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Picking Up The Pieces

Preservationists are trying to slow down the bulldozers and assess the damage in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast following last year's devastating hurricane.

By Martha McDonald

It's hard to imagine the damage done to New Orleans both by Hurricane Katrina and by the lack of help to the area immediately following the storm. Before the arrival of Katrina on August 29, 2005, New Orleans had a population of almost half a million. Four months later, it was estimated at 144,000 and was expected to reach 181,000 by this September and only 247,000 by September 2008, according to estimates from the governor's office. This report also estimates that approximately 50% (108,731) of the city's households had more than 4 ft. of water during the flooding. New Orleans' historic districts weathered the storm better than other areas because they were built on higher ground, but other neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview suffered immense damage, primarily from flooding when the levees broke.

"We are still trying to understand the extent of the damage to the historic districts," says Carolyn Bennett, executive director of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, Baton Rouge, LA. "When the hurricanes hit, 26 of the 64 parishes (counties) in Louisiana were damaged. No one disagrees that the buildings must be saved, but the question is how do you translate that into action. The Preservation Resource Center has been very good at holding off the wholesale demolition that was being talked about in the early days. There has been a lot of architectural looting."

Local preservation groups, including the Preservation Resource Center (PRC) of New Orleans, the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) and the Vieux Carré Commission are exerting monumental efforts to save the city's architectural legacy, both in housing and in public buildings. In addition, national groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) and the World Monuments Fund (WMF) are working to help save and restore historic buildings and to help educate people on how to save their buildings. The WMF has even added the Gulf Coast and New Orleans as the 101st site to the 2006 World Monuments Watch list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites.

Assessing the Damage
The first effort has been to assess the damage and to stop, or at least slow down, the bulldozers. "We are concerned about neighborhoods throughout the city," says Patricia Gay, executive director of the PRC. "There are 38,000 buildings in the New Orleans' 20 historic districts, and we estimate that 8,000 to 10,000 of these were damaged by flooding. Another 2,000 to 4,000 or so buildings are eligible to be listed in the National Register districts. If you add these in, the total number of buildings that were impacted by flooding or winds is 10,000 to 12,000.

"Reconstruction is well underway," she adds. "A visitor could come to the city and have the same experience as before the storm. There is a lot of vitality in the city, and residents are determined to restore their neighborhoods. However, people who lived in the neighborhoods that got the most flooding could easily be discouraged because it is such an overwhelming problem. We are now trying to assess what the city has indicated will be demolished. We want to save any historic building that's not about to fall down and are doing our best to assist people to return to their homes regardless of where they are in the city."

"For the most part, the French Quarter [also known as the Vieux Carré] was not badly harmed by the hurricane directly," says Lary Hesdorffer, director of the Vieux Carré Commission, an organization that has been reduced from nine to two people, following layoffs last fall. "The structures have survived and we are issuing permits for repairs. Our physical damage has been on a smaller scale than in other areas. We have damaged chimneys, roofs, gates, handrails and balconies. Everyone suffered from the high rain and flying debris, but the oldest areas of the city like the Vieux Carré are sitting on higher ground. They were built before the levees and so they didn't flood the way the lower areas did."

Although the buildings are standing, the community is still suffering, Hesdorffer states. "So many people were displaced that the hotels and businesses don't have their staffs or clientele back. That's a citywide, even regional, problem. What do you do when only a portion of your population is back? People are starting to get back to normal, but it's bit by bit, step by step. It's hard to grasp the breadth of the damage. Katrina devastated thousands of square miles."

Preliminary inspections by the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) found 172 buildings with severe structural damage within the 13 local historic districts covered by the organization, and 82 with moderate structural damage. "This is not too bad considering we have 16,000 buildings within our districts," says Elliott Perkins, acting executive director. "The local historic districts correspond somewhat to the national register districts, but they are not exactly the same. There are more national register districts than local districts." The 13 local historic districts within the jurisdiction of the HDLC include Algiers Point, Bywater, Esplanade Ridge, Faubourg Marigny, Holy Cross, Irish Channel, Lower Garden District, St. Charles Avenue, Tremé, Canal Street, Lafayette Square, Picayune Place and the Warehouse District.

