NEW ORLEANS -- A small group of music buffs, historians and preservationists made their case Tuesday that a Central City church should not be allowed to transform its vacant sanctuary into a community center unless it also makes a concerted effort to save the home of one of the pioneers of jazz.
And while a representative for Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church asked for and was granted a deferral on any vote related to plans to renovate the congregation’s old home due to storm water management issues, city planning commissioners did ask that church leaders be present next month to fill them in on long-term plans to save the home of Buddy Bolden.
The fate of Bolden’s home, boarded up and vacant for a decade, has been an issue of contention between the church and preservationists for years.
The church bought the home at 2309 First St. in 2008. For year it has said it intends to renovate the home to honor the coronet player who is widely considered a founding father of the music that put New Orleans on the map. But historians and preservationists have argued that the church is all talk and no action.
Now that there are plans to renovate Greater St. Stephen’s fire-ravaged sanctuary, jazz historian and tour guide John McCusker said, there is no mention of the Bolden home.
“There are preservations, philanthropists and jazz fans around the world who are willing to take on the mantle and expense of saving this house and truly honoring its cultural import,” he told the planning commission.
“If the city’s history is any judge, we tore down Louis Armstrong’s home to build this building,” he continued, pointing to his surroundings inside the City Council chamber. “We tore down his birthplace to build the city’s traffic court building. We should not let this happen again.”
The Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger said she and her husband have made offers in the past to buy the home, only to have them ignored.
“They never once answered us,” she said. “We are so afraid … that we’re going to be witnessing the destruction by intentional neglect by this church of another important New Orleans landmark.”
The city cited Greater St. Stephen in March for demolition by neglect. A hearing date for that citation has not yet been set, according to city records.
Todd James, executive vice president of Mathes Brierre Architects, which drew up the plans for the rehabbed sanctuary building, acknowledged that the church did initially buy the home and a handful of others to tear them down for additional parking.
But, he said, that was before church leaders knew the history of Bolden’s home. Since then, he added, work has begun to try to find money to repair the home.
He also said that plans to tear down the house are no longer necessary since the prior number of parking spots have been grandfathered into the new plans for the church if it’s allowed to rebuild as a community center.
City Planning Commission documents say that staff members have suggested commissioners approve the plan since it would return the building to service and is in compliance with the city’s master plan.