Deutsches Haus, a Decade Outside the UMC Footprint

By Corey DiBiase

The signs started popping up in 2008, stuck into front lawns from Mid-City to Metairie – “Save The Haus! The Deutsches Haus, since 1928.”

Only shortly before, the Deutsches Haus, New Orleans’ 92-year-old German cultural organization, started receiving news of the joint city-state plan to build a new hospital complex in the lower reaches of Mid-City. The proposed location for the project, a successor to Charity Hospital, was the Haus’ then-home neighborhood, now the shared site of University Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. 

“You get lawyers from the state, you get a notice in the mail. That’s how it starts,” says Keith Oldendorf, former president of the Haus, serving at the time initial plans for the hospital complex were announced.

“You see it on TV too, when you see the plans have gotten bigger, and you say ‘oh!’” current president Brian Huber adds. Oldendorf finishes his thought, “Oh! It wasn’t like that two months ago!”

When the revised hospital footprint expanded beyond the boundaries outlined in the state’s initial plan, Deutsches Haus and a slew of other residents from South Galvez Street down to South Claiborne Avenue found themselves in an existential bind, slated for expropriation, demolition, and relocation.

“We fell in the footprint of the medical center complex, and our property was annexed, so we had to move,” general manager Jack Gonzales says. Gonzales headed the organization as its president through the construction of the club’s current facility at 1700 Moss Street beside Bayou St. John.

“We didn’t want to be another one of the lyrics in ‘Ain’t Dere No More,’ we wanted to be here, we wanted to survive, and we had a place in the history of New Orleans”

Oldendorf, Gonzales and Huber – all having served in succession as president of the German culture-bearing club – are seated around a fold out table steps from their member’s bar, a private room down a hallway that reaches into the warm and cozy heart of their spacious new building. The walls are lined with stein lockers, large-handled mugs visible behind glass cubby doors. The bar top itself is constructed of salvaged wood that had previously lined the bowling alleys inside the original Haus at 220 South Galvez Street. The three men are eager to spread the word about their organization’s rich history before the move and their growth beyond. They explain how the organization’s growth after relocating out of the hospital footprint started with an impromptu grassroots campaign, the club’s reflex to ensure its own survival.

“We didn’t want to be another one of the lyrics in ‘Ain’t Dere No More,’ we wanted to be here, we wanted to survive, and we had a place in the history of New Orleans,” Oldendorf says. “So, we had the ‘Save the Haus’ campaign, which was very effective. We had signs up all over the city, you know you could go anywhere and see one in front of people’s houses and stuff like that, so it made the state more aware of our presence and importance to the area and to the city, and so that was how we were able to get the money that we got, was because all the sudden they recognized our cultural significance.”

When the state moves to expropriate private property, the law – as expressed in the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 – requires that they compensate property owners to the full extent of the loss, a sum which can go beyond the mere appraisal of a physical city lot to include the cost of relocation.

Greg Guth is both an attorney – once employed by the city as a revenue lawyer in the mid 1980’s – and, more recently, the former owner of the Outer Banks bar, which was located within the hospital footprint before its demolition in 2011. He says, with a hint of tired amusement, that the value of his own property was estimated “within the range” of neighboring properties, but that the state’s evaluations of further losses were questionable.

  “I did work for the assessor in New Orleans as part of my work for the city,” says Guth. “And one of the guys who was the appraiser – they hire two appraisers and they give you the higher of the two appraisals – and one of the appraisers is a guy I know from working for the assessor, we did work for the city, and you know, we know each other, and it’s like, you give me this low ball appraisal? I didn’t ever confront him on it, but it’s like, what is wrong with this picture? You know, this is New Orleans. Put a zero on the end of that sucker!”

Guth spent ten years in civil district court challenging the state’s appraised value of his former business – a value independent of the physical property itself – which he argued was lower than its actual worth, settling in 2019 for the same unflinching offer the state had made him in 2009.

“If you want to talk about whether people were given what they were owed or what they should have rightfully been able to get, there’s just no way,” says Brad Vogel, who was working in New Orleans as a fellow for the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2010 to 2011. “There are so many circumstances here that contributed to them getting less than what they should have, and part of that is the planner’s blight that happens when you do something like this,” Vogel says. “When you say that the whole neighborhood is condemned and dead, as soon as that happens, everything in the footprint loses value, and then whatever you’re talking about as a marketable sale for that property has been impacted by the fact that the project’s been announced.”

Vogel took to the internet to share what he was witnessing, creating a blog he called Inside the Footprint, which became a virtual space for organizing in tandem with a community that was still stitching itself back together post-Katrina. He reported on a near-daily basis from the proposed hospital grounds overlaying Guth’s bar, Deutsches Haus and lower Mid-City.

