Written by Gate Pratt
What to do with ordinary buildings? Here in New Orleans, the troubling notion persists in some parts of town that demolition and a clean-slate approach are required for progress and recovery, rather than the more balanced and common sense tactic of the renovation and revitalization of existing buildings and neighborhoods. The French Quarter provides a compelling example of the economic and cultural benefit of an ethic of preservation. But preserving the French Quarter and nothing more misses the point. What about the rest of the city's built environment?
Less discussed than the economic and cultural benefits of preservation, but no less important, is the fact that even the most ordinary existing buildings are inherently “green”. This is a significant point as efforts are made to combat greenhouse gas emissions, to which new building construction is a significant contributor. Decades can be required to recover the embodied-energy lost to demolition, completely negating energy efficiency efforts of new construction. A greener alternative to demolition involves energy efficient renovation and adaptive use of existing structures - even the "ugly duckling" buildings out there that are often overlooked.
One high profile example looms large in the form of the 1950 Grand Palace Hotel, located in the Mid-City neighborhood site of the proposed LSU UMC Hospital. Efforts are underway to clear the 15 block, 34-acre site of the dozens of remaining structures, big and small, in the next few months, and this 17-story building is scheduled for demolition. The proposed demolition of the Grand Palace is particularly troubling given the fact that there are no immediate plans to build anything on the site of the building. Instead, the building would be replaced by surface parking, or green space for future development. Ironically, the Grand Palace has a multi-story parking garage also slated for demolition, to be replaced elsewhere by, yes, another parking garage!
Here is a money-saving tip for the cash-strapped LSU UMC Hospital Board: if you must build on this site, then renovate the Grand Palace Hotel! The very real uncertainty about the state of financing and design of the proposed hospital, and the fact that no replacement building plans exist on the site of the Grand Palace strongly suggest that there is no compelling need to demolish the building. In fact, it should be renovated and re-used as part of the hospital complex for office, classroom, residential or guest-hotel. The merit of saving this building is simply suggested by its sheer size and volume. What sense is there in demolishing a 17-story building with several hundred thousand square feet of usable space? The Grand Palace Hotel offers the perfect opportunity to repurpose an existing building for new use.
Although now overlooked or maligned, this building was the largest apartment project in the South when constructed in 1950. Originally called The Claiborne Towers, the building by Architects William Nowland Van Powell and Henry Ehrensing had 1,036 luxury apartments. The Louisiana DOCOMOMO website notes that the “lobby was apportioned with terrazzo flooring and black walnut panels, and a mural depicting the progress of New Orleans was planned for the 62-ft wall expanse above the structure’s Otis elevator bank.” Befitting the urban setting of this building, the ground floor contained several businesses including a lingerie boutique, cleaners and a lounge. The building has a 1950s Art Deco appearance, although it appears the horizontal “eyebrows” are a later addition, undoubtedly added to shade the windows.
This luxury apartment building overlooked the prominent intersection of Canal Street and Claiborne Avenue in downtown New Orleans. At the time Claiborne Avenue, a broad, oak-tree lined street, was an important African American shopping street and business district. The building later fell on hard times after the construction of the I-10 overpass in the 1960s led to the decline of Claiborne Avenue. The building has since changed hands numerous times over the years with efforts to run it as various hotels and senior housing. Damaged after Hurricane Katrina, the building has remained shuttered in recent years. Now, recent discussions regarding taking down the I-10 expressway and restoring Claiborne Avenue suggest that things may be coming full-cycle and that the time is right to renovate the building.
Although this building may not be the most architecturally compelling, it does contribute to the “tout ensemble” of New Orleans. Despite its current dilapidated state, this building should be restored. The green aspect of preserving and re-using an existing building of this scale should be the primary focus. Rushing to demolish this building in the face of uncertainty is economically and environmentally irresponsible. Wise development plans would recognize that even these ugly duckling structures can be transformed. This is the perfect opportunity for the LSU to demonstrate their commitment to green building practice through the preservation and adaptive use of the Grand Palace Hotel.
Gaither Limehouse Pratt is the director of the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.