A Civic-Minded Man in an Uncivil World: A Profile of Isaac Delgado

by: Bob Monie
An immigrant boy of 14 from Kingston, Jamaica arrived in the seaport town of New Orleans in 1854, lived through the Civil War, the federal occupation of New Orleans under General Benjamin  “Beast” Butler, the Reconstruction period, the rancorous political strife between Radical Republicans and Democrats, the bitter enmity between Creoles on one side of Canal Street and Americans on the other, the murder of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessey, the race riot of 1900, and several yellow fever epidemics, including the last in 1905. Rising above all this turmoil, he set his mind to work and save, and when his savings were great enough, he applied the wealth judiciously to improve what is now called “the built environment” of the city.

Fig 1  Silver tankard awarded to Isaac Delgado's great uncle, Moses Delgado in 1831, after he had helped secure full political freedom for the Jews of Jamaica
Fig. 2  Isaac Delgado in dapper attire, possibly ready for motor car trip to Atlantic City
Isaac Delgado, the eldest of 12 children born to Henry Delgado in 1839, wanted even as a boy in Jamaica to establish himself as an independent, self-made entrepreneur and leave a tangible permanent legacy to posterity.  He took pleasure in finding fundamental. long-lasting solutions to life's problems, always with an accountant's eye for detail, dollars and cents.  Rather than give speeches and pat people on the back, Delgado would in the course of his lifetime, quietly, behind the scenes, found and endow a hospital building and several clinics, a museum of art, and a trades school that would become the second largest educational institution in the state. According to historian Prescott Dunbar, Isaac's  great uncle, Moses Delgado, had, in 1831, successfully petitioned the British government to achieve political freedom for Jews in Jamaica and received a handsome silver tankard for his efforts. But Isaac aspired to seek his fortune away from his native island, to leave the old world of European colonial politics and island culture far behind (see Fig  1). At age 14 he announced that he would help relieve his father's burden of supporting such a large family by joining his uncle Samuel in New Orleans and, as far as possible, support himself. Samuel got Isaac a job as a bookkeeper's clerk for a steamship agency and welcomed him into his home at 218 Philip along Mississippi River in what is today the Warehouse District.  When Samuel purchased a residence at in the Garden District, at 1220 Philip St., across from Trinity Episcopal Church, Isaac relocated with his aunt and uncle, eventually inherited the property, and lived there until his death (Fig 2.)

Fig 3.  Issac and Samuel Delgado in front of the main office of Delgado and Co.  at 201-203 N. Peters St.

Fig 4.  The N. Peters St. part of Sugar Row as it appears today.  The  old Delgado and Co. office
            building at 201-203 N. Peters is on the left, next to the Custom House.

Fig 5.   Close view of building at 201-203 N. Peters St. as it appears today.
Delgado's ancestors in Jamaica, prominent members of the Sephardic Jewish community, had been successful merchants in the sugar industry there. Isaac's uncle, Samuel, arriving in the New Orleans in 1850, saw the potential to apply his knowledge of sugar trading in the rapidly growing sugar market of the city.  Sugar brokers set up offices by the Custom House and the sugar loading docks near the river end of Bienville and Iberville Streets. Soon this area was called the Sugar District, and N. Front and N. Peters streets from Canal St. to Toulouse St. or a little beyond were called Sugar Row.  Samuel established the sugar brokerage of Delgado and Company, first at 29 Natchez St. and 25 N. Peters St. and, from 1887 till his death, shared an office with Isaac in a building behind the Custom House on Sugar Row at 201-203 N. Peters  (Figs. 3, 4, & 5).  From at least as early as 1889, Isaac ran the company when his uncle was away on business trips. In 1883, Samuel helped found the New Orleans Sugar Exchange at 305 N. Front St., and Delgado & Co. later had an office next door (see Figs. 6 & 7).  Samuel was twice elected president of the exchange. In 1903, a horse-drawn dray struck Samuel on Canal Street, his health deteriorated , and he died on May 12, 1905 (see Fig 8). Building on his uncle's knowledge and reputation, Isaac, along with George Boutcher, Samuel Snodgrass, and George Allain, incorporated the business as Delgado and Co, Inc. and continued to use the 201-203 N. Peters St. location as their main office space. By 1885, Delgado had acquired the Albania Sugar Plantation in Jenerette, Louisiana, through mortgage foreclosure. He sent manager Alan Allain to rebuild the plantation and update its sugar refining equipment.  The plantation continued to operate at a profit for many years, and would, as Delgado directed in his will, help provide support for Delgado Central Trades School, which opened several years after his death. Delgado's main wealth, however, came from his success as a sugar broker in New Orleans.

