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New Orleans: Two Current Preservation Struggles

During my recent visit to New Orleans to deliver the 29th Annual Martha Robinson Memorial Lecture to the Louisiana Landmarks Society, all of the joys of presenting the field work of World Monuments Fund came to life brilliantly. To re-visit my home state and see anew the intactness of the Vieux Carré district, with its astonishingly early protective legislation (dating to 1936) and to see preservation in process there today, was impressive. Thanks to lingering effects from Hurricane Katrina and some strange post-catastrophe planning, there are some heroic and “hot” preservation struggles going on in the Crescent City.

Sadly, in most of the formerly flooded districts of New Orleans there is still a long way to go to rebuild historic neighborhoods, their infrastructures, and their communities. One especially moving example is the current effort to save and restore the presently abandoned Phillis Wheatley Elementary School built in 1955 by leading New Orleans modernist architect Charles Colbert and located at the edge of Fauborg Treme district. LSU architecture school classmate Lawrence Adams and I toured the eerily quiet school site with Francine Judd Stock, Tulane School of Architecture visual resources curator and the enthusiastic leader of the Louisiana chapter of DOCOMOMO.

What a design the Phillis Wheatley School is! No wonder it was nationally acclaimed just after construction and surely it figured in Colbert's later invitation to serve as Dean of the School of Architecture at Columbia University. And no wonder that such an amazing structure, now deterioring, appears on WMF's 2010 Watch. Wheatley School consists of a series of trusses supported on pairs of 12-foot-tall slender concrete pillars that dramatically cantilever outward in all directions up to 30 feet, which in turn supports the building's carefully detailed block-long steel, glass, and panel one-story classrooms and support spaces. This seminal design solution of raising a school building for optimum natural ventilation and lighting while providing shaded and rain-protected play space below was inspired. Located well above the ground level, it did not suffer from the flooding that submerged the surrounding neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina.

Hopefully, a recent examination of the restoration and/or re-use potential of the Phillis Wheatley School, undertaken by the Recovery School District of New Orleans, will help win the day for this rare and remarkable example of ‘Louisiana Modern'.

Not far away is another heritage protection struggle: community efforts protecting in-place over 100 historic shotgun and cottage homes targeted for demolition in the area of the Lower Mid-City Veteran's Administration complex. Minor water damage to some buildings and social displacement caused by Katrina to this area within the New Orleans Mid-City U.S. National Register District are weak rationale for wiping out these scores of perfectly sound turn-of-the-20th-century buildings. (See the story at www.savemidcityhouses.com.) If new buildings must go up in this area, surely there is a way to integrate new with the old. Examples of how this can be done are in abundance throughout the country today, an especially good one being architect Renzo Piano's incorporation of several neighboring track houses into his award-winning Menil Collection museum complex in Houston some 30 years ago.