New Orleans/Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts

1419 Basin Street
New Orleans LA 70116
Location Status: Same structure, same use
Curated by
The Ponderosa Stomp Foundation
To visit this site, enter Armstrong Park at 801 N Rampart Street and proceed past the sculptures and the Municipal Auditorium, to the far side of the lagoon.

The States-Item reported an “air of glamour” on opening night of the New Orleans Theater for the Performing Arts in 1973, noting the building’s plush red interior and a “$49,000 chandelier composed of delicately balanced prisms” in the lobby. A long-awaited home for opera and classical music in the city, the venue featured state-of-the-art equipment, a pit for 90 musicians, and acoustics designed by the renowned Dr. C. P. Boner.

Its inaugural concert was a performance of Verdi’s Requiem by the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, with a solo by native born bass-baritone Norman Treigle. On an upper level of the lobby after the performance, the conductor, Werner Torkanowsky, “positioned himself on a banister and slid to the next lobby level in an uncharacteristic display of enthusiasm.” A violinist and composer as well as a conductor, Torkanowsky led major orchestras across the country and overseas, spending 14 years at the helm of the New Orleans Philharmonic. (His son, David Torkanowsky, would become a first-call pianist on the local scene and a DJ on radio station WWOZ.)

At the premier, former mayor Victor Schiro, whose administration had earmarked millions for the venue, said he felt like he was being presented “with a very beautiful and wonderful son.” As mayor in the 1960s he’d supported bulldozing four adjacent residential blocks of Treme, hoping to build a larger “cultural center” on the land. Those plans fell through in the 70s, and the theater became a stand-alone, all-purpose venue, hosting an array of stage productions and serving as home base for the New Orleans Philharmonic and the New Orleans Opera House Association.

Local opera lovers hoped the new digs would help the city regain some cachet. There was a time in the 19thcentury when New York had looked to New Orleans as the leading presenter of opera in America, a status embodied in the city’s French Opera House. Opening in 1859, the Opera House was a point of pride for the Creole elite, a monument to their Old World sophistication. When it burned down in 1919 the Times-Picayune feared for the city’s cultural decline (for the newspaper, “culture” was exclusively of European origin; in 1918 it denounced jazz as an “atrocity” in racist and classist terms). The next long-term home for opera in New Orleans, the Municipal Auditorium, was associated with American industry, serving as a convention center as well as a concert hall when it opened in 1930. Presenting opera in a glitzy, dedicated cultural hub was regarded by some as a return to form.

In addition to opera, New Orleans has a proud tradition of classical music, and the city’s Symphony Orchestra attracted Maxim Shostakovich, son of legendary composer Dmitri Shostakovich, to be its music director in 1986. Amid budget issues in 1990, though, the orchestra’s board failed to pay him, and the following year, with severe cuts to programming in store, he resigned. Some 65 of the orchestra’s musicians, appalled by their management, banded together to form the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in 1991, taking on governance and administrative roles themselves. The LPO, now the oldest musician-run orchestra in the United States, spent years based at this theater.

The city renamed the venue for New Orleans’ own gospel music icon Mahalia Jackson in 1993, an active period for organizers making public claims of the city’s African American cultural heritage (advocates secured nearby Congo Square’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places that same year). In 2005, when the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, 14 feet of water flooded the theater’s basement, destroying its electrical and mechanical systems. Renovation was relatively swift, and it reopened in 2009 with upgraded sound and lighting.

About Armstrong Park

Spanning 32 acres, Louis Armstrong Park comprises the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, Congo Square, the Municipal Auditorium,  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, in order to build the Municipal Auditorium. Clearing two half-blocks of what was then a diverse, working-class neighborhood, the city positioned the auditorium along Congo Square, greenspace it had owned since the early 1800s, when enslaved people practiced sacred traditions of music and dance there at Sunday gatherings.

The new auditorium—a home for opera and classical music, among other things—catered to the city’s elite. It was strictly segregated, part of a citywide trend of intensifying segregation in the 1930s and 40s that, by midcentury, made this section of Treme 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, Schiro, to develop the cultural center concept. Based on Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the designs were meant to entice white audiences migrating toward the suburbs to spend money in a live entertainment complex 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. Those objections were largely ignored, but after the theater’s opening public support for the cultural center waned, and a lack of funding tabled designs for a larger campus, leaving a cavity in the heart of the neighborhood.

In 1973 the city decided to make the 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 people 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

Werner Torkanowsky, Music Director of the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra for much of the 1960s and 70s, conducts Yo Yo Ma in 1986.

Maxim Shostakovich in 1985, shortly before he became the last Music Director of New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.