Fig. 6.  Post card showing the Sugar Exchange  at 305 N. Front Street (corner of Bienville) that Samuel and Isaac Delgado helped establish. Noted New Orleans  James Freret designed the building, which 'was widely acclaimed for its style.  Delgado and Co. had an office and a  small warehouse at 315 N. Front, adjacent to the Sugar Exchange. 

Fig 7.   North Front St. section of Sugar Row as it appeared around 1910.  The large building
             at the extreme left is the American Sugar Refinery.  To its right are the New Orleans
             Sugar Exchange and one of the Delgado and Co. offices.

Fig 8.   Dray carts at the turn of the century hauling produce through the French Quarter near the Sugar District. 
 An advertisement for Delgado and Co reflects Isaac's pragmatic insight into the sugar market and eye for detail (Fig. 9). The ad not only lists the products of sugar, syrup, and molasses for sale along with the container sizes; it specifically targets customer groups that would need sweeteners. Following a rule that might loosely be summarized as “know yourself, know your product, know your customer,” the ad addresses bakers, canners, meat processors, bread and cracker makers and others likely to buy the sweeteners in volume but does not neglect those interested in the smaller market for ordinary “table use.”  No special claims are made for the products.  Following the Renaissance motto of “good wine needs no sign,” Delgado would simply say, “the products speak for themselves,” supported of course by his relentless efforts at the Sugar Exchange to inspect them and maintain quality control.

Fig, 9.   Advertisement for Delgado and Co.  that directly targets buyers likely to use sweeteners.
Fig. 10.  Isaac's friends Elleonora Moss and Dr. Rudolph Matas at the 1944 launch of the S.S. Isaac Delgado liberty ship. (Both lived to be nearly 100.)

Fig. 11.   The Delgado Memorial Building at Charity Hospital.
 An important woman in Isaac's life and philanthropic career was the independently wealthy, free-thinker Elleonora Moss, an unlikely Garden District admirer of Emerson and Thoreau who, at the first Founder's Day celebration on November 23, 1921, urged Delgado Central Trades School students to be honest workers with their hands rather than mere quibblers in words (Fig 10). A lifelong bachelor, Isaac was generally believed to be shy and uninterested in women but had no reservations accepting Elleonora as a friend and confidante. Only with his introduction to Elleonora does Isaac's career as a publicly known benefactor begin.  She had been the closest friend of his Aunt Virginia at the time of Virginia's death in 1906, and she helped console Isaac during this difficult period, perhaps even suggesting that he augment the sum of $20,000 left to Charity Hospital from his aunt's estate with an additional $180,000 of his own to create The Delgado Memorial Building at Charity, a fitting tribute to his beloved uncle and aunt (see Fig. 11). Moss was a lifelong friend of Dr. Rudolph Matas, Isaac's personal physician and a leading physician of the day, associated with Charity Hospital and Tulane Medical School. Delgado gladly sat on the platform and let Dr. Matas make the speech for him at the December 19, 1908 dedication of the Delgado Memorial. When a newspaper reporter suggested to Delgado that his increasing reputation might spell the beginning of a great political career, Delgado cut him short with the statement that he “would absolutely refuse to accept a public office were it tendered to me, even to being governor of Louisiana.”  Ever a man of his word, this was no exception: Delgado was not to be a politician, and that was that. He also downplayed whatever religious affiliations he may have had. Despite his Jewish heritage, he, like many leading businessmen of his day, attended services at Trinity Episcopal Church on Jackson Ave, within walking distance of his home. But his charitable contributions were public and non-sectarian., intended to benefit, as he sometimes said, “rich and poor alike” and all faiths.  

