A building once described by The Times Picayune as “the biggest enterprise ever attempted by the colored race of the United States,” is in the process of re-opening on the corner of Loyola and Gravier.
The building was originally conceived at the turn of the 20th century by the Colored Knights of the Pythians of Louisiana (also known as The Grand Lodge Knights of Pythians of Louisiana). A branch of the secret fraternal society originally founded in Washington D.C. in 1864, the Pythians functioned mostly as a benevolent association providing community support and ad-hoc life insurance to its Black members. In New Orleans, under the leadership of S.W. Green — a formerly enslaved man who made himself a millionaire — the CKPL commissioned the temple be built for $200,000.
The Pythian Temple resided in the building — the tallest in the area at the time — alongside the Negro Board of Trade, and African-American businesses including a Black-owned bank, Green’s Liberty Independent Life Insurance company (where Homer Plessy once worked), and the first incarnation of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper. The building’s bio also boasted a theater and an outdoor jazz venue, where legends like Louis Armstrong and Manuel Perez played.
In 1941, the Knights of Pythians lost the building during the Great Depression, and during World War II it notably became the personnel headquarters of Higgins Industries, which built the Higgins Boats with one of New Orleans’ first racially integrated staffs.
The building passed between owners until, in 1957, one decided to “modernize” its façade, covering it in an aluminum and porcelain ‘slipcover.’ In 1961, the building’s parking garage was raised to nine stories.
Most recently, ERG Enterprises, Green Coast Enterprises and Crescent City Community Land Trust, have co-developed the historic Pythian for adaptive reuse. This included removing the slipcover, restoring to the original façade, decorative masonry and terra cotta, and signature arched windows.
As the project neared completion, the Louisiana Office of the Lieutenant Governor—Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism officially recognized the Pythian Building as a historic landmark, honoring it with a permanent plaque across the street in Duncan Plaza.
“They wanted to commemorate the African-American tradition of the building as well as the Higgins era,” says Keith Plessy, co-founder of the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation, which sponsored the plaque. “That building has been through a lot, and we are trying to represent all of that.” To read the rest of this article at Louisiana Weekly, CLICK HERE!