Written by Brad Vogel
What happens when you move history? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.
For over a year, I've been following developments in the footprints of the proposed Louisiana State University (LSU) and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital complexes in New Orleans, which will be built literally on top of the Mid-City National Register Historic District. I take daily walks through the area, where I’ve witnessed some 30 contributing historic structures lose battles with the bulldozer. I’ve also witnessed something that can only be described as bittersweet – historic homes saved from demolition, but loaded onto mobile platforms and carted away from where they’ve always stretched their roots.
On the VA hospital site, valiant efforts by local allies and political figures have led to the involvement of Builders of Hope, a national nonprofit dedicated to moving and rehabilitating homes. So far, approximately 40 historic structures have been moved, rehabilitated, and are now providing infill affordable housing on vacant lots throughout New Orleans. Builders of Hope has never undertaken a project of this scope; Mayor Mitch Landrieu hoped to have 100 homes moved off the site when he reallocated funding for the undertaking. Indeed, it is unclear if there is any precedent for a historic house moving project of this scale in U.S. history.
One major property on the VA site, the S.W. Green Mansion, is allegedly going to be moved after recent advocacy efforts led to calls for its preservation. The 17-room home, featuring iconic green roof tiles, was built in the 1920s by Smith Wendell Green, one of the leading African American men of New Orleans.
The threat of mass demolition is also strong in the site of the proposed LSU complex. While over 50 historic structures occupy the area, there are currently no plans for their relocation. Sadly, some of the buildings – the beautiful 1879 Italianate McDonogh No. 11 School, for example – would be extremely difficult, if not impractical, to move. While three historic structures have already met their fate, demolitions have slowed due in part to a press conference held by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's New Orleans Field Office and an array of local partner groups.
Making matters more ominous is a recent announcement from state officials about an upcoming groundbreaking ceremony within the footprint.
As I canvas the neighborhood, it has become increasingly difficult to watch the demolition that continues parallel with the massive house moving effort. Some structures, especially those with slab construction, simply cannot be moved, which in this case means saved. That’s tough to swallow. Even worse is watching longtime residents try to go about their daily lives as strangers with bulldozers set up next door.
With the clock ticking, the National Trust’s New Orleans Field Office is hard at work to find vacant lots and creative funding solutions to facilitate house moving in both footprint areas. While preserving the historic neighborhood intact would of course be the ideal outcome, moving and reusing historic homes is clearly a preferable alternative to sending quintessential New Orleans buildings – like shotgun houses and Creole cottages – straight to the landfill.
Simply put: This is how we will save Lower Mid-City New Orleans.
Brad Vogel is a Ed Majkrzak Historic Preservation Fellow in the National Trust's New Orleans Field Office. Click here to learn more about the National Trust's efforts to save Mid-City New Orleans.