What's all the hubbub about the Green Mansion? Someone told me it is going to be demolished for the new LSU/VA hospital, but some people are opposed. What is the story behind this building?
The 17-room mansion at 219 S. Miro St. was built by Smith Wendell Green, who was born a slave but as an adult pioneered the image of a successful black businessman in New Orleans. He made his fortune as a grocer, then became president of Liberty Independence Insurance and in 1908 was elected Supreme Chancellor of the Knights of Pythias of Louisiana, a fraternal organization he led for 27 years. That group provided brotherhood for its members, but also helped support widows and orphans and paid for burials.
In 1928, Green commissioned Weiss, Dreyfous & Seiferth, architects who later designed the Louisiana State Capitol, the governor's mansion and Charity Hospital, to build the mansion in a Neo-Classical Revival style with Craftsman influences.
"The house is important because, in a city like New Orleans, so well known for its mansions, this is the only remaining example of an early 20th-century mansion built in the city by an African American," says architect/historian Kenneth Bryant, who studied Green and his mansion for 15 years and now is working with its owners, hoping to move the house and renovate it.
The opulence of the mansion, its proximity to a middle-class white neighborhood along Canal Street and its reflection of an African-American's success as a businessman and community leader stuck in the craw of some people in the white community.
In his 2009 article, "A Crucial Piece of Black History Faces the Wrecking Ball in Louisiana," Bryant says Green received threats during construction, and the house was partially burned, reportedly by the Ku Klux Klan, while it was being built. Green completed the home in Mid-City anyway.
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 sits in the LSU/VA footprint, was not on the list of 28 historic homes to be moved to vacant lots in other parts of the city. The concern is that because Green's home is not on the list to be moved, it must be scheduled for demolition.
Ryan Berni, press secretary for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, says that is not necessarily so. "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 last week. "The intention is to save it. They're trying to find a resolution to this issue."
The process for moving homes from the LSU/VA site calls for state contractors (including the nonprofit Builders of Hope) to inspect buildings on the footprint to make sure they can be moved without major structural damage. The city hopes to move 100 historically or architecturally significant homes from the area, Berni says.
In June, Landrieu demanded the state halt demolitions of historic homes in the hospital footprint and move the homes to sites provided by nonprofits. The nonprofits are scheduled to rehab the houses and sell them at affordable prices.
The mansion on South Miro Street isn't the only architectural treasure Green left as his legacy. In 1909, he commissioned a seven-story Pythian Temple office building at 234 Loyola Ave. in the Central Business District. It cost $200,000 and is considered to be the most expensive building in the city at that time funded by African Americans. That building remains, although it has been covered with a modern facade.
Green died in 1946, apparently of old age, Bryant says. "The most fascinating thing about this house is that [the possible demolition] is really a slap in the face," he says. "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'."