support made it the last, leaving a cavity in the heart of the neighborhood.

In 1973 the city decided to make this vacant land into a park dedicated to Louis Armstrong, who had recently died. This time community organizers won a concession—the city built the Treme Community Center on a corner of the property. But it, and the rest of the neighborhood, was outside an iron fence around the park’s perimeter, which was widely understood as an effort to keep the facility segregated. According to Lois Nelson, a Treme tradition bearer and mother of James and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, “they built the fence to keep us out.”

The park, featuring a larger-than-life bronze statue of Armstrong, took seven years to complete. By the time it opened in 1980, New Orleans had its first Black mayor, “Dutch” Morial, and local Black music was becoming more important economically as the city turned to tourism to shore up its finances. With Armstrong Park a drag on the budget, Morial and his successor each tried privatizing it as a paid tourist attraction, taking proposals for everything from a floating bandstand in the lagoon to hot air balloon rides. Financing didn’t materialize, though, and Treme residents, wary of “commercial exploitation,” helped scuttle the efforts.

In 1992 the city funded the Black Music Hall of Fame, which it hoped would make the park a national destination, but, after presenting exhibits in Perseverance Hall for a few years, the project fizzled. In 1999 the city turned over the hall and surrounding buildings to the National Park Service, to serve as headquarters for the Jazz National Historical Park, which was founded to preserve and promote the living history of the artform. Those plans were still being fine-tuned in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged the park.

The gates were padlocked for the next three and a half years, except for a few special events. WWOZ radio, which, for over 20 years before the storm, had broadcasted from a small building next to Perseverance Hall, moved its studio to the French Market. The Park Service restored Perseverance Hall but ultimately concentrated its programming in its French Quarter visitor center and the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint. After a round of renovations, Armstrong Park and the Mahalia Jackson Theater reopened in 2009.

Mayor Ray Nagin’s subsequent proposal, to have two associates redevelop the flooded Municipal Auditorium as a “performance and production complex” with public funds, was shelved after running afoul of the city’s Inspector General. One of those associates, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, later misappropriated funds allocated by Nagin for the creation of Armstrong Park’s Roots of Music Sculpture Garden. The mayor rushed that project through his last days in office, and its botched construction shut down the park for most of the next 18 months. Still, since reopening in 2011, it has memorialized some of the artists and musical traditions that once thrived here.

As of 2021, roughly 50 years after the city uprooted a swath of Treme, and 40 years after it began trying to showcase its culture here, the Cantrell administration is drawing up the latest set of redevelopment plans. In the meantime, despite its tumultuous history, Armstrong Park has achieved something profound: the preservation of Congo Square as a public gathering place and pilgrimage site. The Congo Square Preservation Society, which secured its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, continues the tradition of African drumming and dancing here on Sundays. The park also hosts a variety of music festivals and special events each year.

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Videos

From Halloween in 1991, the Neville Brothers perform at the Municipal Auditorium.

A 1982 wrestling match in the Municipal Auditorium featuring Stagger Lee, who is introduced to the strains of New Orleans R&B star Lloyd Price at 0:45.