New Orleans mid-century modern architecture – typified by post-World War II design innovations, geometric forms and smooth lines – doesn’t get much notice compared to the courtyards and carriageways of the French Quarter or the Victorian showboats of the Garden District. But that’s starting to change.
A group of architects, designers and others interested in this era of architectural history and concerned about its survival have formed a local chapter of Docomomo, an international organization focused on the conservation of buildings of the modern movement.
The push for a local chapter began just before Hurricane Katrina, and it’s being pursued anew by people who feel that the city’s modern architecture isn’t just underappreciated but stands in outright threat of destruction. “These buildings are in the historic realm now, but they have very little protection, and there is actually a lot of disdain for them out there,” says Melissa Urcan, executive director of the New Orleans office of the American Institute of Architects.
Halting a planned demolition can be costly, time-consuming and divisive, so Urcan says one goal of the local Docomomo chapter is to educate the public about these buildings’ place in local history before they are ever targeted for teardown.
A recent cause célèbre was St. Frances Cabrini Church in Gentilly. It was prized as a modern masterpiece by some, its style lauded as emblematic of the changes in the Catholic church during the 1960s, but it was damaged by the flood after Hurricane Katrina and demolished in 2007 to make room for the relocated Holy Cross High School. Now, there is a push to save flood-damaged New Orleans public schools of the modern era that are slated for demolition, such as the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, pictured above, built in 1954 in the Tremé.
“If modern architecture is not accepted as part of our past, it could be wiped out,” says Francine Stock, visual resources coordinator for Tulane University School of Architecture.
“Awareness is one of the biggest challenges. If [the building] isn’t in a place people pass regularly, they don’t think about it. And many of them have had a lack of caretaking for a long time,” she says.
Stock maintains a Web site documenting modern architecture around New Orleans, and she often includes vintage photos of the buildings, showing them as designed and intended, before neglect and remodeling took their toll.
Learn more and see examples of modern architecture in New Orleans at Stock’s Web site: www.regional-modernism.com.
– Ian McNulty