Fig. 12.    Pierre Lelong, owner of  sugar brokerage firm Lelong and Co., helped induce the City Park Board of Commissioners to provide the land for the Delgado Museum of Art

Fig. 13.    Delgado Museum of Art postcard showing Beau-Art building designed by Samuel A. Marx
Delgado, suffering from nephritis and consequent loss of eyesight, liked to be read to by Elleonora as they were driven around the city in his pre-Model T car. On one occasion, while passing the Howard Library at Lee Circle, Moss said that Isaac's aunt Virginia had confided to her a wish that New Orleans ought to have a museum for the public display of artworks, and she added that such a place might be able to house the many items of art and furnishings Isaac had bought for his aunt that were still kept at the Garden District residence. Delgado, excited by the prospect of building a “temple of art” for the public as well as providing a room to care for his aunt's collection after his death,  took up the question of finding land for the museum with his friend and fellow broker on Sugar Row, Pierre (Paul) A. Lelong  who was, like Delgado, a fellow member of the Boston Club, the Chess, Checkers, and Whist Club, co-founder of the New Orleans Sugar Exchange, and a member of the City Park board of commissioners. Lelong easily secured the land, and  Delgado agreed with the board that the museum building design should be decided by open contest.  He and the board chose the “tropical” Beau-Arts design submitted by 24-year-old Samuel A. Marx from Chicago (See Fig 13). This handsome building still houses the museum, altered by some modern extensions and re-named the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).  However, Aunt Virginia's and Isaac's taste in painting, porcelain, and furniture did not stand the test of time.  Delgado had always generously agreed to purchase art and furniture to suit Virginia, but those acquisitions, often ponderously Victorian, were not what curators would have purchased for a public museum and did not compare in artistic value with collections later donated by Benjamin Morgan Harrod and Morgan Whitney. In fact, one director of the museum, Arthur Feitel, described the Delgado Room where the items were kept as a “terrible hodgepodge of copies of furniture, bric-a-brac and paintings.” In time, items that Virginia and Isaac had liked so much quietly disappeared from the museum exhibits, but the memory of his generosity remained. 

Fig. 14.    1928 Aerial View of City Park flanked by Delgado Central Trades School and Delgado
                 Museum of Art.
In 1909, that philanthropic muse, Elleonora Moss, once again whispered a wish into Delgado's ear that he would transform into a building.  A newspaper article on the trades school movement, possibly by educational theorist Nicholas Bauer (later to become Superintendent of New Orleans public schools) caught Ms. Moss's eye.  When Delgado told her that he wasn't sure where to direct his fortune “to do the most good” after his death, Moss shared the information in the article with him.  He said only, “Yes, I would love to give a boy a trade,” and, on October 11, 1909, had his attorney,  John Dymond, add  a codicil to his will for funding “a school to be called Isaac Delgado Central Trades School,” and made certain that the money would not be used for any other purpose. (Fig. 14)

On January 4, 1912 Isaac Delgado died at his Garden District home.   Although Francis T. Nicholls, governor of Louisiana, died the same day, the January 5 edition of The Daily Picayune gave virtually equal, front-page photographic and journalistic coverage to the passing of Delgado, with the headline, ISAAC DELGADO'S DEATH THE CITY'S GREAT LOSS.  In retrospect, his charitable offerings to the city were staggering.  His public bequests during his lifetime were $180,000 for the building at Charity Hospital, $150,000 for the Delgado Museum, and, in his will, he left another $100,000 to Charity Hospital, $100,000 to the Eye, Ear, and Nose Hospital, $10,000 to the New Orleans Convalescents' Home, as well as the “residue” of his estate, amounting to almost $800,000 plus regular payments from the operation of the Albania Plantation, to be used for the construction of Isaac Delgado Central Trades School. Such largess was impressive even compared with John McDonough's bequest of $750,000 in 1850 to build public schools.  A marble plaque once displayed at Charity Hospital  underscores the magnitude of Delgado's  altruism (Fig. 15).  His contribution of $180,000 is more than twice that of any other donor listed and several times more than that of such well-known, admirably charitable men as Frank T. Howard and Tomy Lafon.  

Fig.  15.   Marble tablet from Charity Hospital main building lists names of donors,, including Isaac Delgado and amounts donated.
Upon his death, Delgado's business partners lined up to eulogize him.  His vice-president, George Boutcher, recalled the many times he had seen Delgado “give away $5,000 or $10,000 which the public never knew anything about, and he always counseled those that did to keep quiet about it.”  Boutcher added that Delgado “never broke an engagement and was never late for one.”  His treasurer, Samuel Snodgrass, remarked that Delgado was “always ready to listen … and never spoke ill of another where it would do harm.”  Alfred Olson, a “personal attendant” who lived with Delgado during his last years, recalled riding with him on an automobile round-trip journey to Atlantic City recommended by his doctor, Rudolph Matas.  Such a long ride in a “horseless carriage” was a fairly adventurous undertaking in the first decade of the 20th century yet emblematic of the simple pleasures that Isaac enjoyed, such as attending the French Opera, playing a game of checkers at the Chess, Checkers, and Whist Club, listening to early Edison recordings on his Victrola, studying the market for sugar products, or making money and using it to benefit others (Figs. 16 & 17).