Jonathan Fricker, director of the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, a state agency located in Baton Rouge, agrees. "The good news is that most of the historic buildings are on the higher ground, so many of them did not flood. However," he adds, "we will be reviewing the 38,000 buildings within the 20 historic districts in New Orleans. The review process is being put in place. One of the great challenges is the sheer number of buildings. The typical disaster may have a few hundred buildings, but in this case, there are thousands of buildings."

Fricker explains that the city of New Orleans is in the process of examining more than 100,000 buildings in the affected areas (mostly homes and not just in the historic areas) and is tagging them. A green tag means it's okay to return, a yellow tag means it's okay to live in it but repairs are needed, and a red tag means it's uninhabitable. "My impression is that approximately 5% of the buildings are being red tagged."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) has moved quickly to join in the effort to preserve the architectural heritage of both New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It has partnered with the PRC to create the Home Again program in New Orleans, which is designed to help low- and moderate-income owners of historic homes by providing grants of up to $40,000.

In a letter to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin dated January 12, 2006, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said, "I would urge that building permits be allowed in the city's nineteen National Register Historic Districts, which contain 38,000 historic structures. We have concluded that every single one of these historic districts can and should be rebuilt, and that the overwhelming majority of damaged structures within their boundaries can be repaired. These are the Creole cottages, shotgun houses and historic bungalows that constitute the heart and soul of New Orleans. These are the neighborhoods most important to the identity of New Orleans, and they must be allowed to lead the city's neighborhood recovery effort."

Targeting Red-Tagged Buildings
At the moment, the NTHP is concerned about the red-tagged buildings in New Orleans. These buildings were assessed and tagged by The Shaw Group of Baton Rouge under a contract from FEMA. "We have been conducting building-by-building inspections of those homes that were red tagged," says Kevin Mercadel, program officer for the NTHP field office in New Orleans. "We are working in historic districts, compiling data, photos and assessment forms and turning them over to the city. We are working with the PRC and cooperating with the HDLC to provide factual information so people can make rational decisions."

Mercadel points out that about 5,500 buildings throughout New Orleans, including the Lower Ninth Ward and other non-historic districts, have been red-tagged and the city has targeted 2,000 of these to be on a fast track to be demolished. "We have inspected 200 of these 2,000 buildings so far, and at least 30% can be saved. The NTHP has begun inspections of 300 additional buildings in the historic districts and reports indicate that the percentage of savable buildings will be much higher than in the first group," he points out.

Because of the materials – plaster, cypress and hardwoods – the buildings that were damaged by water seem to have weathered the flood quite well, says Mercadel. Others were damaged by wind or fire. "When the city started restoring the electric grids, they underestimated the number of buildings that had downed wires, damaged electrical panels and street wires broken by fallen trees and branches. As a result, there was a large number of fires and no water to put them out. There are a couple of areas where whole blocks were lost."

After inspecting the red-tagged buildings, the NTHP will turn to those with yellow tags. "We will be looking at the rest of the list," says Mercadel. The inspections are being conducted by professionals from around the country who have volunteered through the NTHP, he adds. "So far, we have had 55 or 60 volunteers come through. There has been a tremendous outpouring. More than 1,000 people have volunteered through the Trust, but we can only manage a few at a time. Going into the new year, the focus will be on conducting independent assessments on the red and yellow tagged buildings and trying to guarantee that homeowners are involved and that they don't destroy buildings that don't need to be destroyed."

The NTHP has also partnered with the World Monuments Fund to advocate for the restoration and reconstruction of the historic properties in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. This joint effort was launched by an initial donation of $200,000 from American Express and it has four stated goals: emergency assessment and technical assistance; information and alternatives to demolition; designs that respect the history of the region for rebuilding, and strategic intervention grants.

In New Orleans, the World Monuments Fund has two demonstration restoration projects. "We choose sites because they represent a typical historic building type and common conditions post-Katrina," says Marty Hylton, new projects development manager for the WMF. "We are working with the PRC on a shotgun house in the Holy Cross District, to address the issues of how to deal with flooding and pre-disaster conditions. We are building education opportunities into the process so the authorities can understand the importance of restoring the built heritage as part of the long-term reconstruction and homeowners can understand there are alternatives to demolition."

The second WMF project in New Orleans is the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Many tree limbs were downed and a number of tombs sustained damage, he explains, noting that this site appeared on the first World Watch List in 1996. "New Orleans has a long history of above-ground cemeteries," he says. "We have made a grant and are helping with the restoration of the monuments. We will also add educational components to the project."

