A year after Katrina

Through extensive media coverage, the public gradually became aware that the area of New Orleans most heavily frequented by visitors – the French Quarter, the Garden District, and the Central Business District – survived Hurricane Katrina in far better shape than certain residential neighborhoods. Wind and rain took a toll on roofs and magnificent old trees, but the Crescent City familiar to tourists did not disappear under water.

When people were allowed back into the central part of town, owners began reopening museums, shops and galleries as quickly as possible. Auction houses checked stock and rescheduled sales. The success of all these institutions, however, depends in various degrees on the return and continuing presence of both city residents and waves of visitors from elsewhere.

The staff at M.S. Rau, an antique firm on Royal Street with a national reputation, was back at work by the beginning of October 2005. The nearby Historic New Orleans Collection opened on Oct. 10, followed on Oct. 28 by the Cabildo portion of the Louisiana State Museum.

In a truly gutsy move, New Orleans Auction Galleries went ahead with a sale at their Magazine Street saleroom on Nov. 18-20. Their May 2005 auction of the A. Hays Town collection had been a tremendous success, setting several new records for Southern artists. But who was left to buy antiques after Katrina? President Jean Vidos was surprised to find even more bidders registered for the November sale than in May.

“If you asked me the day before the sale, how did I think it was going to be, I would have told you I had no clue,” she later commented. “I got up here, and it was packed. People were hanging off the rafters. With so many places closed, there was nothing else to do.” Antiques served as relaxation, reunion and spectator sport.

New Orleans Auction resumed a full schedule of sales in 2006, culminating in an extraordinary May auction this year featuring the Martha Ann and Ray Samuel Collection, strong on Southern art and riverboat memorabilia. The two-day event brought in excess of $7 million, a new city record. One extraordinary lot in the second session – the Cusworth Suite of circa-1760 English chairs – sold for $720,000.

U.K. dealers – anxious to get a look at the chairs and their original upholstery – flew over, stayed in hotels, and dined out on local cuisine. Vidos also noted, “Dealers told me they were in their shops, spending money. The market is functioning and functioning well in a place that everybody perceives as just history.”

The other big game in town, the Neal Auction Company, resumed sales Dec. 3-4 with a rescheduled Louisiana Purchase Auction, which was held in an arts complex three hours north in Jackson, Miss. This successful standing-room-only sale was followed by a return to full schedule at their Magazine Street showroom this year. The 2006 Louisiana Purchase auction – focused. as always, on great Southern art and artifacts – will be held on Sept. 30-Oct. 1.
Although the Associated Press recently noted that New Orleans has opened around 28,000 of its hotel rooms, auction houses are in a unique position because they can operate without worrying about which convention is in town that weekend. Both New Orleans Auction and Neal’s promotional campaigns are so strong that bidders from around the world are aware of their merchandise, leading to heavy phone bidding. Outside money pays the firms’ employees and brings funds to consignors, which they can spend around town on living expenses, repairs and more great stuff.

Phone bidding alone could not make it work – floor competition brings sales to life. Fortunately, seats on the floor have been filled with potential buyers from the local area and visitors driving in from cities as far away as Houston and Atlanta. Most of all, collectors are friendly people who like to congregate around antiques and share stories. A lady at one sale was still getting estimates from contractors and told a friend, “Twelve feet of water on the first floor – both houses.” Auctions have also done well through selling replacement furnishings to homeowners in this sort of situation.

Museums, like restaurants, hotels and shops, are more dependent on a combination of visitor foot traffic and the financial support of local residents for their success. The Historic New Orleans Collection, a foundation with exhibition and research facilities at 533 Royal Street in the center of the French Quarter, was one of the first institutions to reopen.

In a recent interview, John Lawrence, director of museum programs, said, “We came back to work last year on Oct. 3, and we opened to the public on Oct. 10. We had relatively little damage, and enough staff were in circumstances where they could come back to work. And the fact that everyone stayed employed – they were still on salary during the time off – made it possible.”

He continued, “The year has had its ups and downs. When we first opened, we didn’t get tremendous public response simply because their wasn’t a lot of public here. Those that were here had more immediate needs – they were meeting with insurance adjustors. When we opened in October, a lot of our first visitors were people here working with various recovery agencies – Louisiana state troopers or National Guardsmen or people from Habitat for Humanity.”

“In those early days (after Katrina), there was not a whole lot of what the world knows as New Orleans’ culture on view. There were a limited number of musical performances or restaurants where you could eat the cuisine of the region.” But the Historic New Orleans Collection was determined to resume their schedule of exhibitions and programs, “not only for our own institutional mission, but for whoever was here to take advantage of that.”

Lawrence noted, “We certainly recognize that, as an institution that was able to open its doors, there was a need we could fill beyond our nominal mission. In November, we had a welcome home event to serve as a common point where people could gather and see each other. Everyone could get a sense of who was in town and how they were doing.” Between 300 and 400 people attended this event.

Another project the institution pursued fairly early on was what they called the “restoration roadshows” which took conservators and experts in various fields out for presentations in shopping malls. Lawrence explains, “People could come in with the damaged stuff or photographs of it and get an opinion on what could be done, if anything. Everything from family albums to furniture to paintings, the personal things that people deemed important in their lives that had been affected by the flooding, the rains, the mold.”

The museum also got a good response – more than 400 people – for their annual symposium on the topic of Common Routes, held prior to a March 14-June 30 exhibition on the historic relationship between Louisiana and Haiti (St. Domingue, in French). “We had a sizeable attendance in past years,” says Lawrence, “but didn’t know what to expect, so we were pleased. Typically we would have done a big mailing with registration materials in November – but the mail system in late 2005 was not reliable in that sense. We had no notion which part of our mailing list was still active.”

Various institutions have presented revealing exhibits of photographs related to Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans Museum of Art, which sustained some structural damage, reopened on March 3, with Katrina Exposed: A Community of Photographs which runs through Sept. 3 and is accompanied by a catalog available from the museum bookstore.

The current exhibition at the Historic New Orleans Collection – City of Hope: New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina continuing through Nov. 4 – includes both recent images and historic photographs, prints, maps and books that document similar disasters over the last 300 years. John Lawrence said, “There are a number of historical references in the exhibition that not only deal with the hurricanes and the way they have visited the city, but the whole issue of flooding and rainfall and how the city has dealt with that in a historical sense. In the 19th century and early 20th century, the great fear was flooding due to a break in the Mississippi River levee. That is not much of an issue today. It’s far less likely than what did happen.”

The exhibition provides a much-needed lens of past events through which to view what happened in 2005. Lawrence concluded, “It’s not that New Orleans didn’t flood in those same areas in the 19th century when water came in through the lake and through the eastern part of the city, but those areas were not populated. So the consequences were more water got added to the swamp lands. The areas on the lake were still a coastal marsh, but within the urban limits of the city. It wasn’t until the 1920s through land reclamation projects along the lake that the land became available for building. That created a whole different problem.”

Walking from Esplanade to Canal Street across the French Quarter or driving past the great houses of the Garden District, visitors today can enjoy the same sense of history well preserved that New Orleans has always presented. The American Library Association made a positive impact when it brought 18,000 visitors to the city for a convention in June. Collectors and preservationists from all parts of the country can offer their support by returning to the city for a visit during the coming year. An antique purchase will transfer a small piece of that history into your own personal collection.