Written by Brad Vogel
New Orleans is better known today for its cocktails and mixed drinks than its beer. I’ve found it to be a spirits-centric town – a place focused on sazeracs and Hurricanes. But that’s not the full story. Beer, too, has long been in the mix. Today, the city’s grand brewing legacy lives on in the form of three giant brewery complexes that still stand.
Unfortunately, one of those magnificent brewery buildings, the iconic Dixie Brewery, faces an uncertain future. Here at the Trust’s New Orleans Field Office, we’ve been working diligently to ensure that the soaring brick tower of the 1907 Romanesque revival building - in use until the flooding and looting that followed Hurricane Katrina - is adaptively reused instead of demolished in the face of the 67-acre LSU/VA Hospital project.
Despite repeated assurances from representatives of the Veterans Affairs Administration that VA would like to incorporate a portion of the Dixie Brewery into a research facility now that the LSU Board of Supervisors has expropriated the property, the building’s fate remains unclear. At every stage, the VA has continued to leave itself wiggle room in each pronouncement, constantly adding the caveat that: “If it is not possible to rehabilitate the structure, we will integrate significant features of the historic building in the design of the new VA medical center.” It’s unclear what that means, but it is clear that VA retains a great deal of discretion to determine whether the building can be rehabilitated.
Preservationists here in New Orleans expect more given the importance of the landmark building to the neighborhood, the streetscape, the city, and the region. The Trust’s Field Office has repeatedly offered to provide VA with technical assistance to find solutions to any structural problems that might emerge. In short, many want VA to commit to preserving and reusing the Dixie Brewery’s main tower, even if it means finding creative solutions to overcome structural issues. A structural assessment is due out before the end of June, and we eagerly await the report.
Locals are rightly adamant about seeing the brewery brought back through adaptive reuse rather than demolished because two other local examples provide clear examples of how this can be done successfully. Both the former Jax Brewery and the former Falstaff Brewery are now contributing nicely to New Orleans while retaining and reinforcing a sense of place.
Built in 1891 along the Mississippi River in the French Quarter, the crenellated former Jax Brewery was converted years ago into a vibrant, multi-occupant commercial complex. Today, it houses a slew of shops, restaurants, and event spaces. Like Dixie Brewery, it is both massive in size and an anchoring presence in its relation to the surrounding built environment.
The former Falstaff Brewery building stands as an even more direct example for the renovation of Dixie, as it occupies a site only a few blocks away. The brick complex, built in a series of additions, began a major renovation into housing units starting in 2008. While the process of rehabilitation continues, the distinctive sign that towers over the property recently regained its colored lighting system that reflects the local weather forecast.
The hulking Dixie Brewery. (Photo: Flickr user Brother O'Mara)
With two prime examples of productive preservation nearby, the VA will be hard-pressed to explain any decision to forego renovation of the Dixie Brewery tower – an outcome it showed in April 2010 renderings of the proposed medical complex. Public attachment to the building runs deep, and the decision to include the building in the VA Hospital footprint and expropriate it means the VA has a high duty as the steward of a landmark building. We’re happy to help work toward a positive solution. But until the VA commits unequivocally to retention and renovation, we’ll be monitoring the situation closely and continuing our advocacy.
Brad Vogel is the Ed Majrkzak Historic Preservation Fellow in the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.