The deteriorating Upper 9th Ward former music hall Club Desire, where New Orleans' music legends played 75 years ago, is headed for demolition by the city of New Orleans. Preservationists and the granddaughter of the club's founder bemoan the failure to preserve the building, which hosted numerous performances by New Orleans rhythm and blues icons including Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew.
"It is a sad loss for our city," said Patricia Gay, executive director of Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, a nonprofit that works to preserve historic architecture and neighborhoods. "Restored, it could have helped to perpetuate our jazz heritage. So yes, we have missed that opportunity."
Gay said she was unsure the building could be saved; safety concerns about the crumbling structure are what spurred the city to propose action.
The building at 2604 Desire St. near Law Street was built in the 1940s. The faded pink structure now sits behind tall, overgrown grass and weeds, graffiti covers its weathered walls and broken blocks of glass border an entrance.
Dana Buefort, granddaughter of Charles Armstead, who was sole proprietor of Club Desire, said she remembers when "The Club," as regulars called it, was a vibrant and important part of the community.
"There have been so many greats that performed onstage at The Club," she said. "Fats [Domino] writes about Club Desire in his autobiography. He also mentions how my grandfather gave him his first car."
Armstead "believed in and supported that community" and owned many houses near The Club, Buefort said. After her grandfather died, the property was sold but still operated as a music club.
"When he passed, my mother ran it for many years," Buefort said. "The last time I saw The Club open was in the '70s, but my family didn't own it then."
Buefort, a Boston resident who visits New Orleans frequently, said she would like to see the building become a community center honoring her grandfather.
"My wish is that they would turn it into the Charles "Charlie" Armstead Community Center, a library, a restaurant or maybe even a health center," Buefort said.
"Club Desire should be old enough to be deemed a historical site and that should be enough to save it from destruction," she said.
The city's Office of Code Enforcement proposed demolition of the building, and the Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory Committee, which oversees demolitions, considered the issue during a meeting June 1. At the meeting, committee member Helen Jones noted that there previously had been interest in saving the structure.
"Club Desire should be old enough to be deemed a historical site, and that should be enough to save it from destruction."
— Dana Beufort, granddaughter of Club Desire founder Charles Armstead
"Some group was interested in purchasing it and making a church out of it, but there's been no action in 10 years," said Hillary Carrere, a Neighborhood Conservation District Review Committee board member. "The wall — it's a question of whether it's going to fall inside or on the sidewalk."
The building is owned by Gilbert Bell Sr., according to city records. The committee noted that no one was present to speak on the building's behalf, and the panel voted in favor of demolition.
Gay said in an interview later that one citizen tried to save the site in 2008, but the effort fell short. The potential demolition of the former Club Desire should be a wake-up call, she added.
"The city was still working so hard on recovery [when the issue came up in 2008], but public policy should have been in place to stabilize the building for the future," Gay said. "The area is totally desolate, but a plan anchored by the restoration of this building could have brought revitalization to the area."
Gay added that a strong restoration plan should be put in place for preserving similar sites. "At some point we should discuss an architectural and historical survey of the entire city, which would be a major undertaking," she said.
The demolition still must be approved by the City Council, and District D City Councilman Jared Brossett, who represents the area that includes the building, said he would like to see something positive come of the site.
"There is always some tension between issues of health, safety and blight remediation versus issues of preservation," Brossett said. "As in all cases like this, I would love to see a positive future for this site, where it soon becomes a neighborhood gem once again."