Seldom does a street corner undergo a visual overhaul so quickly. For most of recent time, the intersection of Canal and South Roman was an undistinguished path into a blighted neighborhood nears the business district end of Mid-City. There had been better days. Once, the neighborhood thrived with small shops and commerce used by neighbors who live in classic New Orleans-style bungalows and shotguns. For early Germans it was a place to build a life near the hustle of the business district.
Then, as happened to so many American neighborhoods, it became blighted. The interstate, which was squeezed between the neighborhood and the business district, made the area less domestic, more industrial and far less charming
With the social changes of the 1960s, that same interstate carried people away to the suburbs. The shops were closed; the homes were boarded. The neighborhood was dying.
It needed an ER.
Take a drive along Canal Street. At S. Roman Street toward the campus of the new University Medical Center. You will be stunned at the sight of a vista you haven’t seen before. To the left is green space; to the right, separated by more green space, is the emergency hospital. All around and in the distance is a cacophony of new buildings, but along S. Roman there’s visual space as though to allow the eye to explore. Most striking, and more open to view, is St. Joseph on Tulane Avenue, one of the city’s most imposing churches. Once given up for dead as it lost its parish population, the 123-year-old church stands out gloriously in the skyline as though resurrected. In the distance are the towers of the emerging research center.
On the opposite side of the campus is Tulane Avenue. Take a right and drive down a couple of blocks to the still emerging VA Hospital complex. Like the state facility, this will also feature a potpourri of architectural styles. (Though one facility located at S. Murat Street shows early cause for concern. The all-black, near windowless, ornamentation-free building looks like a place Darth Vader would go to sulk.) Much anticipated will be the redevelopment of the former Dixie Brewing building whose facade has been saved; and on the Canal Street side the long abandoned, but nevertheless striking, Pan American building is part of the revival.
This is our annual best of architecture issue in which we look at the new projects from the past year. The University Center Complex is important not just locally but nationally. Next year will be the time to take a closer look at the VA development, which will be no less important. To monitor the emergence of the total complex, take an occasional drive along S. Roman, a street named after a city that showed the world a thing or two about architecture.
Happily, some old buildings have been revived in both projects. Architecture is at its best when it looks forward but respects the past.