My love affair with the S.W. Green house is, perhaps, my fondest memory of New Orleans. Discovering this architectural gem was the crowning achievement of my college years. I discovered – or I should say – stumbled upon the Green mansion while skateboarding one hot, sunny afternoon in 1996, my junior year. I’d been living, to my Mom’s dismay, off-campus in the French Quarter. (This was early in the movement to locate and preserve African American historic sites.)
Sporting a tie-dyed t-shirt, Bass Pro Shops cap, Ralph Lauren shorts and well-worn New Balance sneakers, I skateboarded past whitewashed shotgun houses lining the avenues of Lower Mid-City New Orleans. Blazing through the intersection of Cleveland and South Miro, whose only landmarks were a rusty car-repair shop and an unkempt parking lot, I noticed a curious anomaly: a large green, Mediterranean-tiled roof peeking high above its humdrum neighbours. I decided to backtrack and have a look.
Walking towards the mysterious structure, an image of my great aunt Rowena’s estate in Virginia flashed into mind. I’d grown up there in what folks referred to as a mansion, but my family simply called “Brooks Cottage.” It was built in 1920 by my late uncle Mac’s first wife and her first husband, “Uncle J.C.” Although they were well-to-do, racial covenants prohibited them from building in a more exclusive part of town.
Could this also be, I wondered, a big old Afro-American house? Why else would anyone build such a grand home in this area? With each step down South Miro, I began t see it was indeed a house. Its manicured yard was an oasis of pruned hedges and bougainvillea within a semi-blighted disturbia. Like two hands hiding a bashful face, a pair of trees planted close to the house partially hid the entry porch from view.
Using my growing knowledge of architecture, I deduced that the house was Neo-Classical Revival, with a Southern-style portico bristling with a Craftsman detail. I rang the bell. A housekeeper answered. “I’m an architecture student at Tulane,” I said. “I was just wondering if…” She stopped me and went to call the gentleman of the house.
“May I help you” said the Rev. N.P. Williams, in a stern voice, while staring down at me from the balcony above. “I wanted to know if this house was built by an African American,” I replied. Without hesitation, he answered, “Why yes, young man. It was built by S.W. Green, the richest black man in New Orleans.
Here, a summary of the life of S.W. Green deserves a digression in my narrative:
Smith Wendell Green, the man who built the mansion on Miro Street, was born a slave in 1861 on a cotton plantation near Waterproof LA. A successful businessman, Green was a grocer, printer, saloon keeper and president of the Liberty Independent Life Insurance Co. A civic and political leader, Green went as a delegate to Republican National Conventions from 1896 to 1920. In New Orleans, he advocated for better schools for black children and fought the segregation of Charity Hospital. He was a benefactor for the Times-Picayune newspaper’s Colored Toy and Doll Fund.
Green also served as a charter member and international officer of the Colored Knights of Pythias, an African American social fraternity. His affiliation with the Pythias organization provided opportunity for his social and business advancement when Jim Crow laws restricted options for black people.
In addition to his own mansion, Green built the $1.4 million Knights of Pythias building in Chicago, the Pythian Bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the Pythian Temple – a 7 storey building on Loyola Avenue in New Orleans. Green died in New Orleans in 1946.
Reverend Williams invited me to tour his 14-room manse. I admired the interior, doors, and windows trimmed with pediments and flat casings, baseboards detailed with dapper plinth blocks. Old-fashioned sofas and club chairs lined the living room around a Karastan-like rug. The dining room was well proportioned and bright; it acted as an anteroom, charged with funneling staff to the pantry, butlery, scullery and kitchen – a state-of-the-art cookery, unheard of for blacks in the early 20thcentury.
Upstairs, the master suite comprised a bedroom chamber, sleeping porch, boudoir and separate bathroom. Sitting in a recliner, Rev. Williams, a sedentary 84-year-old chap, explained that no blacks lived in this part of town when the house was built in 1928, and that it was set afire (possibly by the Ku Klux Klan) during its construction. These acts, said Williams, “Demonstrated the ravages of segregation –how unreasonable and devastating.”
The next day I shared my find with Professor Ellen Weiss. Despite a less-than-stellar first two years at Tulane, which in retrospect should be a purple-hazed fog, I had possibly discovered the best example of early 20thcentury Afro-American residential architecture in New Orleans. But who was the architect?
Suddenly focused, I went on a scholarly chase, which included walks to City Hall and the public library. But, no luck. I’d nearly given up when at Tulane’s Southeastern Architectural Archive, I found an obscure file labeled “Weiss, Dreyfous & Seiferth Architects (the firm that designed the Louisiana State Capitol and governor’s mansion). There it was – a notation, “S.W. Green Residence, location unknown.” Eureka! Mystery solved!
Consequently, last year, when I read that the house’s neighbourhood would be demolished, I found myself unable to concentrate on anything else. I decided to write an op-ed about the situation. How could I live with myself if I remained silent?
My article, “A Crucial Piece of Black History Faces the Wrecking Ball in Louisiana,” is an indictment of the historical amnesia that allows such buildings to be demolished.
People then started contacting me – first historians, and then concerned citizens and the press, which made politicians take notice. Leon Waters, a community activist and chair of the Louisiana Museum of African American History, organized a press conference. And, in summer 2010, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced that $3.2 million would be set aside to move historic houses, including the Green mansion, off the site of the future Veterans Administration Hospital.
Hallelujah! The house is saved and moved, intact, to the corner of Banks and South Rocheblave, where it will be restored to its former glory. All this, I’d like to think because of a little essay that made a great impact.
Kenneth Bryant practices architecture in New York City, focusing on traditional and contemporary residences. This article is adapted from the Tulanian
, a quarterly magazine published by Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.