Music Museum–At The Head of Canal Street?

For some years, the International Trade Mart  skyscraper (known as the World Trade Center), in a prime location at the head of Canal Street that overlooks the Mississippi River, has been vacant. The imposing building was once the site of the World Trade Center organization and the tony Plimsoll Club, and housed numerous offices relating to the port, international business and trade representatives. Both the WTC and the Plimsoll Club are now located in Canal Place. The Trade Mart building contained a fabulous revolving bar—the site of many a high school prom dinner—that rotated 360 degrees to showcase its location overlooking the river. The building has been vacated and was purchased by the city, which recently issued a request for proposal to redevelop the site.

A prime location for a music-themed attraction: The city-owned—and vacant—World Trade Center building (left) at the head of Canal Street.

The building is in a prime—I mean really prime—location for a fantastic tourist destination: a hotel, a park, a monument, a museum on a grand scale.

In the meantime, the “Tricentennial Consortium,” composed of the usual suspects who lead the city’s tourism efforts, proposed a broad vision for revamping the Central Business District riverfront by 2018, the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding. According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, the project is designed to “revitalize the World Trade Center property, Riverfront and Spanish Plaza, re-imagine the traffic patterns at the feet of both Poydras and Canal Streets and commence the redevelopment of Convention Center Boulevard and the much-anticipated development of the parcel of land upriver from the Convention Center [the huge lot in front of Mardi Gras World].”  The Consortium says it is dedicated to securing a major increase in marketing resources to make New Orleans “nationally competitive.”

Several groups have responded to the city’s RFP; some have proposed renovating the WTC tower into a hotel or a mixed-use development with retail and residential components, a music club, and “Tricentennial Sky Wheel,” at Spanish Plaza, a smaller version of the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames. Finally, the last proposal came from the Tricentennial Consortium itself that proposed a “Tricentennial Tower” that would be New Orleans’ version of the Eiffel Tower or the St. Louis Arch.

Sometimes the planners can’t see the forest for the trees.

If these people could expand their vision (maybe some new blood is needed in this group), they might consider the construction a world-class, architecturally-significant structure dedicated to New Orleans’ greatest attraction—her music. This is far and above the best location and an ideal use for this property. I would urge the members of the Tricentennial Consortium to look at Nashville, which has constructed the marvelous Country Music Hall of Fame; Seattle, whose Experience Music Project, designed by rock star architect Frank O. Gehry, and which is adjacent to the Space Needle and Seattle Monorail; and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located overlooking Lake Erie and designed by another prominent architect, I.M. Pei.

From left to right: the Country Music Museum (Nashville); the Experience Music/Science Fiction Museum (Seattle); the "Rock Hall" that overlooks Lake Erie (Cleveland).

The Louisiana State Museum at the Old Mint is still trying to assemble the funding to finish the proposed music museum on its second floor. That project is mired in funding issues and having to deal with the state of Louisiana, which isn’t all that keen on doing anything to show favoritism to New Orleans. Moreover—let’s face it—a museum buried in the Old Mint has nowhere near the prominence of a location at the head of Canal Street.

The best bet to make this happen is to coalesce the members of the Tricentennial Consortium to get behind a music museum and monument. Tricentennials come and go (and frankly, I don’t know how many people are going to get excited about a tower celebrating our 300th birthday 10 or 20 years from now. But the music of the city is deeply rooted; it’s an ongoing source of attraction for locals and visitors and a museum and attraction dedicated to music will have a much, much stronger appeal both now and in the future.

Why aren’t our tourism leaders considering this avenue for development of the World Trade Center site?


  • Cameron Williams

    I agree that we absolutely need a marquee music museum and Lincoln Center sort of place. But if they can save the WTC building, I’d hate it to be torn down. I think the perfect location for something like the “Experience Music Project” in Seattle would be the ocean of parking lots on Decatur Street!

  • bugzapper

    Jan, I’d be reeeal careful about making any comparisons to EMP.

    First off, that is far and away the most flattering “artist’s conception” promo brochure image of EMP I’ve ever seen. The building is downright hideous, and most people in Seattle fervently wish someone would just nuke it. In 2009, it was listed as the #14 World’s Ugliest Building by Travel & Leisure. In 2012, Huff Post named it #5 of “25 Buildings to Demolish Right Now.”

    In its 13 years of existence, EMP, which started out with Paul Allen’s money, grandiose ambitions and the hope of the Seattle music community of it becoming a central, supportive cog in the local scene, has become a classically irrelevant failure. In 2004, it demolished a music wing and turned it into a Science-Fiction Museum. Two years ago it “rebranded” itself again as the “EMP Museum.” No more “Experience MUSIC Project.”

    New Orleans could use a great music place, no doubt. But the last thing you’d want to wish for is a slick, effectively useless (and ugly) “showpiece” like the EMP.

    • Jan

      Yeah, I hear you. I’ve been there and I think it’s ugly myself. I did really enjoy the music part of it (didn’t have time to go to the Science Fiction are) But the point is that 1) New Orleans needs a music museum desperately; 2) an architecturally significant building on that site would be a tremendous showpiece for New Orleans and her musical culture; we have nothing even close to an accessible conveniently located museum in New Orleans; 3) Seattle has nothing on New Orleans when it comes to an already-established and huge visitor industry. The EMP was supposed to create a bigger market of visitors. We already HAVE the market and it would just get bigger and broader.

      I’ve also been to the Country Music Hall and the Rock Hall, both of which are really amazing. The biggest hurdles we would have is to find the financing for such a project. Country music is well-established, and has a built-in financial resource because the country music industry is HQ’ed in Nashville. The Rock Hall has every RnR performer on earth as a contributor to its needs. New Orleans doesn’t have that kind of built-in broad-based financial support for its music, so we need an angel who’s a visionary who loves the city’s music. The tourism people just DO NOT get it. They’d rather put in a “tricentennial tower” that has nothing whatsoever to do with our culture, or just build another hotel. Actually, I believe all this brouhaha about the WTC site has more to do with the use of the convention center land, control of the WTC parking garage (which is a big $ generator) that what happens to the old building.