The 2020 VAF Advocacy Award goes to Patty Gay for her lifetime of commitment to the historic places and neighborhoods that make up the unique and diverse city of New Orleans. Like many in our field, Patty “discovered” preservation, first as a volunteer and then as a board member for a young Preservation Resource Center. She became the Center’s first director in 1980, serving through the difficult time of Hurricane Katrina. She retired in 2017.
Patty’s vision of preservation encompassed both high-style and vernacular architecture, and advocated for the value of historic districts, no matter how simple the buildings within them. On her retirement Gay reflected, “There is the misconception that preservation is only for people with money, that it’s only for the grandiose and palatial structures, but preservation includes bungalows, Creole cottages and shotgun houses.”1
She put that vision to work years earlier partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1982 to document significant buildings in the Warehouse District, a deteriorating section of town subsequently transformed into a vibrant neighborhood. In 1988, the PRC launched two major initiatives that proved so successful they expanded into neighborhoods all over the city. Operation Comeback purchased and restored blighted historic properties in the Lower Garden District and sold them to new homeowners. Rebuilding Together assisted low-income, elderly homeowners with home repairs and restoration.
Patty used the basic preservation tool of walking tours in perhaps the PRC’s most successful program, the Shotgun House Tour, to highlight and celebrate one of New Orleans’ most iconic building forms. This simple way of bringing people into contact with these vernacular houses has saved and revived untold thousands in neighborhoods throughout New Orleans.
In 2005, as Hurricane Katrina’s waters receded, the PRC under Patty’s inspired leadership, sprang into action to save the city’s devastated historic neighborhoods. A new Education and Outreach department provided workshops on mold remediation and flooded building restoration and assisted homeowners through the labyrinth of government regulations. For the next decade, Patty and PRC stood firm in the exhausting and often thankless work of advocating before city council for rehabilitating historic buildings condemned for demolition.
Patty shared her expertise and her leadership with both regional and national preservation groups, from Historic Natchez Foundation to Historic Charleston Foundation to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She earned the respect of congressional staffs for her in-the-trenches understanding of how historic preservation laws and incentives such as historic tax credits can reinvigorate local economies. For forty years, Patty Gay went to sleep every night and woke every morning thinking about how she and the Preservation Resource Center could revitalize New Orleans by saving its historic buildings and preserving its cultural fabric. The Vernacular Architecture Forum honors her service with the 2020 Advocacy Award.
1 Chris Bynum, “Defender of New Orleans architecture for decades, PRC executive director Patty Gay steps down,” Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, August 6, 2017. https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/article_a450334b-baa0-5d5b-a743-e73c6a7a4a52.html