On South Galvez Street, Deutsches Haus, determined to prolong its own life, took to property hunting. Through their own research they turned up a nearly five-acre piece of land – formerly used as a training location for New Orleans 3rd District police – that the city had just declared as excess property and scheduled for auction.

Oldendorf says, “we were going to sign for the regular money deal, but then all the sudden, this came up for auction… and we said, ‘wait a minute… you do have a piece of property we could use. You have a place that would be good for us’… So, we were able to get this beautiful piece of property, five acres on Bayou Saint John. I mean, you can’t beat it.”

Oldendorf explains that neither the city nor state informed Deutsches Haus of the available property, but rather the Haus sought it out, appealed for the help of legislators to remove the property from auction, and finally negotiated the price of the property. Even then, from 2011 to 2016, the organization operated out of a temporary location in Kenner – the “Halfway Haus” – continuing their own fundraising until construction was completed.

“It took a little while to get everything, you know, funded and straight, but we wound up very well. It’s been great for our organization. Since Galvez Street, we’ve actually tripled the membership, so it’s been very good, very healthy,” said Oldendorf. “We were dealt with fairly.”

Not everyone followed the same route out of the hospital footprint though, current president Huber says. “I had a good friend that had a machine shop that had been in his family for many years, and you know, he objected for a while and then afterwards he just said ‘you know what? Give me the money.’ … He was in his early fifties, and he said ‘I really don’t have time to restart. I’m not going to win this battle.’ … So, basically, he moved to Denver.”

Vogel recalls an invitation he received into the gold-painted shotgun of a couple living in the lower quadrant of the proposed LSU hospital plan. “Miss Ella lived there with her husband, and I remember Miss Janet took me there to meet them because she knew them as Mardi Gras Indians, and we went inside and there was his suit, you know, all red, in the living room, dominating the space, and I was like ‘Oh, wow. Okay, we’re here,’” says Vogel. “We talk so much about the culture bearers of the city, and it’s like, here it is, in his living room, right here. That’s the well-spring. And they were being forced to move to somewhere near the Fair Grounds.”

Vogel emphasizes the vast community losses under the hospital complex’s sprawling design, the residents’ collective disadvantage before a multi-layered governmental project. “There are all kinds of…unintended consequences that flow from these megalomaniacal plans that are just not well-thought out…that get all levels of government behind them to the point that they seem like fait accompli, and here we are ten years later finally starting to uncover the costs of all this, well after the dust has settled.”

Just outside the hospital complex today, in the adjacent blocks of Mid-City, Jake Rickoll, a homeowner and current resident, laments the neighborhood’s tenuous control over its own destiny. In 2014, he founded what would become the Lower Mid-City Neighborhood Association, advocating for a swath of town that surrounds the UMC complex. 

“We can organize clean-ups, we can organize little get-togethers, but if you really want to get things accomplished, we’re powerless,” says Rickoll. “It’s all up to the people who are organizing things behind the curtains – the people with money and the people with powerful positions in the city. That’s how things get made, and I think everyone who comes through every neighborhood association – it may take a day, it may take a year – but eventually they wise up to that reality.”

Rickoll says his district’s councilperson would send a representative to neighborhood meetings, but that “It’s like a façade of engagement, like nothing ever comes of it.”

Rickoll served as the fledgling organization’s president through 2017. The organization has been largely inactive since 2020, when COVID-related concerns and public health restrictions stifled public participation. 

On Moss Street, inside their member’s bar, Deutsches Haus displays its efforts to preserve the pieces of its past: Schnickelfritz, a mounted boar’s head donning sunglasses, migrated here from Galvez Street; the two beer towers leaping up out of the bowling alley bar top also poured beer at the old Haus; the walls of the hallway leading to the member’s bar are lined with old newspaper articles, photos, commemorations of the numerous German social aid clubs that fused into one under the Deutsches Haus name in 1928, more than ninety years ago. Beyond the member’s bar, records of these proto clubs are housed in the Historic New Orleans Collection, where they have been kept since the late 1980’s.

On the first Tuesday of every month, the Haus opens its doors for Faubourg St. John Neighborhood Association to host their open board meetings. The Haus is a member.

Out front, featured prominently on the approach to the building’s entrance, is a manhole cover surrounded in red paint, marked “C.T.&T. Co.,” the moniker of the telephone switching company that preceded Deutsches Haus as the original occupants of 220 South Galvez Street. An Eagle statue sits above the same entrance, the same statue that was once poised above the doors at the original Haus, looking down now over the same manhole cover.

Turning his attention to the hospital complex on the site of the old neighborhood, Gonzales comments, “One of the nice things though, as part of the development of that land tract, they actually have a marker – part of the project was to place markers around the facilities for the important sites that were there, and so Deutsches Haus has a marker – “

“Actually, we don’t have the marker yet,” Huber corrects.

“They haven’t dedicated it yet,” says Oldendorf.

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