Significant modernist architecture is disappearing from the urban fabric of New Orleans at a truly alarming rate. Since the enactment of the 2008 School Facilities Plan for Orleans Parish the mid-century modern public school has become an endangered species in New Orleans.1 Of the city’s thirty public schools designed and built in the 1950s, only four are left standing today.2 Soon only one may remain. These were not generic 20th century buildings but significant award winning architecture, efficiently designed and therefore, quality candidates for sustainable reuse. Currently three of the four modern schools left in New Orleans are endangered with demolition even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency determined that facilities on the campuses were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. DOCOMOMO Louisiana has advocated for their preservation, but to no avail. This essay will highlight the four schools recognized the Louisiana Landmarks Society as Most Endangered in 2008 and the singular school from the era which has been saved.
Progressive architecture in the humid south
One does not normally associate New Orleans with Modern architecture, yet in the 1950s the city was experiencing an architectural rebirth. In 1955 Walter Gropius juried the Progressive Architecture’s second annual design awards. That year PA recognized more buildings designed by architects from New Orleans and Louisiana than from any other city or state in the nation.3 New Orleans was becoming known not only for historic architecture, but also for the innovative designs of a cadre of architects who practiced with a regional approach to modernism. Many of our modern buildings were designed with a similar sensitivity to site and climate as our historic homes: utilizing convection, understanding how to pull a breeze across a room, extending roof lines to shield walls from intense sun and rain, and elevating buildings off the ground to protect our primary living and working spaces from flooding.4 In fact the PA citation for the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School (1955, Charles R. Colbert) specifically recognizes the facility’s bilateral lighting, cross ventilation, open corridor, and its elevation off the ground, asserting the significance of the structure’s responsiveness to site. The Phillis Wheatley School shares these sustainable design strategies with our most significant historic homes such as Madame John’s Legacy (1795) and the Pitot House (1799). The spirit of the Phillis Wheatley structure is thoroughly modern as evidenced by its cantilevered steel trusses, transparent skin and bold concrete piers.
A continuous planning and building program
Architect Charles Colbert spearheaded the initial drive to modernize school facilities in New Orleans. In 1948, this young assistant professor at Tulane University School of Architecture coordinated a Second Year studio focused on designing schools suitable to our climate and sensitive to the needs of children. Colbert then organized a public exhibition of this student work. Over thirty thousand people from New Orleans came to view the students’ architectural models of “revolutionary school construction” as reported by Collier‘s magazine. “They went away all steamed up over such items as modern, soft-finish, non-glare desk tops; light-absorbing, easy on-the-eyes green chalk boards instead of old-fashioned blackboards; glass wall blocks which filter light and produce a soothing indirect illumination in the classroom; windows on two sides; ‘orientation’ toward prevailing breezes—and all this at a smaller cost per foot than is usual for conventional school buildings.”5
From 1949-1952, Colbert served as Supervising Architect and Director for the new Office of Planning and Construction for the Orleans Parish School Board. In 1952, he produced A Continuous Planning and Building Program, a comprehensive study of existing facilities. Colbert analyzed existing public school facilities and provided a road map for short and long term growth and development. The city had not built a single school facility in the 1940s and the population was rapidly expanding resulting in a tremendous need for new facilities. Most would be built as neighborhood schools with separate elementary junior and senior high schools. Colbert also introduced the idea of a “school village” to address urban density and the high price of central city lots. Instead one could integrate three schools on a larger campus in a more rural setting.
Architecture firms involved in this mid-century modern renaissance include: Burk, Lebreton and Lamantia; Charles R. Colbert; Curtis and Davis; Favrot, Reed Mathes and Bergman; Freret and Wolf; Goldstein, Parham and Labouisse; August Perez and Associates; and Riccuiti Associates. Several school buildings were recognized by national architecture journals and organizations for the design merit. The Thomy Lafon Elementary School received the AIA Honor Award in 1954. Progressive Architecture cited Charles Colbert’s Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in 1955. Curtis and Davis were later awarded PA’s highest honor, the First Design Award in 1957 for their innovative George Washington Carver Junior-Senior High School. New Orleans mid-century architects were not just making headlines and history. These 1950s schools were models of regional modernism, formally expressing a modern spirit while integrating the wisdom of our ancestors to design for and with our environment and landscape.
