Prefabulous New Orleans

Long before I tasted the food or heard the music, I fell in love with New Orleans when I first laid eyes on its stately French, Spanish and Creole-inspired architecture. From center-hall raised villas to four-bay single camelbacks and shotgun doubles, I loved the character and beauty of each house. And with so many cultural influences on New Orleans architecture, living in any one of them — much less being able to own one — became an instant dream.
I’m still not sure which residential style I favor most: the camelback, store-house, double gallery, the American town house, etc. But the one type that’s not on my list is the modular-style sprouting up on various Uptown lots and, I suspect, in other parts of New Orleans. 

Two weeks ago, I watched as a modular home was trucked in piece by piece, hoisted by a crane and assembled the same day piece by piece — like Legos. It was the sort of thing I’d expect to see in Houston, not in the heart of New Orleans. But I wasn’t as upset as some of my neighbors. In fact, some were furious. Several of them have lived on the street for decades, and the sight of the first nontraditional New Orleans home symbolized a drastic, unwelcome change.

Although the developer took care to retain hints of New Orleans flair through ornate cornices and brick piers, the modular home still screams suburbia, with its wide wood paneling and funky side-dormer roof. To make matters worse, the developer plans to place another two-story prefabricated home directly next to the first one. And there it will stand, on a prominent corner for the entire neighborhood to see — as a harbinger of what’s to come.

There’s a rumor floating around the block that a hard-nosed couple from “up North” recently bought the house. Word has it that they flew in for one day, saw the house and overbid to secure the deal. Just like that. Given the asking price, the alleged buyers definitely would have been able to afford just about anything in Lakeview, the CBD, the Garden District — heck, any house, anywhere in New Orleans.  In some ways, this practice of prefab construction represents an unsavory side of gentrification: yuppies (and newcomers) move in with no regard for the neighborhood’s history and character.

But according to some experts, prefab is the way of the future, as it’s affordable, energy-efficient, customizable and more economical for the developer. Prefab cheerleaders also assert the modular style is more attractive for Katrina-devastated areas. And while this notion certainly has merit, it begs the question of whether it’s more attractive for established areas.

My neighbors’ complaints that “cookie cutter” will ruin the architectural integrity of our neighborhood is eerily ironic because most of the older home styles — shotgun, store home — were essentially cookie cutter concepts in the mid-to-late 1800s. Every shotgun house on my block looks the same, so one might ask what’s wrong with the new wave of construction styles.

With that said, I’m undecided on how I feel about the immersion of prefab on historic New Orleans blocks. I guess to each his or her own. But there’s one thing I know for sure: Prefab will never be on my list, no matter how easily the houses get put together and taken apart. I adore New Orleans architecture, and I’ll take a squeaky, drafty, mosquito-infested house any day over something you can find just about anywhere outside the city.

Do you prefer old-style New Orleans homes or McMansion prefab wonders? Feel free to rant or rave.


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