Saving Modern New Orleans
With one of the oldest preservation movements in the United States, New Orleans typically guards its architectural past closely, but the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in the Tremé neighborhood is on track to join a few recently demolished exceptions.
In contrast to the ornamented 18th and 19th-century structures for which the city is best known, the 1954 design by Charles R. Colbert is a bold glass-enclosed steel trellis cantilevered over an outdoor playground area, shading it from the subtropical sun. Following Hurricane Katrina, which the raised school weathered far better than neighboring buildings, the Orleans Parish School Board closed the aging facility. It was left to vandals and the elements until the end of last month, when the Louisiana Department of Education put out a bid for its demolition. In its place, the DOE plans to build a new facility nearly three times as large as Colbert’s structure.
A preservation movement has emerged to save the work. The Times-Picayune recently published a video featuring architecture professor John Klingman and curator Francine Stock of Tulane University, as well as Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc, an actor and former Phillis Wheatley student who now appears on the television show "Tremé,” calling for the school to be spared the wrecking ball. They make a case for renovating the old structure and incorporating it into a new school complex.
Watch the video here.
Similar debates are playing out in different contexts throughout the country, placing preservationists in the awkward position of defending shopworn but significant Modernist school buildings against the need to build spaces suited to contemporary technologies and educational models on an institutional budget. See our recent article about Wayland High School by the Architects Collaborative for just one example. As more facilities come under threat, it begs the question, will we ever begin looking at regional Modernism with the reverence we afford to a wrought-iron balcony?
A few weeks ago, I spoke with New Orleans architect Wayne Troyer, who has worked with the Louisiana contingent of the preservation organization Docomomo International on efforts to save the Wheatley school. (The group has recently launched a petition to New Orleans mayor Mayor Mitchell Landrieu.)
In the first excerpt from my conversation with Troyer, we discuss mid-20th-century New Orleans architecture and how the school embodies a regionally specific style of Modernism. In the second, we talk about post-Katrina school development, efforts to save Wheatley, and what wrangling over the school’s fate can teach us about preservation discussions.
Photos: Courtesy World Monuments Fund (top), Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans (bottom)