Phillis Wheatley Elementary School
Floating above Creole cottages and Victorian shotgun houses of the Tremé/Lafitte neighborhood of New Orleans is the glass-and-steel Phillis Wheatley Elementary School. In 1954, the architect Charles Colbert constructed an elevated cantilevered steel truss structure to provide an expansive shaded playground area, protecting the schoolchildren from the tropical climate. Progressive for a school facility at the time, the building was critically acclaimed and its design was exhibited internationally. The building is a valuable example of regional modernism in a city most noted for its 18th- and 19th-century architecture.
More than 50 years later, the elevated form proved highly effective in protecting the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School from the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Since the hurricane, the Orleans Parish School Board has shuttered the building, and decay and vandalism have taken their toll on this striking statement of modern design. Demolition of the edifice to construct a new school has been proposed, and Docomomo-Louisiana has countered this proposal by suggesting an adaptive reuse of the building as a community center. This alternative to demolition would raise public awareness of an architectural gem unique to New Orleans and encourage community building in an area still recovering from disaster.
Since the Watch
A consultation process to evaluate preservation-minded alternatives to demolition, required by the National Historic Preservation Act, was underway for Phillis Wheatley since the fall of 2009. In July 2010, the results of a feasibility study commissioned by the Louisiana Recovery School District, proponents of demolition, were announced. According to the feasibility study, the cost of restoring and expanding the existing building would be comparable to the cost of replacing it with a new one. A spirited public advocacy campaign took place in the spring of 2011, led by Docomomo US/Louisiana, the Watch nominator. An online petition protesting demolition gathered nearly 2,000 signatures. Phillis Wheatley Elementary School was demolished in June 2011, against expressions of support for preservation from the Society of Architectural Historians and the disapproval of New Orleans’ Historic District Landmarks Commission. A new school building will be constructed on the same site. June 2011.