A rich piece of Black New Orleans history and architecture was snatched from the jaws of destruction recently when the Mid-City home of Smith Wendell Green, a Black millionaire who made his fortune as a grocer in the early 20th century, was successfully "lifted" from its site at 219 S. Miro St. in mid-February. The saving of the S.W. Green House was secured after state preservationists and the City of New Orleans worked with the U.S. Veterans Administration to save the historic home from demolition. Built in 1928 by the architects of the Louisiana Governor's Mansion and Charity Hospital, the S.W. Green House is considered a rare example of opulent turn-of-the-century African-American architecture.
Terry Mogilles and Paul Sylvester, proprietor of Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, currently own the property. "When we found out the history of the home, it blew us away," Sylvester said. "That only made us more determined to make sure this house is saved."
Born in 1861 as the son of a Black slave, S.W. Green started in business as a grocer and later became the president of the Liberty Independence Insurance Company. He was appointed Supreme Chancellor of the Colored Knights of Pythias, a benevolent society. Green was instrumental in the construction of the Pythian Temple, a seven-story office building at 234 Loyola Avenue. Built in 1909, the temple was a site for African- American commerce and cultural activity. Jazz legends like Sidney Bechet and Papa Celestin played music in the temple's roof garden.
Green later commissioned the architectural firm of Weiss, Dreyfous & Seiforth to design his new home, a 17-room, neo-classical-style mansion. At some point during construction, the Ku Klux Klan reportedly tried to burn the house. Green refused to be intimidated by the KKK and others who objected to a Black New Orleans businessman building and owning such an impressive piece of property that challenged the notion of Black inferiority and white superiority while rivaling homes built by successful white families in the area.
Green died in 1946, apparently of old age, New York architect Kenneth Bryant says. "The most fascinating thing about this house is that [the possible demolition] is really a slap in the face," Bryant said several years ago, while the landmark was still in danger of being demolished. "Green's choice of that location was kind of breaking color barriers in an area that was next to middle-class whites. When he built the house, it was bigger than most, if not all, of his neighbors."
Bryant said preservation of the S.W. Green House is vital to New Orleans' African-American architecture and history.
Bryant, a Tulane graduate, has been credited with rediscovering the rich history and significance of the S.W. Green House in the mid-1990s while still a student at Tulane and has dedicated a great deal of time and energy to studying the home and its builder ever since. He shared his research with readers in a 2009 article titled "A Crucial Piece of Black History Faces the Wrecking Ball in Louisiana."
Since first learning of the S.W. Green House some 15 years ago, Bryant has become one of its most outspoken advocates, fighting for its preservation as an important piece of New Orleans' Black architecture and history.
Because of Green's importance to the African-American community, his home came to symbolize how Blacks could achieve the American Dream. That is the source of the current controversy. The house, which sat in the LSU/VA footprint, was not on the initial list of 28 historic homes to be moved to vacant lots in other parts of the city. Some residents and preservationists expressed concern that because Green's mansion was not on the list of houses to be moved, it must have been scheduled for demolition.
Ryan Berni, press secretary for New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, denied that the city wanted to demolished the S.W. Green House. "The city and preservationists would like to see that house saved, but because it's so large, they're trying to work out the logistics," he said. "The intention is to save it. They're trying to find a resolution to this issue."
Efforts to save the Green mansion paid off in mid-February with its successful removal from the LSU/VA hospital footprint, meaning that future generations of New Orleanians will be able to enjoy and appreciate the significance of the important piece of the city's rich Black historical legacy.
Alden McDonald, president and CEO of Liberty Bank & Trust Company, said the bank is honored to help preserve this slice of history. "The accomplishments of the Black community in the early 20th century were significant. There was a lot of entrepreneurship," McDonald said.
"Just think, S.W. Green was the richest Black man in New Orleans with a fortune of over $10 million. He also owned a major commercial building downtown. And now, we are fortunate to have an entrepreneurial couple that want to save the S.W. Green House and ensure the survival of his legacy. Liberty Bank will be working with the owners of this property to not only preserve history, but to showcase it."
"This house was built only 60 years after the Emancipation Proclamation," Bryant pointed out. "Children can read books about slavery and Jim Crow and the struggle for equal rights, but the importance of the Green House is that future generations can literally see what someone - who looks like them - was able to accomplish despite all of the obstacles."
McDonald said he looks forward to working with Sylvester and Mogilles to help restore their home in its new location.
"Our mission at Liberty is not only to preserve the culture, to preserve the heritage," he said, "but also to afford the African- American community an opportunity to participate in the economic development of this city and its neighborhoods."
Photo courtesy of Becky Houtman on www.flickr.com.
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