August 2010 E-News Brief
THREATENED: Phillis Wheatley Elementary
Photos: Courtsey of The Preservation Resource Center, www.prcno.org
Efforts to preserve and reuse Phillis Wheatley Elementary constitute what is arguably one of the most pressing preservation issues facing New Orleans today. Designed in 1954 by New Orleans architect Charles Colbert, FAIA, it is a groundbreaking work of modern engineering and design. Though its cantilevered classroom wing avoided the ravages of flooding after Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) is pushing for FEMA funds to demolish the National Register-eligible building.
According to the National Historic Preservation Act
of 1966, any such use of federal dollars to demolish
or otherwise alter a building must first be subject
to the Section 106 review process to determine
how such actions can be mitigated through
discussion with concerned parties. FEMA began
Wheatley’s Section 106 review last fall and the
issue erupted into a contentious fight between
those for and against preservation. The RSD halted
the process to commission the Hammond, LA-based
firm of Holly + Smith to perform a feasibility study
for the site. Its findings were made public at an
RSD-hosted community meeting on July 21st, while
the official consultation process resumed July 29th.
Holly + Smith considered two options for the site, total demolition and replacement with a new school building versus restoration of and addition to the historic building. The firm was not charged with formally designing either scenario, only with assessing current conditions and proposing hypothetical schematics. It found that both options were comparable in most respects, though estimated that the renovation scenario would cost an additional $900,000. The architects neglected to calculate how demolition costs would help to close that gap, but either way, the project would cost between $20 million and $21 million. RSD officials have asserted that either scenario would be completed by 2013.
Despite these findings, detractors still maintain that Wheatley must come down. The RSD claims that it would be impossible to achieve an ideal learning environment for students using the existing building, and some echo this sentiment by insisting that the only way to achieve parity with other public schools would be to construct an entirely new building. These arguments seem somewhat disingenuous in light of the fact that the district already plans to renovate a diverse collection of forty-four existing school buildings, historic or otherwise. If it is possible to bring each of those to a reasonable level of programmatic equality, one is left to wonder why the rehabilitation and reuse of Wheatley is so insurmountable, particularly in light of those conclusions drawn by the RSD’s own consultants.
Additional arguments against preservation come from those attributing a host of educational and social ills to the building itself. Wheatley was poorly maintained for decades, and prior to Hurricane Katrina it, like most of New Orleans’ public schools, was failing. Overall mismanagement was, after all, what spurred state takeover of the city’s school system by the RSD in the first place. These problems were endemic citywide, not unique products of Wheatley’s design. Others claim that the building, completed the same year as the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, painfully encapsulates the era of segregation in New Orleans and therefore should be demolished to start anew. One wonders then why those same detractors are not arguing for the demolition of all of the city’s historic school buildings, the vast majority of which were completed prior to World War II; the answer likely lies in the fact that these are mostly Classical Revival style structures which are more widely accepted as “historic.” In either case, these arguments reveal a disturbing brand of selective memory on the part of those seeking demolition most ardently.
Holly + Smith’s feasibility study, which states that
Phillis Wheatley Elementary is a viable resource,
should be seen as a positive starting off point for
creative solutions to satisfy all. Those arguing for
preservation – including DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana,
Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans,
National Trust for Historic Preservation, World
Monuments Fund, and citizens throughout New
Orleans – believe that this historic building can
indeed be incorporated into a 21st century school to
benefit children for years to come. After all, that is
the ultimate goal of preservation – to insure that
future generations will inherit the architectural
legacy of those who came before, rather than allow
short-sighted thinking to deprive them of that
Archives Building in Atlanta
Qualifications (RFQ) for design professionals interested in
preparing demolition documents for the former State
Archives Building (A. Thomas Bradbury, 1962-65). The
building, a favorite of many Chapter members, is one of
Bradbury’s most distinctive designs, and is visible from
downtown freeways. The building was vacated when the
State archives moved to a new facility in Morrow, Georgia.
In April, the Georgia Chapter partnered
with Historic Augusta and the Historic
Preservation Division of Georgia
Department of Natural Resources (HPD) for
a tour of historic Modern sites in Thomson
and Augusta, Georgia.
Moffson (HPD) provided historic
background before the group visited the
McNeill House (1937), one of Georgia’s first
International Style National Register
listings, based on an Edward Durell Stone
design published in Collier’s Magazine in
District, including sites designed by I.M. Pei’s office. Pei’s Bicentennial-era projects include the now-vacant Chamber of Commerce Building (1975),
a streetscape and parking project (1976), and his unique Lamar Building Penthouse (1975). Tour leader Erick Montgomery of Historic Augusta
also highlighted the Moderne Miller Theater (Roy Benjamin, 1940), the
now vacant International Style Augusta Public Library building (Eve and
Stulb, 1960), and the Miesian Wachovia Bank Building (Robert McCreary, 1967).
International Style Burge Apartment Building (Stevens and Wilkinson, 1947) in early 2010. In 2009, the Chapter submitted a statement encouraging Tech’s reconsideration of plans for demolition and
expressed disappointment at the limited technical study of adaptive
use options that were conducted.
Guidelines for Evaluation of Ranch
for Evaluation provides step-by-step
procedures for researching, recording,
and evaluating ranch houses. The
guide received The Georgia Trust's
Excellence in Preservation Service
Award in April, was prepared by New
South Associates in collaboration with
the Historic Preservation Division of the
Department of Natural Resources, the
Georgia Transmission Corporation, and
the Georgia Department of
Transportation, and several
architectural consulting firms. The
guide can be accessed from the
Georgia HPD website.
CHAPTER UPDATE: DOCOMOMO US/New England
Photo: Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, Architects
Boston's Modern Heritage
Boston, Massachusetts is perhaps the epi-center in the discussion on the preservation of Modern architecture in the United States. With the controversy over the landmarking of the Christian Science Center complex coming to a head, DOCOMOMO US/New England president David Fixler was featured on WBUR’s daily news program Radio Boston to discuss why Modern architecture deserves to be saved. To hear the entire broadcast, and David’s piece on Modernism (about 36 minutes in), visit the WBUR website. For more on the history to preserve Boston's Christian Science Center visit our archives.