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Spanning the cityscape of old New Orleans, some owners of historic homes that were flooded by the 2005 levee breaks are opting for demolition. Beyond the point of no return, they figure.

But if you think a foot of water in, say, a Mid-City double shotgun was bad, look what happened at 4804 Dauphine St. in Holy Cross. Like neighboring structures, it suffered from the chest-high tidal wave that washed in from the Industrial Canal. Yet Mother Nature seemed determined to do special damage here. An enormous mature pecan tree toppled smack-dab into the side of it, splitting the roof in two. With all the demolition requests pending for other historic structures, one might think this one qualifies for that “beyond the point of no return” category.

The pecan tree that fell into the house at Dauphine Street.

Not in the eyes of the Preservation Resource Center. Through a partnership with the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference coming to the Crescent City this fall, the PRC’s Operation Comeback program is not only repairing the damage done by Katrina and the levee breaks,  but also repairing what damage previous owners did by way of bad renovations.

It’s difficult to tell from looking at it that this was once a gracious home of the 1870s era. A cement platform stands where once a wood porch stood. Its wood columns were replaced with metal poles. The original wood windows around the house were traded out for metal ones. Add-ons and interior renovations further diluted 4804’s charms. The result is not something that would have invited investment even before the water and the tree became unwelcome guests.

To the Rescue
In a sense, though, 4804 fits the profile of many projects in the Operation Comeback portfolio. The PRC has maintained a long-term focus on Holy Cross, with blighted properties drawing the organization’s attention pre-Katrina and flooded properties drawing its attention today. Operation Comeback director Stephanie Bruno says this project is “just a little bit more extreme” than other projects the organization has taken on. “This house fits within the Operation Comeback mission of taking on projects that the market won’t,” Bruno says.

With the fallen pecan tree removed, the extent of the damage to a wall and the roof is revealed.

As for the small matter of the big tree, Bruno offers a preservationist’s veneration for the construction quality of yore. “It just shows how well built the house is, that it’s still standing,” she says.

Moreover, the challenges 4804 presents actually added to its appeal for the Traditional Building group. In hopes of finding a property to showcase for the conference, organizers toured New Orleans with PRC staffers to see properties they were working on. The Traditional Building group found their showcase property at 4804 Dauphine. “They became intrigued by it because of the woebegone appearance,” Bruno recalls.

With the Traditional Building partnership forged, the scope of the Holy Cross project would no longer be just a monumental restoration project.

The Traditional Building show is an educational conference for architects, builders and craftsmen.

It is also a commercial exhibition, where vendors pitch products ranging from traditional wood ornamentals to cutting edge materials and pioneering home infrastructure.

During previous renovations, the front of the house had its original wooden porch replaced with cement, and its wood columns by metal poles.

Show director Eric Peterson says 4804 will serve the event in multiple capacities. The conference was supposed to be held in New Orleans in October 2005, but couldn’t be, for obvious reasons; the “Comeback House” on Dauphine highlights the tie between the return of the show and the recovery of New Orleans. It will also serve as an educational tool for architects and builders who attend the conference. And it will provide a demonstration project for vendors, a number of whom donated materials for the restoration of the house.

Peterson says featured products will include traditional features such as milled wood windows, a new slate roof and new interior and exterior trim. Less traditional products will include authentic-looking, functional shutters made of molded PVC and columns made of a polystyrene wood substitute that is load bearing. Peterson points out that the nontraditional materials will address the double plagues of historic New Orleans homes: rot and termites.

The inside of the house reveals its barge board walls.

Bruno acknowledges a relatively short amount of time before the conference to complete a redo of this magnitude, and says that’s by design. She says it will be beneficial from an educational standpoint for visitors to see the project in motion.

Beyond the show, though, Bruno believes 4804 Dauphine will be a “wonderful symbol” of what’s possible in the restoration of New Orleans. “We hope this project will change people’s ideas about these houses as being throwaways or too far-gone to fix,” she says.

Architect David Dillard is collaborating on the project with the Operation Comeback in-house design team, including staff designer Aimee Charbonneau. John Bose is the structural engineer.

Rebirth at 4804 Dauphine Street

The “Comeback House” at 4804 Dauphine St. is located in the historic Holy Cross neighborhood—the riverside section of the Lower 9th Ward. Hurricane Katrina toppled a pecan tree into its roof, and the levee break at the Industrial Canal flooded it.

The driving forces behind the project are the Preservation Resource Center, through its Operation Comeback renovation program, and the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference, which will be in New Orleans, October 17 to 20 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The house will be used for educational tours during the event and showcase products on display at the exhibition.

Restore Media LLC produces the Traditional Building show, which will feature seminars, workshops and a trade show for historic building product vendors. The event typically draws architects, designers, builders, craftsmen, preservationists, historic homeowners and developers. Restore Media publishes the magazines Old House Journal, New Old House, Traditional Building and Period Homes.

For more information, go to: www.traditionalbuildingshow.com, www.prcno.org or call 581-7032.

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