The Pythian Temple (1909-1941)

Pythian Roof Garden (Dance Hall)

For those of you who have read the article (written below this one) entitled The Manuel Perez Orchestra, you will notice that this is the photo of the dance floor of the Pythian Roof Garden where Manuel Perez and his Orchestra provided music and dancing for people of color in the 1920s.

Besides music and dancing, the Pythian Roof Garden also hosted many Saturday evening proms, charity balls and holiday parties that attracted a wide range of New Orleans society. “The Roof Garden was on Saratoga and belonged to the Knights of Pythias,” Alfred Williams said. ‘It was on the top of a building. They had colored organizations that had dances up there. It was a beautiful place, a real good job.” The clientele was quite affluent, the patrons were well dressed and the place was calm and safe. It was also the most comfortable dance hall in summer and winter.

When performing there, Manuel Perez played different types of music to please the dancers. He played tunes like Moon of Waikiki (a waltz), Dead Man’s Blues, Because I Love You and Milneburg. The audience loved Perez’s choices of songs as they ‘strut their stuff’ to the soulful music played every weekend.

The Pythian Roof Garden closed its doors at the beginning of 1927 due to financial problems. Competition came in the spring of 1926 when the Pelican Dance Hall opened its doors on the corner of Gravier and South Rampart. Crowds began to congregate there to listen to Ridgley Original Tuxedo Orchestra on weekends and Wednesday nights. Manuel Perez moved on to other musical ventures but A.J.Piron would reopen the Pythian Roof Garden as Piron’s Garden of Joy on August 8, 1927.

Pythian Temple

The building where the Roof Garden was housed was called The Pythian Temple. It was erected in 1909 by the Grand Lodge, Colored Order of the Knights of Pythias of Louisiana. This fraternal organization was established in 1880 and by 1908 had undertaken the task of constructing a temple of their own to house all of their organization’s activities. They purchased two lots on the downtown river corner of Gravier at Saratoga Streets (now 234Loyola Avenue) in the central business district of New Orleans.

Dedication ceremonies for the new structure took place on August 18, 1909 at a cost of $201,000. Speeches were given by the Supreme Chancellor S.W.Green, Dr. I.W. Young, Roscoe Conkling Simmons, and George F. Bartely. Attorney J. Madison Vance gave the main speech before an overflowing crowd. This building became the biggest financial venture of its kind ever attempted by a black organization in the United States up to this date.

When the building opened its doors for business, it played an important role in supporting the local community in various ways. Housed within its structure were offices, a theater, a barber shop, and a bank. An Opera House and an auditorium could be found on the second floor while the other four floors in the six story building housed many meeting rooms and offices. Of course, the sixth floor had an open air garden for dancing and entertaining that would later become enclosed.

Several other black businesses began to move their operation into the Pythian Temple building. They included: their own insurance company, the  Liberty Industrial Life Insurance Company of Louisiana, the People’s Benevolent Industrial Life Insurance Company of Louisiana and the Negro Board of Trade. By 1925, two prominent New Orleanians, C.C. Dejoie, Sr. and O.C.W. Taylor, moved their newly formed newspaper company into the building. It was called The Louisiana Weekly. In the 1930s, some space inside the Pythian Temple was used as temporary medical clinics for patients of Charity Hospital while a new facility was being built. 

The auditorium of the Pythian Temple produced many plays and shows for the enjoyment of the general public. This theater is accredited with aiding the formation of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. In 1909 an event took place when the musical comedy The Smart Set was shown.  In one of the skits the play included an act that mentioned the powerful African King of Zulu. In the audience were John L. Metoyer and a group of men who would come up with the idea to organize themselves into the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.

In October of 1925, the Knights of Pythias boasted of a Louisiana membership of 8,910 and total assets of $507,564. Unfortunately, as a result of the depression and hard times, the Knights would eventually declare bankruptcy. A U.S. Court valued the building at $325,000. However, in 1941 a poor economy and outstanding taxes caused the Knights of Pythias to lose the building.

Pythian Temple 2

[Click to enlarge]

The Pythian Temple has had various owners and various name changes over the years. It has been known as Industries Building, DeMontluzin Building, Civic Center Building, and 2-3-4-Loyola.  It presently sits across from the New Orleans Main Library and is currently abandoned. Today it is unrecognizable from its original 1909 construction.

Work has been done to bring the building back to its original beauty by removing the metal and glass façade that covers the original windows.   There has been talk of converting it into apartments. Hopefully the building will be renovated rather than demolished and the next generation will continue to study the history of this unique building (and others like it) which was such an important part of our past.

SourcesJazz Puzzles (Vernhettes, Dan & Lindstrom, Bo) 2012-printed by Loire Offset Titoulet (France); Pythian Temple Building Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University; The Louisiana Weekly, 19 June 1926; http://forgetmeknotsinc.com/ PythianTemple.htm

Lolita V. Cherrie

6 thoughts on “The Pythian Temple (1909-1941)

  1. Can I suggest you add ’emails’ to your ‘share this’ section. That would make it easy for us to send copies of your Creolegen to those who might be interested. Facebook & Twitter and a broad brush that many will not pick up on. Individual email forwardings sent to those who may be mentioned and not know about your blog or who might have an interest in what you are writing and not know of a blog. A share this via email would give us the opportunity to forward your blog with a personal message to friends and colleagues to get the word out about what you are doing.

    Thanks,
    Cookie

  2. This is an excellent post on a really important site in our history. I think the name given above as ‘Roscoe Conkling’ should be that of Roscoe Conkling Simmons, the nationally-known orator. The name of the first insurance company was cut off, it should be Liberty Industrial …

  3. I worked in this building from 1991 – 1999 and was totally unaware of its fascinating history. Thank you for sharing this story.

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