The WMF is also concerned about the possible wide-scale demolition plans. "New Orleans was a poor city before Katrina," Hylton says. "A lot of the historic fabric was in bad condition prior to the storm. There were a lot of derelict properties, and organizations like the Preservation Resource Center were working to bring back blighted neighborhoods. The city has red-tagged some buildings whose conditions existed prior to the storm. It is important to distinguish these factors or you may have wholesale demolition of some neighborhoods."

Historic Buildings One of the historic buildings in New Orleans that people are concerned about is the state-owned Charity Hospital, a 1930s structure designed by Louisiana firm Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth, the same architects that designed the 1930s Old Governor's Building in Baton Rouge, a White House look-alike, and the 1935 Art Deco landmark Louisiana State Capitol, also in Baton Rouge. "We would like to see it adaptively reused," says Bennett, "but it may be demolished. We are trying to assess the damage. All reports say that it will never operate as a hospital again. It is not listed on the National Register, but it is eligible. It is a true landmark treasure."

Another state-owned building in New Orleans that was damaged by Katrina is the Old U.S. Mint, now a museum operated by the Louisiana State Museum system. A large portion of its copper roof was torn off and the building has been closed since the hurricane. Contractors hired by FEMA have installed a temporary roof and the contents have been moved and secured. It is not expected to reopen until sometime in 2008, following interior and exterior renovations. Other Louisiana State Museums in historic buildings in the French Quarter include the Cabildo, built in 1795 as the seat of the Spanish government and later the site where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803; the Presbytere; the 1850 House; and Madame John's Legacy, one of the oldest residences in the Quarter.

The only one of these that has reopened since Katrina is the Cabildo. The Presbytere is undergoing renovations that started before Katrina and is expected to reopen this year in time for Mardi Gras. Ironically, the cupola on the Presbytere that had been missing for almost 100 years was replaced just before Katrina and, this time, it survived the storm. The 1850 House and Madame John's Legacy sustained only minor damage. The Louisiana State Museum, celebrating its Centennial year in 2006, also operates properties in Patterson, Natchitoches, Thibodaux and Baton Rouge that were not affected by the storm.

Damages to the Jackson Barracks Military Museum, a 100-acre site that was the former Louisiana National Guard headquarters, have been estimated at $40 million. Located adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward, the site was under 10 ft. of water for days after Katrina. The museum is now conducting tours and assessing the damages, and officials estimate it could take five years before it is fully operational again.

Another museum that suffered severe damage was Longue Vue House & Gardens, an eight-acre site with a Greek Revival Mansion that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The staff is now assessing the damages and calling for donations to replace plants and repair the structure. Historic churches in New Orleans also took a beating during the hurricane. "We are just beginning to survey the churches," says PRC's Gay. What is known is that the historic steeple of the 1875 Rayne Memorial Methodist Church on St. Charles Avenue was blown down and others such as St.

Theresa of Avila (1848) and St. Mary's Assumption (1860) and the St. Alphonsus (built in 1855, now an arts and cultural center) were damaged. Others on the damaged list include St. Maurice Church (1857) in the Holy Cross area, which also lost its steeple, and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church (built 1864-69), which had some damage to its gold dome. St. Augustine Church (1841) in Tremé, also suffered wind damage. The historic Touro Synagogue buildings on the edge of the Garden District experienced flooding that caused damage to its mechanical and computer systems as well as damage to a decorative stained glass, but escaped structural damage. Another historic building that sustained significant damage during the hurricane is the 1915 Coliseum Theater in the Lower Garden District. Restoration was underway when disaster struck again and the building was gutted by a fire.

Meanwhile, the first building to be demolished in the chaos following Katrina was the 1903 former Naval Brigade Hall, in the Lafayette Historic District. At one time it housed the Grunewald Music School, one of the city's jazz landmarks. Recently it was closed and was scheduled to become part of a condo complex being developed by its owners, Roland and Mary von Kurnatowski.

One day in September, just a few weeks after Katrina, members of an out-of-town fire department used the building to demonstrate a piece of equipment, without the knowledge or consent of the city or the owner. They punched so many holes in the building that it collapsed. The building had suffered damage during Katrina and the city had declared it unsafe, but it was not scheduled for demolition, according to von Kurnatowski. He adds, "In the grand scheme of things, I haven't lost as much as many people have." In addition, he said that he is grateful to the out-of-town firefighters for coming to New Orleans and is planning to use some of the original bricks in the new construction.

