NEW ORLEANS — On a muggy autumn French Quarter morning, away from bawdy Bourbon Street and within earshot of the calliope on the steamer Natchez, residents sat on their stoops drinking rich café au lait, reading the newspaper, or watching the passing traffic.
Replace the cars with horses and carriages and the scene could well be from a couple of hundred years ago.
The old city remains vital with a steady mix of residents and small businesses mostly thanks to the Vieux Carre Commission, which regulates changes to the 2,500 to 3,000 buildings in the small section of New Orleans near the Mississippi River. The commission has control over every part of a building's exterior, not just those that can be seen from the street.
A rotting sill in the back of the house cannot be replaced without permission. A wall can't be painted or a window removed or a roof changed without permission. It's a sore point for some, but the results of such strict control are noticeable.
The nation's second-oldest regulatory body for a historic district has been riding herd on the old buildings in the French Quarter and the people who work and live there for 75 years this month. Only the Preservation Society of Charleston, formed in 1931, is older than the New Orleans commission. Both pre-date the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which was founded in 1949.
When the commission was formed during the Great Depression, the 85-square-block Quarter that was laid out by French settlers in 1718 had become a collection of derelict buildings. The idea of preserving an entire area was novel.
"What was considered ahead of time was that up until then American preservation was preservation of individual structures, Mount Vernon for instance," said Walter Gaillas, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Back then, nobody thought of it as, 'Gee, maybe there is another way to preserve a whole community.' Now there are hundreds of commissions like that around the country."
The French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carre (Old Square) as it was once called, had fallen on hard times by 1936. Once-grand townhouses were tenements, and city officials were seriously considering tearing down the majestic old buildings that frame Jackson Square — Upper Pontalba and the Cabildo — where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803.
Then along came the Vieux Carre Commission, dedicated to preservation while keeping the area a functioning part of the community.
"The commission is not about keeping things looking pretty but addressing what's appropriate to character and quality of all the parts that make up this neighborhood," said Vieux Carre Commission Director Lary Hesdorffer. "We have the benefit of not being frozen in time."
The idea, Hesdorffer said, is not to return the French Quarter — which is a real neighborhood with people living there and real businesses operating on its streets — to what it was when it was founded, but to keep the historical presence this generation inherited.
"We have many different styles in the French Quarter from different eras," Hesdorffer said. "We're now treasuring buildings that have been renovated along the way."
As an example, Hesdorffer points to the famous "lace" iron work on French Quarter balconies, which came in the 1800s, replacing the original plain ironwork.
"That sort of layering thing is what makes this historic district particularly rich because we represent some things that date to the colonial period," he said. "But not many are in pure form. Over the years, they've been updated, changed."
The worth of the commission is easy to see, said John Klingman, a professor at the Tulane University School of Architecture.
"The easiest way to see the value is to look at the parts of the city around the French Quarter where they have no control," Klingman said. "Canal Street is a mish-mash, Rampart Street was the home of jazz and now it's almost all parking lots."
Nine volunteer members and a staff of five make up the commission. The volunteers are appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council. Three of the volunteers are from a list submitted by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. One is chosen from a list from the Chamber of Commerce, one from the Louisiana Historical Society, one from the Louisiana State Museum Board, and three at-large members.
Although French Quarter residents appreciate the preservation all around them, sometimes the strict rules, which Hesdorffer said are designed to "guide them to make that building as treasured as it should be for the next generation," can chafe.
Earl Bernhardt has operated six bars in the Quarter for 27 years and lives half a block from Bourbon Street. He just received a citation against one of his businesses.
First Bernhardt said, the commission told him he could not hang a group of flags, one advertising his trademark drink, the "Hand-grenade," from the front of his building. So he moved to the windows of the vacant second floor above the bar.
"So now they're telling me they can't hang there either," Bern hardt said. "They don't enforce these rules evenly or fairly. They tell me not to put out a sandwich board on the sidewalk, but just across the street they have a couple of them."
There's appreciation as well.
At Antoine's Restaurant — founded in 1840 — preservation is a way of life. The meticulously maintained restaurant offers up fine Creole dining and a healthy helping of history as well. CEO Rick Blount said he is grateful every day for the Vieux Carre Commission.
"I look at the buildings around me and think about what they would be like if there was no oversight," Blount said. "We have a treasure and we are still surrounded by them, thank God."
Glade Bilby has lived in his 1934 townhouse for 36 years, and went through a prolonged battle with the commission over his plan to install solar panels on his roof. The panels would be hard to see, but could be seen from at least one vantage point and the commission turned him down.
Bilby appealed to the city council, which granted him permission.
"But I applaud the commission," Bilby said. "It's a yeoman's job keeping some character to these streets, because you always have someone like me who doesn't fall in line."
Linda Kiel found out the hard way when she tried to replace a small section of roof in the back of the 1832 Creole cottage she had moved into.
"We got a very nasty letter and stop-work order from the commission and they were threatening to fine us," Kiel said. Although she ended up having to pay an architect $1,600 in order for the work to be approved, she said she has since come to appreciate the commission and its work.
"Look at where we live," she said. "It's a very special place, and it wouldn't be this way if someone wasn't looking out for it."