Written by Brad Vogel
Phillis Wheatley Elementary is no stranger to the improbable. Designed by New Orleans architect Charles Colbert and built in 1954, the elevated steel truss school building cantilevers crazily out from concrete piers, hovering in symmetrical balance like an angular modernist cloud. Its form seems untenable at first glance. And in a city renowned for its eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture, it’s a rather unlikely building amidst a thicket of shotgun houses and creole cottages.
Unfortunately, the building’s continued existence as a striking example of American mid-century modernism is looking increasingly improbable. The Recovery School District (RSD) set up by the State of Louisiana to operate many of New Orleans’ schools, has issued requests for demolition proposals for Phillis Wheatley. All this comes despite a Section 106 process and the involvement of various organizations, including the World Monuments Fund. While some racial and neighborhood issues have contributed in part to the current status quo, the RSD’s refusal to consider meaningful alternatives and the funding restrictions that accompany a $1.8 billion FEMA settlement are the real reasons that the iconic school is still headed toward demolition this summer.
New Orleans has already lost several of its most high-profile modernist schools since 2005, and more, like Wheatley, remain in imminent risk of demolition.
But even after the functional death sentence, it’s clear that Wheatley, named for a colonial-era African American poet, is not dead yet. A group of fervent supporters, including former students, modernism enthusiasts, and local architects has refused to give up. On April 17, supporters held a “Hands Around Wheatley” event to raise awareness and stand up for the building. Leading the group were Wheatley alumna and community activist Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc (familiar to some as a character in HBO’s Treme) and Francine Stock, who blogs at REGIONAL MODERNISM :: THE NEW ORLEANS ARCHIVES. It was clear from the turnout and the words spoken at the event that Phillis Wheatley Elementary, as a place, matters.
Over 1,500 people have signed a petition to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu since April calling on him to intervene to halt the unnecessary demolition of the school building located in the Treme neighborhood. You can sign here.
As Montana-LeBlanc noted, “This structure can be renovated, repaired and returned to a school facility to teach the children in the neighborhood.” And as John Stubbs with the World Monuments Fund made clear, “If the Wheatley school is lost through demolition, it will be the 1st site on our World Monuments Watch List that died in our hands.” Here in New Orleans, we’re hoping the improbable happens - that the wrecking ball can be avoided.
Brad Vogel is the Ed Majrkzak Historic Preservation Fellow in the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.