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Mid-Century Architecture at Risk in New Orleans

February 26, 2008

By Shawn Kennedy

New Orleans’ 20th century architectural heritage is at risk due to the public’s desire to see the storm-damaged city rebuilt quickly and a general disregard for structures of the Modern era. That warning came earlier this month from a panel of architects, architecture critics, preservationists, and planners who gathered for a public forum titled “At Risk: 20th Century New Orleans Urban Design and Architecture.”

St. Francis Cabrini Church, in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood
Photo © Neil Alexander

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Held at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the forum drew an audience of roughly 150 people largely sympathetic to the premise that many 20th century structures—including storm-damaged schools, government offices, and public housing—are worth saving because of their architectural significance, and because many are more durable than the buildings likely to replace them.

Several panelists, and a least one speaker who rose from the audience, made the point that the city lacks a set of design standards that would improve the stature of modern architecture. “Part of what defines New Orleans is its 18th and 19th century architecture, and it is plain to us the elements that make [this] architecture unique,” said Dr. Michael Sartisky, executive director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, speaking from the audience. “Modernism seems to have been dropped into New Orleans. There are no clarifying principals of Modern design here that give it value.”

Jack Davis, a panelist in the forum who is a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said that 20th century architecture is also vulnerable because the public lacks the protective impulse for contemporary buildings that it has for those in the French Quarter, Garden District, and other neighborhoods with older structures. “The momentum since Katrina is pro-demolition because it’s a sign of progress; a sign that something is being done,” Davis said, adding that this impulse is strongest when it comes to Modern buildings.

Other panelists included New Orleans architects Arthur Q. Davis and Ray Manning; Ferrel Guillory, director of the University of North Carolina’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications; and Sally Hernandez-Pinero, former chairwoman of the New York City Housing Authority. Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for The New York Times, moderated the discussion.

Among the 20th century edifices being demolished, slated, or proposed for demolition are Charity Hospital, a 1930s Art Deco building that did not re-open after the storm; four of the city’s largest public housing complexes, including the 1940s-era St. Bernard Houses that are currently being razed; and the 1950s-vintage Louisiana State Supreme Courthouse and adjacent Supreme Court Office Building.

The courthouse and court office buildings compose a downtown government complex with City Hall, another Modernist structure whose days may be numbered. Designed by the local firm of August Perez & Associates, and completed in 1958, the courthouse was relegated to storeroom status in 2004 when the Louisiana Supreme Court moved back into a Beaux-Arts-styled building in the French Quarter. At the time, the state government had planned to renovate and upgrade the buildings, but plans changed after Katrina, which flooded mechanical systems in the basement and made these renovations more expensive, says Jerry Jones, director of the Louisiana State Office of Facilities Planning. Jones says that demolition is expected to begin by the end of 2008, after the completion of asbestos removal. Holly & Smith Architects, of Hammond, Louisiana, is designing a new state office building to occupy the site.

Wayne Troyer, a principal of Wayne Troyer Architects, is among a group of design professionals who are forming a New Orleans chapter of DOCOMOMO, the international organization that promotes preservation and awareness of Modernist architecture and urban design. “Our purpose will be about educating the public on the importance Modern buildings and how they interact with the fabric of the city and why it is important to preserve them,” he explains. “Modern buildings often lend a sense of optimism about the future to a cityscape.” Troyer is pressing the state to evaluate an adaptive reuse of the courthouse, even if the office building comes down.

Another 20th century landmark already lost to the wrecking ball in June 2007 was the St. Francis Cabrini Church, in the Gentilly neighborhood. Completed in 1964 with a decidedly Modernist silhouette, the church building was sacrificed for the sake of a new campus for Holy Cross School, a Catholic boys’ institution whose Ninth Ward campus was completely destroyed by Katrina.

St. Francis Cabrini’s architect, panelist Arthur Q. Davis, added a personal perspective to last week’s forum when he spoke of how distressing demolition can be for architects to witness: “We are outliving our buildings and that’s not right.”

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