Opening photo: The first location of the New Orleans Passport Office in 1921 was room 313 in the U. S. Custom House, shown here, circa 1930. Photograph by Charles L. Franck
By Jane E. Catanese
2021 marks a milestone for the Department of State’s passport services as the New Orleans Passport Center, the Seattle Passport Agency, and the Chicago Passport Agency all celebrate 100 years since their offices were first established. The New Orleans Passport Center, the fourth oldest regional passport office, celebrated its centennial in July. The staff held two celebrations, a fun-filled employee-only “decades” themed event and an official program which featured virtual remarks by Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Passport Services Rachel Arndt. Leading up to the anniversary, employees shared a fascinating array of historical photos and material.
In a city where history lives side-by-side with the present, the Passport Center fits right in. At its present location on the edge of the French Quarter, one can look out the window and see the mighty Mississippi River. The Port of New Orleans, coincidentally, is the reason for the Passport Center’s existence in the first place.
On the opposite side of the New Orleans Passport Center, a different window looks out upon the massive gray granite stones of the 1848 U.S. Custom House where Somerset Owen, New Orleans’ first passport agent, opened the doors, July 1, 1921. Two weeks later, Edward Latham, a marine engineer, arrived from St. Louis with a friend. He had an urgent trip planned to Mexico, and his friend of more than 17 years attested to his birth “on or about” 1868 and also swore to his identity. With that very typical evidence, and with approval from Washington, conveyed by telegram, Latham was issued the first passport produced in New Orleans.
During the next decade, business steadily increased. However, that quickly changed when the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, drying up passport requests. Congress even lowered passport prices from $9.00 to $5.00 in 1930, in an effort to stimulate demand. Unfortunately, receipts continued to decline, and in 1933, the Department closed the New Orleans office.
Once World War II ended, local Congressmen and business leaders pushed to have the office reestablished. According to a March 27, 1948 article in “The Times-Picayune,” George Schneider of the Commerce Association reported that the “…District Court here receives an estimated 2,000 passport applications annually and an equal number of passport inquiries…”
With such demand, the New Orleans Passport Center reopened in 1950 with Agent-in-Charge Stoughton Richmond at the helm. Prior to that year, most passports were issued in Washington, even when applied for at a local office. The New Orleans agency was assigned either all or part of seven states and handled the entire process from start to finish. This method revolutionized passport production.
“We only issued 1,716 passports in 1960,” said Richmond, in an article published in “The Times-Picayune,” July 21, 1963. “Under the new setup, we’ve processed as high as 460 passports in one single day. Which gives you an idea of the staggering task facing us.”
The New Orleans Passport Center moved back into the U.S. Custom House in 1964 and photographs from two years later show a mid-century modern counter area with ashtrays and a gigantic map of the world on which applicants enjoyed pointing out their destinations. On the wall hung a sign instructing travelers that a smallpox vaccine was required. The yellow International Certificate of Vaccination from the World Health Organization became a common sight tucked into passports from that era.
Looking out yet another window from the current location, one will see the International Trade Mart building which housed the agency beginning in 1974. At the time, employees were still using the decades-old teletype system to process passport applications. While the applicant’s information was typed on a teletypewriter, that machine simultaneously punched a paper tape with the encoded data. At the book print station, the tape was fed into a “Flexiwriter” which would automatically print the book. Next, the applicant’s photograph was run through the “glue pot,” placed in the book, and ironed with a regular household iron to set the adhesive. Finally, the Department seal and a multi-colored legend showing the issuing location was impressed onto the photo. Even though the process sounded tedious, one retiree called it, “Efficient.” It must have been since 225,000 passports were issued in 1977.
The introduction of the automated Travel Document Issuance System in the mid-1980s marked a tremendous increase in productivity. In the Acceptance Agents’ Newsletter from May 1985, now retired-Customer Service Manager Philip Pusateri proclaimed that the agency was entering the computer age.
“State-of-the-art technology will replace the current antiquated equipment,” said Pusateri. “…the new system will make extensive use of video display terminals …data entry clerks will affix “bar codes” to all incoming applications, and the information on each application will then be entered into the computer. Application status checks, which in the past often amounted to searching for a needle in a haystack, will now be solved with the push of a few buttons.”
The territory handled by the New Orleans office expanded to encompass an incredible 15 states, with a record setting 2,700 acceptance facilities under their supervision.
Due to its geographical location, New Orleans has had more than its share of hurricane threats over the decades, including the most recent storms of 2021. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina came roaring into the Gulf of Mexico, most residents didn’t fear the worst. Katrina, however, would trigger a collapse of parts of the levee system and staff members evacuated all across the country. Department officials took immediate action and had everything in the facility moved to the Charleston Passport Center. The process was laborious in the sweltering heat and even Deputy Assistant Secretary Frank Moss heaved weighty boxes of blank passports down dark stairwells. While it took many months for staff members to rebuild their homes, the federal government needed to secure temporary housing for the federal workers in New Orleans in order to reopen essential operations. They contracted with cruise ships to fill the void and several of the Passport Center’s staff members, including Pusateri and his wife Karen, also an agency retiree, lived on one for 50 days. While the quarters were extremely tight, there was a silver lining. The food was the same that would normally be served to their guests, and it was provided free of charge. Fortunately, the passport office was able to reopen on a limited basis in November 2005, and began full operations, January 2006.
Anyone who worked for passport services in 2007 will recall the unprecedented demand resulting from the implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Staff members in New Orleans remember the organized stacks of boxes crammed in every available space, applicants packed in the counter lobby, and couriers picking up passports to bring to the airport for same day delivery. In many ways, that experience prepared New Orleans for the workload challenges they faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the opening of the New Orleans Passport Center, much has changed from a two-man operation approving 19 passports a month to the diverse and talented team of more than 100 employees and contractors processing and issuing more than a million passports a year. Hard work and perseverance are the key traits that enabled New Orleans employees across decades to overcome challenges and lay the foundation from which to springboard into the future.
Jane E. Catanese is a fraud program manager at the New Orleans Passport Center.