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Historic Pythian finds new life as residential complex

24th April 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

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.”

The new Pythian will include 69 apartments.

Twenty-five of the apartments will be permanently offered at lower rates for workers earning between $30,000 and $70,000: Fifteen units are to be rented to those earning up to 80 percent of the area median income, while 10 will be reserved for tenants earning up to 120 percent of area median income.

The remaining 44 apartments will be market rate for middle-income workers who don’t qualify for discounted housing.

A one-bedroom apartment at Pythian will cost $800 to $850 for those earning 80 percent of the median income; $1,175 to $1,225 for tenants making 120 percent; and market rate rents starting at $1,700. And the prices are set to stay.

“When you look around town at affordable housing, there’s a chance it will not always be affordable,” says Julius Kimbrough Jr., executive director of the African American-led Crescent City Community Land Trust, referencing the American Can Company’s affordability which recently expired, as well as the many homeowners now eligible to sell the homes they bought partly with public dollars under the new Soft Second Mortgage plan.

The Pythian project was financed with $3.5 million in equity, $17.5 million in debt, $5 million through new markets tax credits and nearly $12 million in state and federal historic tax credits — for a total of $35 million.

Under the community land trust model, the apartments must stay affordable for at least the next 50 years.

“We believe in the notion of permanent affordability,” says Kimbrough. “It means when we use public funds to develop, that real estate will always be offered at a subsidized rate because of those philanthropic matters–which in New Orleans means mostly serving black people.”

The building is reportedly 90 percent complete and is set for a May 12 grand opening. Tenants have already begun moving in. “One of our national treasures, Dorothea “Dodie” Smith Simmons, a trainer for the Freedom Riders during the height of the Civil Rights movements, she is one of the first residents of Pythian,” says Kimbrough, adding, “She was displaced out of American Can company.”

To cater to these expected older residents, the building will feature an Access Health Louisiana clinic, plus Magnolia Physical Therapy. “The residents are going to be a lot of senior citizens, so this is essential,” says Kimbrough. “Miss Simmons, for instance, is gonna need as much help as possible.”

Kimbrough says that amenities like the building’s bike wash help fulfill the co-developers stated goals: “We are bringing affordability to Pythians because we’re seeing low to moderate income African-American families not living in historic parts of the city anymore,” says Kimbrough.

“You’re beginning to see poverty accumulate where properties are cheap, like the Lower 9, some parts of Algiers. We chose this location because we are promoting urban living. The bike wash and stuff is urban; you live so close to home and work that you can bike everywhere. We’re trying to create a building that is affordable and environmentally-friendly, so people can also live where the jobs are.”

The new Pythian will also feature a market with 19 food vendors in a St. Roch Market-style food court slated to open in late summer. Signed up so far are South American-style food truck La Cocinita, Frencheeze Food Truck, the Squeezed juice bar, and the Broadmoor cafe Laurel Street Bakery. The food court is curated by Amy Chan, former director of operations for Dinner Lab, whose parents reportedly opened the West Bank’s first Chinese restaurant. Chan and the Pythian’s culinary consultant, Lisa Brefere of GigaChef (, say they are using community comment cards and computer algorithms to determine what food will be served at Pythian Market.

“To restore the Pythian to its former majesty, you have to do more than just physically renovate the building, because its true essence is in what it brought to the community,” said LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans Councilmember for District B. “With careful and thoughtful planning, Green Coast has developed a project that not only celebrates the Pythian’s history, but also renews its commitment to bringing people together.”

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This article originally published in the April 24, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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