Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans’

New Orleans IV

January 27, 2008

lafitte hsgS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

I’m here at the National Trust Board meetings in New Orleans, which is as potent and colorful a mix of culture as the drinks being swilled from plastic billabongs along Bourbon Street. I always thought Mardi Gras was a day, but here it is a couple of weeks. We have, of course, toured Holy Cross and the Lower Ninth and Lakeview to see the excellent work the Trust and others have been doing restoring houses partially wrecked in the man-made disaster following Katrina, and while many of my colleagues were impressed by the progress after 2 1/2 years, I – not having seen it before – was still amazed by how wrecked some of it looked. In 1874 no one noticed the fire that had burned down Chicago in 1871, but in 2008 the path of aftermath Katrina flooding is quite clear in this landscape.

But what I want to write about, and what our Board got charged up about, was the 1930s-era public housing shown here, the Lafitte Housing Project. Locally it was a den of crime and hopelessness in recent decades, but we saw only vacant and incredibly sound brick buildings and our impulse is they should be saved but HUD wants them down.

IRONY CHECKLIST: 1. New Orleans is still at 65% of its pre-Katrina population. This is caused not by a lack of jobs, but a lack of housing. THEY NEED AFFORDABLE HOUSING. So, they are tearing down hundreds of units????
2. A local developer, which would redevelop the land for HUD, complained that the buildings were TOO WELL BUILT to be rehabilitated. Yow.

They are tearing the same type of buildings down in Chicago (Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and the threatened Lathrop Homes) basically because the land is too valuable and public housing agencies are sort of like Catholic archdioceses – land rich and cash poor. But just like the well-located Lathrop Homes in Chicago, the Lafitte Housing is close enough to the center that it could work – It could be transitional housing for the workers rebuilding the city that can’t find a place to live. In fact, that is exactly what it was designed for. Politically they need to erase the painful recent memories of the place and rekindle the original idea of housing as it worked in the 1940s and 1950s – that is what can be and should be preserved


January 4, 2008

mich ave 1006S

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

What will 2008 bring for preservation? More nasty facade projects? Fewer teardowns thanks to the meltdown of the housing market? I welcome your input and will share with you the SAIC HPRES plans for 2008, which are shaping up:

First, I am off to India along with some of our other faculty for a preservation (building conservation) conference in Ahmedabad in two weeks – less than two weeks actually. I will give a keynote on Preservation in the U.S. and present case studies of green preservation (River Forest Women’s Club) and design issues (Milton Historical Society).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance and a number of organizations are planning events, including the exciting new exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, curated by SAIC alum Kate Keleman called Do We Dare Squander Chicago’s Great Architectural Heritage? I am also moderating a panel of community preservationists in April on the subject, and we just started talking about a symposium in September on the history of preservation in Chicago. The City will kick off with some lectures this Spring, including a big name (pending) in May for Great Places and Spaces.

The Museum signed me up for a cool tour in March combining the Farnsworth House (1950) by Mies with the Ford House (1950) by Bruce Goff, which proves the lie of the zeitgeist and the Organization Man in one huge contrast between formal purity and anarchic romanticism.

Here at the grad program we are planning another trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China at the end of May as we continue our ongoing work on this 13th century town that seems to be in the only place in The Only Country That Matters that is committed to preservation.

I’ll be in New Orleans later this month with the National Trust, and then Denver in May, maybe, and then we have the Annual Conference in Bruce Goff’s hometown of Tulsa in late October, which I am looking forward to…

Our program is moving to larger quarters on the 10th floor of the Sharp Building (1902, Holabird & Roche) this spring, which means we will have a decent Resource Center for the students, a real office for the faculty and more generously windowed studios (sadly replacement windows with all of their problems – inoperability, jagged aluminum seams and short lifespans).

Tom is officially launching my “Preservation Nation” radio show in West Texas this week although I have been working on it for a year – I hope I don’t come off as too much of a curmudgeon, although I do get on the windows rant atimes. And the sustainability rant.

And Felicity and I are doing a house, which is already making me insane. Ah, the particularity of preservation – there are no first principles, just a million million points of difference as messy and unpredictable as all history and its head crushing parade of humanity…..


December 15, 2005

First a quick note about New Orleans, where many preservationists are hard at work trying to save the homes of this historic city. Last week, Associated Press reported on a survey of 114,127 damaged buildings in New Orleans. Of these, 31,662 had no structural damage, 79,325 had partial damage and 3,140 were tagged red, which meant they should be razed.

