After falling on hard times by the turn of the new millennium, it would hardly have garnered a passerby’s sideways glance. But, in its early years, the Pythian Temple was considered “a crowning achievement for a new-century generation of progressive African Americans,” according to writer and historian Keith Weldon Medley.
In the era of Jim Crow—when racial segregation was strictly enforced in the American South—the Pythian served as a symbol for the New Orleans African American community. Erected in 1909 by the Colored Order of the Knights of Pythias of Louisiana, a previously integrated fraternal organization, the classical building was cutting edge. Supported by a steel frame and sheathed in tan magnesium pressed brick and terra cotta, what it contained inside was even more significant.
In addition to serving as the headquarters for the Knights of Pythias, it also housed banks, shops, offices, and Guillaume College, all of which attracted an African African clientele. The Louisiana Weekly, a local black newspaper, was founded at the Pythian Temple in 1925 as The New Orleans Herald-Louisiana Weekly. Even the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP had its office at the Pythian Temple. The Pythian Temple was also a music and culture spot—the rooftop garden hosted numerous legendary musicians, and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a local carnival organization, traces its founding to the Pythian.
The Knights of Pythias ultimately lost their prized building in 1941, a result of the Great Depression. In 1957, its exterior was covered up with a Mid Century Modern aluminum and porcelain slipcover, for decades obscuring the brick and terra cotta beneath.
Beginning in 2012, plans began to brew for a massive renovation. Forty-four million dollars and five years later, the Pythian reopened in mid-2017 to feature apartments and medical offices. This spring, the building’s most anticipated addition, the Pythian Market, opened its doors.
The Pythian Market bills itself as an urban food collective. Both an incubator for up and coming food ventures and a second home for several established local eateries, its food stalls line the walls, sweeping throughout the ground floor of the building. It is fast becoming an anchor for this neglected part of downtown, long awaiting a renaissance.
Central City BBQ, 14 Parishes, and La Cocinita (until now, a successful food truck) are just some of the local restaurants that have taken up additional locations at the Pythian. Central City BBQ’s Hogs for the Cause Award-Winning Smoked Wings with White BBQ Sauce are absolutely worth a taste (or several). In addition, Fete Au Fete whips up a delicious shrimp and grits dish (with andouille sausage and a kick of spiciness). Newbies include Poulet, serving clean cuisine of salads and wraps, Eat Well, with a menu of Vietnamese specials like pho and spring rolls, and Kais, with poke and seafood. Little Fig, brought to us by the 1000 Figs team, opens soon. Need a coffee? Roustabout Coffee Co. serves a mean cappuccino. Ready to wind down instead? Order a cocktail from the in-house bar 1908, named for the year that construction started on the building.
The front section of the market, with its high ceilings and tall windows, sits aglow in natural light on sunny days. The back part of the market is not to be missed for either the number of delicious food vendors or the mural by local artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums. Depicting local civil rights attorney A.P. Tureaud and his wife Lucille Dejoie, the piece evokes a small part of the building’s history: Tureaud and Dejoie first met in the Pythian’s rooftop jazz garden in the late 1920s. Scrawled above the couple’s heads is a Civil Rights era quote by A.P. Tureaud: “Resist, by all lawful means, any and all efforts to deny us our rights.”
The Pythian Market, “a food hall for all,” is open daily, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Photo credit:Emily Ramirez Hernandez