Written by Brad Vogel
What would you do with $1.84 billion in funding for your community’s educational infrastructure? As you can imagine, that sum has the potential to spur a great deal of change in a city’s physical schools landscape.
When New Orleans's Recovery School District received that particular amount as part of a settlement with FEMA in August of 2010, it touched off a veritable game of musical chairs. Many school entities who had seen their educational facilities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina began to lobby for particular sites and new buildings. Charter schools, a strong and emerging component of the local education scene, organized and angled in on the scene. A series of vigorous neighborhood meetings is currently underway, designed to solicit input about the final school assignments.
Naturally, there are many moving parts to track in this fluid landscape. More than 100 school buildings are being impacted. Here at the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust, we've been doing our best to make sure that when the dust settles, each of the many historic school buildings currently scheduled to be demolished or landbanked as a result of the shakeup is instead well on its way to some sort of adaptive reuse. We've even taken on an intern lately to help keep us focused on the historic schools issue.
A number of school buildings have shaken out of the main FEMA settlement for additional Section 106 review given their special historic significance. We've taken a special level of involvement with three schools - the Booker T. Washington School, a severe late Art Deco structure that served as the first new high school in the city built specifically for African American students in the 1940s; Phillis Wheatley Elementary, a hyper-cantilevered modernist structure that, when proposed for demolition, drew involvement from the World Monuments Fund; and the McDonough No. 19 School, a key site in the Lower 9th Ward where young black girls like Leona Tate integrated the public schools in the 1960s (a plaque was placed outside the vacant building in November). We've participated actively in Section 106 processes for the first two schools, and we're working with community members seeking to preserve and reuse the McDonough No. 19 building to aid in the ongoing rejuvenation of the Lower 9th Ward.
We also continue to advocate for the preservation of the McDonough No. 11 School. Sporting a powder blue finish and elaborate detailing, the 1879 masonry school is an Italianate/French Empire structure that is threatened with demolition by the LSU/VA hospital project. Fifteen structures have been demolished in the immediate vicinity of the school since October, despite the fact that the project is short on financing by over $400 million. The building is still owned by the Orleans Parish School Board, and it could be spared if the State of Louisiana reconfigured its hospital plans to include the building as administrative offices.
Along with all of the historic school buildings that need to be saved and re-purposed, we're glad to know of at least two proactive projects that see the potential in historic New Orleans urban fabric. A team of MIT students, working with a local Main Street program called Broad Community Connections, recently placed in a Chase Community ----- Competition with a plan to rehabilitate the Augustine Israel School as a charter school and high end fabrication lab. The building, which features an ornate Spanish colonial baroque revival facade has been vacant since Hurricane Katrina. Placing in the competition provided the team with funding to pursue development, and I've had a chance to sit down and strategize with members of the team about how best to proceed.
Another abandoned school, the hulking Gothic Revival Bell School is also being targeted for revival by ArtSpace as a potential residence and community space for the arts. Bringing the impressive structure back online would help to revitalize the surrounding Treme neighborhood while respecting its history and helping to perpetuate its longstanding traditions in culture, arts, and craftsmanship.
For me, evidence of the wisdom of reusing historic school buildings is all around. While many of New Orleans’ schools remain shuttered, a number of old schools that have returned to use after rehabilitation are true community anchors – like the Joseph Craig School in Treme, just down the street from the resurgent New Orleans African American Museum. These revitalized and functional schools serve as examples, as a microcosm for the city. They demonstrate proudly that life has returned. But also that the distinctiveness of the city’s many neighborhoods and historical strands has not been forsaken.
Brad Vogel is the Ed Majrkzak Historic Preservation Fellow in the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.