Any good contest should have rules. In this case there were five, all simple and all reasonable.
First, the winning design would be for a fully fireproof building.
Second, the construction cost could not exceed $125,000, including air conditioning, plumbing, and other necessary systems.
Finally, the design had to be suitable for the climate and architectural style of a subtropical location, allow for seamless future expansion of the building, and include a special room designed for a particular purpose (more on this later).
These were the stipulations of the new art museum planned for New Orleans City Park, announced when the architectural competition to design it was announced in March 1910.
Just like that, the game was on. Seventeen architects submitted applications over the following weeks. Things would move surprisingly fast from there.
In July, a winner had been selected: the Chicago firm Lebenbaum & Marx, which counted among its two partners Samuel Marx, born in Natchez, Mississippi. Four months later, in November, the first piles were driven on the Beaux-Arts beauty – blending Greek-inspired elements with a tropical flair – that would house the current New Orleans Art Museum.
The idea had only begun a few months earlier, in late 1909, when aging local philanthropist and Jamaican-born sugar merchant Isaac Delgado decided to donate $150,000 – more than 4.5 million in 2022 – for the construction of a sufficiently worthy art museum in the city.
He would make other significant gifts to New Orleans, including an annex to the Charity Hospital. Land that was part of his former plantation was donated for the establishment of a trade school. Proceeds from this bequest helped found what is now Delgado Community College.
But the art museum project captured the city’s imagination.
As soon as it was announced, local newspapers published regular updates, on the selection of the site, on the progress of construction, on the donation of various art treasures to the museum’s collection.
On December 16, 1911 – only a year after the sinking of this first pillar – it opened its doors in a ceremony filled with pomp, circumstance and not lacking in civic pride.
Architecture worthy of a temple
The weather that day was cold and gray, and a platform erected in front of the building partially blocked it. Yet nothing hid the beauty of what the Picayune declared “the first temple of art in the city”.
Built by contractor Julius Koch on a steel frame, its exterior is mostly cream-colored Bedford limestone. A set of wide marble stairs leads from the fountain to a portico supported by six two-storey Ionic columns.
On either side of the central portico is a wing, each decorated with a frieze reproducing a scene from the Parthenon. On the floor below each frieze is an oversized and ornate terracotta urn.
Running down the front of the façade, near the roofline, are the names of 22 renowned artists engraved. Above: a roof of green tiles crowned with winged sculptures.
“The three-part composition, with a center marked by columns, looks a bit like the garden facade of the Petit Trianon at the Palace of Versailles, but the columns of the museum stand in front of a recessed portico, which creates a greater interplay .of light and shadow throughout the building,” wrote the Society of Architectural Historians.
An opening with borrowed art
Inside, additional Ionic columns line a two-story, sky-lit sculpture hall, with a collection of exhibition halls on either side. A grand staircase at the end leads to additional exhibition spaces on the second floor.
“The Isaac Delgado Museum of Art, a gift from a great philanthropist to the city he loves so much, and the magnificent building, with its marble terrace, tall (pillars), heavy cornice and frieze, is like an image of a rich temple in Rome or Greece, conjured up from the past,” the Daily Picayune wrote as it set the scene.
Officially, the fledgling museum had only nine pieces in its permanent collection, although residents from across the city lent some 400 private works to fill the galleries for the thousands of visitors expected on opening day.
A notable absence this first day: the namesake of the building, who fell ill. Just 2½ weeks later, on January 4, 1912, 72-year-old Delgado died at his Phillip Street home, apparently from complications of diabetes and nephritis.
His presence would be felt at the museum anyway, in the form of this special first-floor exhibition room – nicknamed the Delgado Room – reserved for his personal collection, 110 pieces in all, which he left to the museum at his dead. It included statues, paintings, fine furniture, a collection of Sèvres vases and Satsuma porcelain.
A growing legacy
In 1971, around the same time the museum opened its three-level Wisner Education Wing, the museum’s name was changed to the New Orleans Museum of Art, but Delgado’s legacy lives on.
It was expanded again in 1993, and the 11-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden – which contains over 90 works of art to date – has further expanded its footprint.
Over the years, the museum has exhibited the work of artists ranging from Pablo Picasso and Edgar Degas to Walt Disney and Jim Henson.
For four months in late 1977 and early 1978, the successful “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition attracted 870,000 visitors.
Sources: The Times-Picayune Archive; Society of Architectural Historians; NOMA.org; “The New Orleans Art Museum: The First Seventy-Five Years” by Prescott Dunbar
Know of a building in New Orleans that deserves to be featured in this column, or are you just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected]
It was 1976 and the sisters were sagging.
When we think of the wealth of historic architecture in New Orleans, we usually think of the postcard-worthy vistas around Jackson Square: the…
He didn’t build it. He never visited it or even wrote about it.