Jul 27, 200910:13 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde: What a City Hall should be
A vote is scheduled this week on the mayor's proposal for the city to purchase the abandoned Chevron building on Poydras Avenue and to relocate City Hall there. Some thoughts:
Of all the building that a city government owns, its City Hall is supposed to be special. The building is not only a place for politicians and bureaucrats to work, but ideally should also be a public space - something that reflects the community and that anchors its neighborhood.
Gallier Hall, the city's first seat of government did that. James Gallier's Greek Revival design showed a real strength highlighted by magnificent columns on the portico. Ideally City Halls should face a green space - a place for the pubic to celebrate or to be heard. To this day Lafayette Square is the site of summer concerts and Carnival time picnicking. Those sitting in the square look across the street at a tastefully designed building that dominates the view. In the sprit of the Greeks, the building was constructed as a temple in which democracy lived.
Our current City Hall is a bit boxy. It is not a handsome building, but at least it was built to be what it is. Its 1960s modern architectural style was intended to show that New Orleans, for all its charm and quaintness, wanted to be regarded as a modern, progressive city, too. With great ambition the "New City Hall" anchored a civic complex with court building and state office facilities at the sides, a green space (Duncan Plaza) in the center and a place of learning - the main library - at the far end.
None of the plans ever met full expectations. (Even the Carnival parades which were diverted to pass in front of City Hall moved back, after a couple of years. to Gallier Hall which became the city's ceremonial capital.) Yet, at least here was thought and the intent of using the building as revival catalyst.
I will leave the cost analysis to others, but theoretically a City Hall should not be something that is retrofitted into an office building. As the seat of government its calling is nobler than that, its purpose grander than merely housing offices, especially in a city renowned for its architecture looking to one day put a punctuation mark on its own recovery.
A City Hall, more than any building, needs to evolve from a process that includes public participation and the advice of architects and urban planners. It is not something that should just be first announced to the public as a paragraph in a mayor's state of the city speech. Yes, New Orleans needs a new City Hall; but the situation is not desperate. Lets take the time to do it right.
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