Fig.  16.   Old French Opera House  often attended by Isaac Delgado

Fig.  17.  New Orleans Chess, Checkers, and Whist Club. Delgado was a charter member of this club, where perhaps more business deals were made than on the golf course. 
Delgado could have disposed of his fortune --about $25 million in 2011 dollars-- in many ways rather than create the public institutions he did, open to rich and poor alike. He could have given his money to Tulane University or Trinity Episcopal Church or any Jewish synagogue or spent it on more luxurious quarters for himself in the Garden District, or frolicked and gambled it away on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, or distributed it all to his surviving relatives. But in his precise, cool, laser-focused way he chose, perhaps in response to promptings from his friend, Elleonora Moss, to provide hospital relief for the suffering, a “temple of art,” for the multitude, and a free school where boys could learn a trade. He rose above the rival claims of class, politics, and religious intolerance in his own time and never identified with any “ism,” right or left, even Elleonora's Transcendentalism. A talented businessman who knew how to make money, how to save it, and how to give it away when the time came; a wise man who could remain above the soul-shredding disputes of his time, he did many decent things with many decent results. Always intending his bequests to benefit the people of the City of New Orleans, he was above all a civic-minded man in an often uncivil world. For that, we are grateful and honor him on his birthday, November 23--Delgado Founder's Day (see Fig 18).

Fig. 18.    Delgado students celebrating Founder's Day in 1969, at the Metairie Cemetery grave site of Isaac, Samuel, and Virginia Delgado

 Works Consulted

“Albania Plantation” (Special Correspondence).  The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer (1902)
        23: 303. 

Campanalla, Richard. New Orleans Then and Now.  New Orleans: Pelican, 1999.

Campanalla, Richard. Time and Place in New Orleans: Past Geographies in the Present Day. New 
        Orleans: Pelican, 2002.

“Delgado School to Open on Namesake's Birthday.”  The Times-Picayune 9 Nov. 1921, pg. 14.

Dodge, Louis A.  Isaac Delgado Central Trades School and Its Founder.  New Orleans: Delgado
        Press, 1928.

Deutsch, Hermann.  “Elleonora Moss.”  The Times Picayune 9 Aug. 1960, pg. 14.

Dunbar, Prescott.  The New Orleans Museum of Art: The First Seventy-Five Years. Baton Rouge:
         LSU P, 1990. 

Garthwaite, Elloyse and Tom Ireland.  Isaac Delgado: His Life and Impact on New Orleans amd the
         State of Louisiana.  New Orleans: Delgado, 1960.

Hill, David Spence. Vocational Survey for the Isaac Delgado Central Trades School.  New Orleans:
          The Commission Council, 1914. 

Kendall, John.  History of New Orleans.  New Orleans, Lewis Press, 1922.

Moss, Elleonora E. “Address by Miss Eleonora Moss Presenting the Portrait of Isaac Delgado
           at the Dedication Exercises of the Isaac Delgado Central Trades School Wednesday,
           November 23, 1921,” in Louis Dodge's The Isaac Delgado Central Trades School and
           Its Founder.  New Orleans, LA, Delgado Press, 1937: 15. 

Patureau, Stephen.  A History of the Isaac Delgado Central Trades School. Masters Thesis, Tulane
          University, 1939.

Program.  “Dedication of the Delgado Memorial [Charity Hospital].” Saturday, December 19,
     2:00 P.M. New Orleans, 1908.

Reeves, Sally and William Reeves.  History of City Park New Orleans.  New Orleans: City Park
          Improvement Association, 2000. 

Report of the Board of Administrators of Charity Hospital to the General Assembly of the State of
           Louisiana, 1915.  http://www.tulane.edu/~matas/CHR/CHR1915.pdf.  

Rosenberg, Malcolm Francis.  The Orleans Parish Public Schools Under the Superintendency of
          Nicholas Bauer.  Diss. LSU, 1963. 

Salvaggio, John E.  New Orleans' Charity Hospital: A Story of Physicians, Politics, and Poverty.
    Baton Rouge: LSU, 1992.

Thames, Marvin E.  Sr.  The History of the Isaac Delgado Central Trades School.   Diss. LSU, 1957.

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