Two comments: 1. That is less than 3 percent. 2. The AP report notes that the majority of the red-tagged buildings were brick ranch houses built since 1940.

Score one for the old buildings!

Now, on to New York

I was in New York late last week interviewing preservationists and I was struck by how similar preservation issues are in different places: the politics, the factions, the economics and aesthetics. I was also struck by how parochial New Yorkers can be – as I interviewed them they often counterinterviewed me to find out what was going on in Chicago. That’s New York – a world unto itself and hence a bit fishbowlic despite its mass. I don’t begrudge that – New York is a whole world every few blocks – if I were there it would be hard to see beyond the Hudson.

And New York looms large in preservation history. They gave us zoning in 1916, and their 1965 local landmarks law – while not the first – had a big influence on the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and famously held up in court in the 1978 Grand Central Station case. On Saturday I had the good fortune of meeting with Dorothy Miner, a key attorney on that case, and her insights were revelatory. She was also the least parochial, keenly aware of landmarks litigation in Chicago over the years. Unlike some advocates she also was willing to count the successes over time, particularly the large historic districts on the Upper West and Upper East Sides. She was genuinely amazed that New Yorkers had chosen to regulate so much valuable real estate.

A lot of my investigation centered on Greenwich Village, still the largest district in Manhattan. This is valuable real estate. Rows of Federal and Greek Revival rowhouses were being frantically leveled for giant white brick air conditioner piles right up until the 1969 designation. “Pile” is a derisive term in architecture with a long history and the clunky step-box stacks of New York embody it perfectly. But they stopped them in the Village. The neighborhood even has its own staffed preservation organization that is adding more landmarks as well as downzoning to maintain Village character.

New York is less coherent than Chicago to my eye, and less architecturally notable, but it has great buildings and it has a lot of what most people understand a architecture: swooping stoops and swelling swags and all of that ornamental decoration that even politicians understand as architecture – the opposite of Mies, if you will.

I did visit our Chicago heroes – Mies’ Seagram Building and Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict with its restored storefronts. They fit right into the universe that is New York. Everything fits in there because it is a universe, a world unto itself, lacking nothing and keeping a heck of a lot of it.

New Orleans III

September 14, 2005

In the Chicago Tribune this morning architecture critic Blair Kamin made a convincing case for the rebuilding of New Orleans and several cases for historic preservation. There was the issue of the image of the city, defined by its elaborate wrought iron balconies and exuberantly ornamented houses, from the grandest to the meanest, all with a touch of celebration, a bit of show. There was the argument of the city’s unique cultural blend (choose your metaphor: gumbo, jazz, Mardi Gras) and the argument of its tourist attraction.

One of Kamin’s most interesting and astute observations was that neighborhoods built in the post-World War II era were much more easily devastated by flooding than older ones. “Time went forward, but building practices went backward” said Kamin, making one of the most convincing arguments for historic preservation there is: they don’t build them like they used to. Kamin’s argument was mostly about practices like building first floors above raised basements, but it could easily be extended to materials and construction techniques.

Several times in recent years I have tried to get new house developers to say that their products are built better – or as well – as historic houses, and not one has yet taken the bait. We can build houses faster and workers are considerably aided by nail guns and all sorts of precuts, but when I suggest that new suburban homes built since 1990 will not survive longer than their mortgages, no one contradicts me.

Part of the reason for this is construction techniques – a century ago skilled carpenters and craftsmen were less expensive – and part is materials – most of 19th century America was built with old-growth wood. Today you survive on 30-year old pine and spruce and those fabulous glues and steam presses that turn sawdust into steel, at least for a while. Can even the best wood survive a flood? Depends, but old wood, with dense growth rings, with the long-gone possibility of hardwood members, resists water penetration in a way that no postwar house can. New Orleans of course had a terrible termite problem – one of my first thoughts in reaction to the flood was a hope that it had drowned the termites.

The sheer scope of this disaster and the massive belated federal attention to it will bring to bear a host of political and economic pressures that will have a greater impact on what gets preserved than the actual structural integrity of the buildings involved. Kamin ably notes this: absentee owners will push for demolition; planners will seek massive clear sites; politicians will want one glitzy photo-op rather than an everyday rehabilitated neighborhood. They will blame the buildings of course, since they can’t speak for themselves. Which is why the preservationists are there now, seeing what can be saved.

Watch this one closely (i.e., not on television).