McDonogh 39 Elementary School
Goldstein, Parham and Labouisse; Freret and Wolf; Curtis and Davis, associate architects, 1952
McDonogh 39 Elementary School in the Gentilly neighborhood was the first modern school built in New Orleans and a model facility.6 McDonogh 39 was a “finger school” in plan with four lengths of classrooms connected at one end to a broad administrative wing of offices. Between the fingers were a series of courtyards. The bands of classrooms were then connected by a corridor on one side. Both sides of the classrooms and corridor had operable top-hinged windows providing ample ventilation even when it rained. In addition the covered corridor filtered sunlight from the classroom reducing heat gain.Many of New Orleans’ schools from the 1950s exhibited innovative and integrative approaches to circulation, lighting and ventilation. Architects widely rejected the traditional double-loaded corridor as its use could significantly increase construction cost and absorb as much as 30% of the total square footage.7 An open or enclosed ‘side hall’ with operable windows provided bilateral natural lighting and ventilation. Architect Charles Colbert designed three schools with exterior circulation galleries, a hallmark of Louisiana vernacular architecture. Curtis and Davis’s first school was designed with no corridor.
Thomy Lafon Elementary School
Curtis and Davis, 1954
The curved concrete forms of the Thomy Lafon Elementary School (1954, AIA Honor Award) offer an early indication of the firm’s expressive and regional approach to modernism. Arthur Q. Davis (b. 1921) described the form of the Lafon School as a “long, thin classroom wing, gracefully bent to avoid monotony.”8 Nathaniel Curtis Jr. (1917-1997) suggested the layout of the elevated Lafon School was “the next logical step after the finger plan.”9 Designing the school without corridors proved to be quite economical, costing just $10.31 per square foot to build.10 The kindergarten wing was accessible by a playful ramp to the upper story. Beyond the kindergarten, classrooms were paired to share toilet facilities. Elevating the classrooms on concrete stilts gave the children covered play space on a tight urban site. It also saved the classrooms from flooding post-Katrina. While the use of piloti may have been inspired by Le Corbusier, the practice of elevating structures to avoid flooding and better catch a prevailing breeze is a French Colonial tradition.
Phillis Wheatley Elementary School
Charles R. Colbert, 1955
Charles R. Colbert considered the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School his highest accomplishment as an architect and planner.11 It is by far one of the most compelling monuments of the era. Wheatley is the culmination of a series of regional design innovations in which Colbert integrated modernist methods and materials with sensitivity to climate on urban sites. The Hoffman and McDonogh 36 Elementary Schools (both 1954, Sol Rosenthal and Charles Colbert) were riffs on a double galleried finger plan with ample courtyards. In Wheatley, Colbert literally took the plan to another level. The entire classroom building was elevated eleven feet above grade on two rows of chevron-shaped concrete piers. Twelve shop-fabricated steel trusses formed the classroom structure. An exterior circulation gallery and central pedestrian bridge created a relationship between the classrooms and the central light court. The intention of the elevation was to create generous play space on a tight urban site. The cantilever freed the play space from a field of obstructing columns that would be required in a more conventional post and beam construction. The result was stunning. Airy, light-filled classrooms elevated from the street gave the effect of a modern tree house, an appropriate and poetic setting for a child’s classroom. The School Executive Better School Design Competition honored the Whealtey School nationally with its Top Award.12 Wheatley was exhibited internationally by the U.S. State Department in Berlin in 1957 and in Moscow in 1958. In 2010 the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School was named to the World Monuments Fund Watch.
UPDATE – Despite a viable adaptive reuse plan proposed by DOCOMOMO-Louisiana and an online petition protesting the demolition of the school, Phillis Wheatley Elementary School was torn down in June of 2011.
George Washington Carver Junior-Senior High School and Helen Sylvania Edwards Elementary School
Curtis and Davis, 1958
In his 1952 report, Charles Colbert first described the idea of a “school village.” He noted that in some instances, urban land values in the densely populated center of the city could be twenty times higher than in the newer suburbs. Colbert suggested selecting a site of “ninety beautifully wooded acres, at the edge of urban development, six miles away” from the densely populated center of New Orleans would save six million dollars in land acquisition. He calculated that this savings would support nearly a century of “quality bus transportation” and envisioned the buses as “mobile classrooms.” The teachers would travel with the students and with a set of visual aids to extend classroom instruction during the commute to their “semi-rural, college-like campus.”13 The mobile classrooms never materialized. However Colbert’s idea of a “school village” with a courtyard arrangement and a first-class auditorium that could also serve the neighboring community formed the basis of the Carver campus plan designed by Curtis and Davis. The integration of three schools (elementary, junior and senior high) on a 65-acre campus in the upper ninth ward allowed the schools to share common facilities (cafeteria, kitchen, auditorium) and yet retain age-segregated classroom buildings.14 The auditorium was also available in the evening for community events. The striking design of the auditorium with its soaring (40 ft high and 200 ft long) parabolic concrete vault and hinged buttresses was truly monumental.15 In 1957, Curtis and Davis’ plan for the Carver schools was honored with Progressive Architecture‘s First Design Award and the American Institute of Architects’ Best Overall Plan for a School Complex, a testimonial to the architectural quality of Curtis and Davis’ design as well as reforms set in place by Charles Colbert.
