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The Knights of Pythias and 234 Loyola

By Green Coast on 29 Sep 2015

When Green Coast and its project partner Crescent City Community Land Trust began considering redeveloping the Pythian building at 234 Loyola Avenue, they were already aware of its distinctive architecture, but when they discovered its rich history that’s when they became convinced that the Pythian must be preserved, adding a new chapter to an incredible story.

“Someone said I could get a Ph.D. in the Pythian; that’s how much I’ve researched it says,” Green Coast development manager Regina La Macchia. “But it drew me in as I learned more and more about the Knights of Pythias.”

The U.S. Congress established the Order of the Knights of Pythias in 1864 at the urging of President Lincoln. It grew to be one of the nation’s largest fraternal orders and in 1880, the Grand Lodge Colored Knights of Pythias of Louisiana was formed. A self-made millionaire and former slave, S.W. Green was elected as the order’s Supreme Chancellor in 1908. Under his direction, the seven-story Pythian Temple was built in 1909 for $200,000 by prominent architecture firm Owen, Diboll, and Goldstein.

The building quickly became a hub for New Orleans African American community. The temple housed offices, lodge rooms, a barbershop, a theater, a bank, an opera house, and an auditorium, and tenants included many African American businesses such as the Industrial Life Insurance Company of Louisiana, the Peoples Benevolent Industrial Life Insurance Company of Louisiana, Louisiana Weekly and the Negro Board of Trade.

The building wasn’t used simply for business, and the famous rooftop garden hosted numerous Knights of Pythias dances. In 1923, the order celebrated paying off all of its debts by adding a double height eighth floor with stately Palladian windows on the facade with a white belt course and white parapet on the roof, and the rooftop garden was enclosed. It grew into a hotbed for the city’s jazz scene, hosting numerous legendary greats such as Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Orchestra Band, Danny Barker and bandleader Manuel Perez, who led the in-house Pythian Orchestra. It was renamed “Piron’s Garden of Joy” in 1927 and continued showcasing music until the 1930’s when the Great Depression and the order’s bankruptcy forced its closure.

The Knights of Pythias had to sell off the building in 1941 to settle outstanding tax debts, and in 1943, Higgins Industries leased it. President Dwight D. Eisenhower later described Andrew Higgins, who built the famous Higgin’s boat (a landing craft for vehicles and personnel), as “the man who won the war for us.” With World War II ending in 1945, the manufacturing company closed its doors and operations at the Pythian.

The building was modernized in 1957 with a metal slipcover, also known as cladding, in order to match the recently built New Orleans City Hall. For the next four decades, it was known as the Civic Center Building and housed a district court, a bank and medical offices.
Unfortunately, the Pythian sat unoccupied for more than a decade, starting in the 2000’s. Following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, the building flooded and was later gutted. But as Green Coast and CCCLT found out when the slipcover was removed, there was a jewel underneath. The project is on schedule and expected to be completed by early 2017.

“It’s great to have an opportunity like this, preserving and reinvigorating a stately building.” La Macchia says. “It has an incredible history and this project will ensure a bright future.”

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