THE RIVERGATE title page | contents | appendices | cd-book cover

 

introduction


guide

I. The Beginning Of The End Of The Rivergate
II. Post World War II New Orleans
III. Success For The City, Failure For The Dock Board
IV. Intent Of This Work
V. Electronic Format

I. The Beginning Of The End Of The Rivergate

On Friday 13 January 1995, the demolition of the Rivergate began. The sound of destruction echoed across the central business district of New Orleans. It marked the end of the Expressionist structure located where Canal Street, the main street of the city, meets the Mississippi River. It also marked the end of an era and the failure of those who attempted to save the structure. This work is a product of those futile efforts.

During the struggle to preserve the Rivergate, the advocates for the preservation of the building had a simplistic, cynical view of the forces they were fighting. They assumed that the rich coffers of the gambling interest made the politicians of New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana easy and relatively cheap allies. The authors of sections of this work, who were actively involved in the efforts to save the Rivergate, were na´ve. They did not realize the diverse nature of the forces advocating destruction of the building. Nor did they have a full understanding of the reasons behind those positions. They were not prepared for the difficulties in placing a building less than fifty years old on the National Register, especially since they did not have the support of the State Historic Preservation office. As conservationists they felt that the weight of professional opinion about the architectural, engineering, and aesthetic nature of the structure should suffice to ensure its salvation.

Since the building has been destroyed, such an attitude, obviously, was erroneous. The concept that the Rivergate ought to be preserved was not erroneous.


II. Post World War II New Orleans

In the mid1950s, New Orleans was attempting to catch up with other cities in the nation that had grown, developed, and modernized. In terms of population and economic growth, New Orleans lagged behind more aggressive Sunbelt cities, although a flurry of new public building indicated that the city was again changing. New Orleans is a major port, and the port was the leading economic endeavor followed closely by the growing oil industry. The City Planning Commission, concerned that the central business district of New Orleans would decay as had happened in other cities, presented a prospectus for revitalizing the area. A supplement to that prospectus called for a new auditorium/exhibit facility in the core of the business section. With plans for an International Trade Mart along the Mississippi River, the adjacent area became a prime location for the proposed auditorium/exhibit facility.


III. Success For The City, Failure For The Dock Board

The nature of the ownership of the land under consideration, streets in the area, and financing presented a problem that was solved by a convoluted arrangement with the City of New Orleans and the Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans, called the Dock Board. The city would own 20 percent of the exhibition facility, and the Dock Board would own 80 percent plus operate the facility. The arrangement would eventually lead to legal problems. The Port of New Orleans Exhibition Center, as the Rivergate was known, was designed by the New Orleans architectural firm of Nathaniel C. Curtis Jr. and Arthur Q. Davis. The Rivergate constructed at a completed cost of $25 million ($13.5 million contract price) opened on 17 September 1968. The city had a new modern facility to serve trade shows and attract large conventions.

The Rivergate's early years were successful. Although the Rivergate operated at a loss, its manager estimated that during the first five years of operation the facility generated $170 million for the New Orleans economy.

Tourism had traditionally been one aspect of the New Orleans economy, and projects to increase tourism had both political and business support. The Rivergate was a major factor in making tourism, especially convention tourism, an economic mainstay of the city's economy. Hotels, restaurants, and bars provided numerous, albeit low paying, jobs for unskilled labor. Convention attendees helped to sustain the central business district which was threatened by the expanding retail economy of the suburbs. New Orleans needed tourism as much as it needed the port and the oil industry.

Endeavors perceived as enhancing tourism easily earned popular and political support. The Louisiana Superdome, another Curtis and Davis project, was initiated the same year as the completion of the Rivergate, 1968. A decade after the domed stadium opened, New Orleans hosted the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. Although the fair was a financial disaster, the legacy was the core for an expansive convention center to host larger and larger conventions. Both the Superdome and the Convention Center started with outlandishly large projections of success, provided construction jobs, enjoyed extensive political support, and added to the strength of the tourism industry. They also made the Rivergate appear too small, too old fashioned, and unsuited for convention business.

Since the Dock Board was losing money every year in the operation of the Rivergate, it wanted to get out of the convention business. Even before the new convention facility opened, various proposals were brought forward from the public and private sectors for different uses for the Rivergate. As early as 1983, there was mention that New Orleans should have casino gambling to enhance the tourist industry. One of the sites touted was the Rivergate.

With the collapse of the oil industry in the early 1980s, New Orleans lost one of its economic props, and almost anything that would revive and sustain the city found supporters. Politicians, business leaders, labor unions, and much of the populace became fascinated with the grandiose concepts favoring gambling as an economic savior. It was this atmosphere that determined the fate of the Rivergate.


IV. Intent Of This Work

This work is intended to give a detailed description of the building of the Rivergate and to provide an outline of the events which made the efforts to save it fruitless. It is a story of frustration and disappointment. It is clear from the essays that the frustration remains along with a gnawing bitterness toward the forces which condemned the building. Each writer has expressed her/his feelings openly. Expressions in each essay do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the authors of the other essays. This work documents the life story of one building from birth to death. This work is the product of many people. Each section gives credit to the individual authors save Chapter V. That portion is based upon the research done for the application for the National Register and then was edited by a number of persons for its present form.

Regardless of the personal feelings about the Rivergate and the forces which led to its destruction, this work is presented as a tribute to the building and the people who designed and built it. This work is also intended to be an instructional piece for those who might -- and we hope they never do -- face such a struggle in their home towns. This is an effort to preserve and present the story of the construction and destruction of the Rivergate.


V. Electronic Format

For purposes of making a compact disc (CD), we have fixed the Rivergate story at Harrah's 1995 bankruptcy and stoppage of construction on the new casino at the Rivergate site.

The story is ongoing. Harrah's emerged out of bankruptcy, work resumed on the unfinished building, and the casino opened 28 October 1999. Former Governor Edwin Edwards, his son Stephen, and others have been convicted on charges involving corruption with the granting of riverboat gambling licenses. Their appeals are pending. No criminal charges have been made against anyone involved in the granting of a license for gambling at the Rivergate site.

Special Collections of the Tulane Library celebrates the new millennium with the offering of this experimental electronic book. The Library thanks all of those who participated in producing the content and the digital format.

Wilbur E. Meneray, Head
Special Collections
Tulane University Library
New Orleans, Louisiana

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