McDonogh 36 Elementary School
Sol Rosenthal and Charles R. Colbert, 1954
Renovation 2010, John C. Williams
In a field of lost opportunities we have a singular instance of adaptive reuse. McDonogh 36 Elementary School was the only school from the 1950s not slated for demolition by the School Facilities Master Plan. The school was renovated by architect John C. Williams for a non-profit foundation and re-opened in 2010 as the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood Family Learning Center. During renovation, the facility was stripped bare to the concrete and steel structure, shedding years of unsympathetic alterations and redundant mechanical systems. The form is a fusion of a “finger plan” school with a double galleried plantation house. Mature live oaks inhabit the courtyards between the wings. Initial concerns that the final product could trend toward the phony colonial were unnecessary. The modernist spirit survived. The renovation includes walls of operable windows and an open air circulation gallery. The new program is brilliant and the renovation reminds us how modern school facilities could be retrofitted to serve the community in new ways if only given the chance.
Public buildings dating from the modernist era are experiencing a period of extreme vulnerability. Their architectural and mechanical systems are reaching the end of their life cycle and are in need of reinvestment. A clean and clear modernist vision is likewise marred by neglect and unsympathetic alterations during the past decades. While nineteenth century buildings sometimes become more romantic as they decay, the results of deferred maintenance on mid-twentieth century buildings are unflattering at best. In addition, the modernist style has yet to reach an era of broad understanding and appreciation by the general public. Preserving modernism is especially challenging in the city of New Orleans, which is widely recognized for its eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture. Modern buildings are often viewed as “intrusions” to the historic fabric. The situation is further complicated when Federal funds earmarked for disaster recovery favor demolition over renovation and adaptive reuse.
DOCOMOMO Louisiana participated as a consulting party in several FEMA-sponsored Section 106 consultations, hoping to preserve threatened modern architecture and in doing so benefit Lousiana’s recovery. However the process has failed in New Orleans. None of the modern structures are being saved. For example, in 2009 FEMA determined the Carver auditorium and cafeteria buildings were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. DOCOMOMO Louisiana advocated for the auditorium structure to be retained as part of a new campus plan and suggested that it be adaptively reused as an open air pavilion. However, the City of New Orleans issued a demolition permit on November 1, 2010. Demolition is active and expected to be complete by the time this article is published. DOCOMOMO Louisiana has filed objections with FEMA and withdrawn from further participation in Section 106 consultations. Not only has the process failed to live up to the spirit of the National Historic Preservation Act, it has absorbed this organization’s energies and dictated a hyper active advocacy agenda with no positive results. This must change.
Learning from New Orleans
Currently, DOCOMOMO Louisiana is investigating alternative approaches to advocacy by identifying opportunities to educate the public and celebrate or modern heritage. The first step is to focus on a widespread effort to educate the public about modernism in our midst, its significance in the landscape, and the inherent sustainability of its adaptive reuse. This can be accomplished by meeting with neighborhood groups, hosting architectural tours and also by sponsoring a city-wide campaign to landmark our beloved but recently endangered Louisiana Superdome (1975, Curtis and Davis).
Engaging with real estate developers may also provide better opportunities for conservation, by identifying vacant modern buildings and discussing both their historic significance and tax credits available for renovation. Reinvesting in a weathered and awkwardly adapted but structurally innovative modernist building has the potential to renew the futuristic spirit of the recent past and even be emblematic of the city’s recovery. DOCOMOMO Louisiana will continue to work towards the documentation and conservation of our region’s sites, buildings and neighborhoods of the modernist movement. We sincerely hope to be left with more than just documentation.
About DOCOMOMO Louisiana
DOCOMOMO Louisiana is a regional chapter of an international committee dedicated to the documentation and conservation of the buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement. In accordance with DOCOMOMO-US, the Louisiana chapter advocates the documentation and conservation of the City of New Orleans, State of Louisiana and the Gulf South region’s manifestations of the Modern movement.