The Gulf Coast
The devastation on the Gulf Coast may have been worse than in New Orleans because it took a direct hit from a 30- to 35-ft. wave, a wall of water. This area was unprotected; there are no barrier islands. Most of the historic homes and buildings along Highway 90, also known as Beach Boulevard, disappeared.

"According to the Mississippi Heritage Trust, 65,000 homes were destroyed in Mississippi and another 55,800 were damaged," says WMF's Hylton, "More than 1,000 historic structures were completely lost and another 2,500 are in danger of being lost. These buildings have such severe structural damage that they may not be able to be restored. The situation on the Gulf is different because so many buildings were completely lost."

Although it's impossible to list all of the damaged buildings in the area, the American Association of Museums has posted information on its web site on the status of its facilities in Mississippi, as well as Lousisana. Quite a few facilities in Mississippi were lost or severely damaged, including Beauvoir, the 52-acre complex that was Jefferson Davis' home in Biloxi, MS, (approximately 65% of the main house is still standing); the Danzler House, Biloxi, recently renovated to house a Mardi Gras museum (destroyed); Fort Pike Historic Site, Slidell, LA, (completely inundated, covered with mud, inaccessible); Grass Lawn, historic house in Gulfport, MS (gone); Old Capitol Museum of Mississippi History, Jackson, MS, (one-third of copper roof blown off and water poured into exhibition areas); and Pass Christian Historical Society, Pass Christian, MS, (reportedly gone).

The WMF has three demonstration restoration projects in Mississippi. One is the Walter Anderson Cottage, one of the two remaining buildings of the original eight. It is located in the Shearwater Pottery Historic District, a National Register District in Ocean Springs, MS. The complex was an artists' colony founded by the Anderson brothers and, until Katrina, occupied by their descendants. "We are stabilizing the cottage and putting it back on its piers," says Hylton. "The property will be placed under an historic preservation easement, which will protect it from demolition and ensure that it is regularly open to the public. With this project, one of our goals is to provide guidelines and information for people who need to move their homes and put them back on foundations. This is a common problem in the Gulf now."

The WMF has also tackled two other historic homes in Mississippi with the idea of educating people on how to preserve their historic properties. Working with volunteers from the Preservation Trades Network (PTN) and with student volunteers from the University of Florida College of Design, Construction and Planning, WMF is rebuilding one (the Phillips house) and salvaging components from another (the Hecker House). The two houses were side by side in Bay St. Louis, MS, on Beach Boulevard, in the Beach Boulevard Historic District. More than 50 PTN members have volunteered their time and skills in New Orleans and Mississippi, Hylton adds.

"Rudy Christian, a timber framer and vice president of the PTN, was able to discern that that Hecker House dated back to the late 1780s to ca. 1800. The only way we know that is because the storm largely demolished the house and we could see the internal structure," he says. "We spent a week in December, along with the volunteers, disassembling, documenting and salvaging the historic components in hopes that it will be reconstructed."

These projects led the WMF to advocate for the launch of a program to assist others in recycling their historic building components from properties that will not be rebuilt, rather than just demolishing them. "There is a real need for a program to allow people to bring in their historic building materials and ensure that they are properly reused," Hylton says. "The Army Corps of Engineers has offered to demolish homes at no cost, but those materials will just go into landfills and trash bins."

Another group that has moved quickly to aid the Gulf Coast is the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). Working with the Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal , it co-sponsored a major charrette, The Mississippi Renewal Forum, in October 2005 in Biloxi. Andrés Duany, a co-founder of the CNU and principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in Miami, FL, and CNU President and CEO John Norquist invited 110 architects, planners, engineers and other professionals from across the country and the U.K., along with an equal number of local professionals and government representatives, to take part in the event. They produced many ideas, drawings and plans that they donated to help rebuild in a traditional manner suitable to the area. (See "After the Storm," Traditional Building, February 2005, page 12).

Clearly, the work of assessing the damage and rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has just begun and will last for many years. On the one hand, Katrina was a tragedy of epic proportions, but it may have also presented an opportunity to rebuild in a more humane and traditional manner. The decisions being made in the next months will affect many future generations.  

 

 

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