New Orleans II

September 12, 2005

So much has been written about New Orleans. My brother sent a link to a Joel Garreau (Edge City) article in the Washington Post that basically says New Orleans is gone. Sure, the high ground of the Crescent City with its historic districts will still be there for tourists, but the low-lying poverty areas would likely be bulldozed. He also notes that the historic reasons for the city – the port – is no longer in the city. Garreau makes some good points and several people have expressed concern that the rebuilding of New Orleans will turn it into a theme park, or that rich people and a homeless Trent Lott will swipe up all the ocean view property at disaster prices and use FEMA and Halliburton to rebuild it and make a quick killing in real estate, leaving the former poor out of a new cleaner, safer, more boring New Orleans.

This is a worry, although the feds record on infrastructure rebuilding (here and abroad) since 2000 is one of underperformance, there is still the de facto land grab of evacuation, and the potential to draw even more tourists…but…

Remember what happened with Vegas in the early 90s? It decided to go family-friendly and reinvent and clean up its image. Didn’t last. The dirty glitzy Vegas came back within a decade – and they have hardly preserved anything besides that welcome sign. I don’t wanna get too spiritual but places do have a character that can’t be kicked away by disasters man-made or otherwise.

Garreau also mentioned how some disasters – Chicago’s 1871 fire and San Francisco’s 1906 quake and fire – actually made the place stronger and better than before, but claims that won’t happen to a dwindling New Orleans without the logic of a port – it will be left only with its tourism industry.

Yeah, but it is one of the oldest tourism industries in the country. Tourism and individuality and wierdness and borderline legality are part of New Orleans character. I don’t think Halliburton can rebuild that but I’m not so sure they can bury it.

New Orleans

September 7, 2005

New Orleans

Katrina has devastated New Orleans, a unique American city, unprecedented and unparalleled in its cultural heritage and central to the history of historic preservation. New Orleans preserved landmarks before almost any other city in North America, and it preserved historic districts before any city here save Charleston. In its integration of architecture and culture it even suggested that preservation was about more than buildings: a blend of music and the peoples and practices of three continents stirred into an intriguing and attracting mix. Now, more of it is gone that we yet know.

The Department of Homeland Security failed its first test in New Orleans, abetting a human tragedy that outweighs any concerns of material culture. It failed even though everybody else saw it coming. My newspaper last Sunday was illustrated with cross-sections what kind of flooding would happen in New Orleans with the expected storm surge. Chicago’s Mayor saw that and offered extensive help to FEMA, which was turned down during Day 1 of the weeklong federal bungle. Turns out FEMA is now run by people with no experience in emergency management. On top of bad management, various government muckety-mucks and their mothers have added fabulous insults to the injuries, treating other people as if they were somehow categorically different. Always a mistake. Today Bangladesh offered help.

We still don’t know how much is lost – the French Quarter, the nation’s second historic district protected in 1937, seems relatively unscathed. The Garden District is some distance from the levee breaks, but the Ninth Ward took the brunt of it, an area of preservation outreach in recent years. See for ways to help. Along the Gulf Coast, historic homes in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where Louis Sullivan had his vacation escape, are likely gone. Biloxi. Many places seemingly gone forever.

The magnitude is almost unimaginable, except it was imagined, by FEMA before it had its knees cut off, by New Orleans when it tried to build levees, by everybody’s newspaper last Sunday before the thing even hit.

We live in such an instantaneous society with so little memory that the feeble excuses from Washington seem plausible only if you can’t remember the news you read a week ago. Then again, they encourage you to forget – replace this memory with that one – thanks to spin, which is the same as marketing or propaganda. Fortunately, the debacle now is so big and so visible and graphic that even Rovian spinsters can’t put Humpty back together.

Will New Orleans get put back together? Yes, because there is the historic place, and it seems much of its historic core, and by far more importantly, that strange hybrid culture that simply does not exist elsewhere –a place that fostered the sort of individuality that resulted in stranding and death and looting but also a place that recognizes that society and culture are needed, desperately needed, if any of us are to experience our individuality. They had a parade yesterday. New Orleans won’t be a theme park as some pundit suggested this morning, because the same culture that is freaking out Baton Rouge right now will need a place to go and a place to build. Of course it won’t be the same – nothing ever is. Even for a minute. But it will be New Orleans.

One more note on Dennis Hastert’s ill-advised remarks about bulldozing a city built in a terrible location. All cities are built in terrible locations. Amsterdam? Underwater. Venice? Eternally submerging. Mexico City and Chicago built on swamps and landfill, San Francisco and Los Angeles on fault lines. Cities grow where they are needed based on commerce and transportation, which for most of human history meant as close to the damn water as possible. The fact that the ocean and the river were so close meant that New Orleans had to be there.

Still does.