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Outrage: The demolition by neglect of this modernist New Orleans gem is a scandal

Despite loal protests, a gem of regional modernism in New Orleans that has fallen victim to neglect finally succumbs to demolition. Photography by Frank Lotz Miller

New Orleans is primarily known for its 19th-century Creole architecture, but in the 1950s and 1960s, the city was a hotbed of modernism. Significant buildings include the Greater New Orleans Bridge (Modjeski & Masters, 1958); Moisant International Airport Terminal (Goldstein, Parham & Labouisse, 1959); and St Frances Cabrini Church (Curtis & Davis, 1963).

A booming post-war population called for new public works and more than 30 public schools were built, notably Thomy Lafon Elementary School (Curtis & Davis, 1954)in Central City; and the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School (Charles Colbert, 1955), in the mostly African-American neighbourhood of Tremé, now the setting of a TV drama series looking at the struggle to rebuild lives after Hurricane Katrina.

A professor of architecture at Tulane University, Colbert was a leader in the school building programme, and considered the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School to be his greatest accomplishment. In fact, the school was promoted internationally by the US State Department at expositions in Europe and the Soviet Union as a prime example of regional modernism in New Orleans. Unique design features inspired by the historic architecture of the city distinguished it from other schools of the same era. Specifically, being elevated one storey above ground level protected it from flooding and provided generous covered outdoor play space. Its fluid, open-floor plan and facade also facilitated cross-ventilation.

However, years of deferred maintenance have now led to the scandalous situation of demolition by neglect. After sustaining damage in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina, the local school district proposed a replacement structure. A grass roots campaign led by the Louisiana branch of modernist watchdog DoCoMoMo called for the structure’s restoration via adaptive reuse. As a result, DoCoMoMo/Louisiana secured a place for the site on the World Monuments Fund Watch.

Last March, the New Orleans Historic Landmarks Commission sided with DoCoMoMo/Louisiana, and agreed that the structure was worthy of protection. But this was an advisory opinion only.

By mid-June, the school district had rebuffed all efforts to save the structure, including an 11th-hour proposal by private investors to convert it into a jazz heritage centre, and started demolition. The site is expected to be cleared by July.

A Plea for Modernism

A video produced by DoCoMoMo/Louisiana in collaboration with Hand Crafted Films and the Tulane University School of Architecture was released last May to put the case for saving the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School. A Plea for Modernism is narrated by New Orleans native and The Wire actor Wendell Pierce. It traces the school’s social history, but now appears to be its eulogy.

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