Stroll down Magazine Street, buzzing with shoppers and diners visiting the local boutiques, renowned restaurants or sultry bars lining the neighborhood’s commercial thoroughfare, or relax in the shade of a liveoak tree in Coliseum Square, or one of the Lower Garden District’s other pocket parks. No matter where you are, you will meet residents walking their dogs, chatting with neighbors or playing in the grass. The Lower Garden District is a diverse neighborhood whose streets are alive with a passionate population of residents who simply love where they live.
And why wouldn’t they? The proximity to the amenities of both the Central Business District — the city’s skyline and the lights of the Mississippi River Bridge can be seen from the second and third floors of homes and apartments above Magazine Street’s bustling businesses — and Uptown alike is entirely convenient. And its offerings are one-of-akind, from historic churches that rival the cathedrals of Europe to old-world artisans and service providers who operate shops within the neighborhood, such as Irish barber Aidan Gill, whose barbershop offers Guinness and whiskey with hot-towel shaves.
Laid out in 1806-07 by Barthelemy Lafon as an open, semi-urban system of
interrelated parks with basins, fountains and canals, the Lower Garden
District was “one of the earliest expressions of the Greek Revival to appear
in New Orleans,” according to noted architect Samuel Wilson, Jr. The streets
still bear the names of the nine muses of Greek mythology, and many of the
mid-19th century Greek Revival and Italianate homes built in this classical
setting remain. German and Irish immigrants began to populate the
neighborhood in the 1840s, defining the neighborhood for many generations.
The St. Thomas Housing Project was constructed from 1939-1947, further
altering the neighborhood. During the Depression, many of the mansions turned into boarding houses and apartments. The neighborhood further declined as residents moved to the suburbs after WWII to take advantage of lower government insured mortgage interest rates that were not available to most inner-city homebuyers. The construction of the Mississippi River Bridge in 1956 fostered still more decline, as an onramp was constructed over a neighborhood park and commuter traffic clogged the streets. In 1970, young “urban pioneers” began to move into the neighborhood, attracted by potentially fine homes in a park setting. They began buying the mansions on and around Coliseum Square Park and reverting them back to single family homes from their chopped-up, multi-apartment states. When the State of Louisiana announced plans for a second bridge between Race and Felicity streets, these pioneers fought the proposal, placed the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and defeated the second span that same year. Thanks to their tireless efforts, the Camp Street bridge ramp was removed in 1994. Preservation of the neighborhood has been further bolstered through the years by the publication of the first Friends of the Cabildo New Orleans Architecture series book — Vol. 1, The Lower Garden District— bringing greater public awareness to the area’s incredible architectural offerings, and by the Preservation Resource Center’s efforts in the late 1980s and 1990s, via their Operation Comeback department, to revitalize whole swaths of the neighborhood. These efforts made homeownership and renovations more accessible to new residents, and helped turn many blocks throughout the neighborhood around.
Newcomers continue to work to preserve this important historic neighborhood. The population continues to grow, and property values are higher than ever. It remains diverse, however: a mixture of young and old, families and single people, mansions and affordable housing, all living amongst schools, churches, shops, and all that the Lower Garden District has to offer.
Many thanks to the Preservation Resource Center for providing this wonderful information! (www.prcno.org)