House by House

Trust, partners press on with Coast recovery.

 

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At a New Orleans demonstration project, college students from Virginia Tech clear and clean Mildred Bennett's house in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward.

Credit: Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans

After Hurricane Katrina ravaged her historic New Orleans neighborhood, Bari Landry was determined to save her house. Floodwaters had coursed through the 1923 bungalow in South Lakeview, upending appliances and furniture and destroying treasured belongings. Mold quickly set in, covering the lower walls like a hideous wainscoting. But the structure was solid, its walls and ceiling intact. Optimistic that the house could be restored, Landry turned to the National Trust and the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans (PRC) for help.

Today, the Landry restoration is one of more than a dozen demonstration projects—known collectively as Home Again!—that the Trust and its partners are spearheading throughout the Gulf Coast. The projects, which provide bricks-and-mortar aid to needy families and inspiration to others considering whether to restore, form just one part of the Trust's hurricane recovery effort. In addition to providing technical assistance, the Trust has been raising more than $1 million in recovery funds, advocating rehabilitation tax credits and other incentives, and working to convince lawmakers, officials, and property owners that historic neighborhoods should be restored.

"The Gulf Coast remains one of the nation's most important centers of economic activity, and so many historic buildings are where its people live and work," says Peter Brink, the Trust's senior vice president for programs. "Federal, state, and local governments—given adequate resources—should make every effort to save those buildings."

Demolition was a chief concern for preservationists in the months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as government officials began to survey neighborhoods. In New Orleans alone, city officials examined approximately 120,000 buildings, red-tagging those deemed unsafe. Although only four percent of surveyed houses were judged uninhabitable, preservationists are working to ensure that even those are not demolished unnecessarily. "Our overall focus is helping people get back into their houses," says Patricia Gay, PRC executive director. "There is still too much eagerness to demolish. Even a very blighted property has great potential. Equity is created whenever a historic house is restored—equity that for decades has been denied to so many homeowners and their families by the erroneous thinking that it is not worth it to restore."

"Homeowners are starting to come back," says David Preziosi, executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, which has partnered closely with the Trust and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History on the recovery projects. "Some are starting to rebuild. But we're not out of the woods yet because a lot of owners are still deciding what to do. Demolition is still an issue. We'll continue trying to convince people that historic buildings are worth saving."

To boost that outreach, last fall the Trust opened two Gulf Coast field offices in cooperation with PRC and the Mississippi Heritage Trust. In January, two new staffers were tapped to lead the offices through at least the summer—Walter Gallas in New Orleans and Lolly Barnes in Biloxi, Miss. Most recently serving in the Trust's Washington, D.C., headquarters as senior education planner, Gallas is a former New Orleanian with a long history of preservation advocacy. Barnes has similarly worked in preservation in Biloxi for years, recently helping restore a historic hotel there. "It's so important that the Trust has a presence here on the Coast and is dedicated to preserving its whole identity," Barnes says. "We will work with individual homeowners to preserve that character."

In January, in conjunction with the Mississippi Heritage Trust, the Mississippi Main Street Association, and the state preservation office, the National Trust began leasing a 1920s Biloxi bungalow now known as Preservation House, which will be home to its Mississippi field office and serve as a central location for volunteer coordination, educational outreach, and planning meetings. With housing still at a premium along the coast, up to 10 volunteers at a time can stay at the house, which includes a working kitchen and bath facilities.

Through the field offices, the Trust has also continued to coordinate volunteer assessment teams to identify threatened structures and offer assistance and supplies to returning homeowners. Bari Landry, for example, had already followed the Trust's online guidelines for dealing with flood-damaged houses when a Trust assessment team visited her house. The team's architects and engineers quickly determined that the bungalow was sound. In fact, the house's oldest elements—the plaster-over-lath walls and cypress floorboards—had survived where modern vinyl siding and flooring had not. Since October, Landry has worked with specialists identified through the Trust and PRC to clean and dry out the structure, replace drywall and appliances, and rewire. In early January, she removed the remaining vinyl siding, repainted, and perhaps most significant, was preparing to move back in with her two sons. "Many of us took our historic neighborhood for granted, but now we don't, because we almost lost it," Landry says.

In late November and early December, architecture, preservation, and interior design students from the Savannah College of Art and Design worked with Trust southern program officer Nancy Tinker and others on a 10-day aid project in Mississippi, blogging about their work on the college's Web site. "We've had great volunteers," says Mary Ruffin Hanbury, who led the Trust's New Orleans field office last fall. "They go back to their home communities as goodwill ambassadors for preservation." Hanbury is developing a database of the thousands of houses canvassed by the teams.

Another partnership, between the Trust and the World Monuments Fund, will provide for additional demonstration projects in New Orleans and Mississippi. One will focus on the Hecker House in Bay St. Louis, Miss., a town of 8,000 people that boasts four National Register districts. Sadly, Katrina damaged the 18th-century house so severely that it will not be restored in place, so the project will salvage its frame, windows, doors, and other elements in the hope that the house can be reconstructed elsewhere.

On Capitol Hill, the Trust joined a coalition of organizations pushing for legislation that would make it easier for residents and business owners to repair structures. This legislative package would provide federal preservation grants to historic-property owners in the affected area and offer increased tax credits on qualified rehabilitation expenses for historic houses. In late December, the Trust claimed a partial victory when President Bush signed a $7.8 billion tax benefit bill for the Gulf Coast, increasing the historic rehabilitation tax credit from 20 to 26 percent and the commercial rehabilitation tax credit from 10 to 13 percent, while boosting the base credit for low-income housing and historic preservation in "difficult development areas." But federal assistance can be slow in coming. The New York Times reported that the Small Business Administration has rejected 82 percent of federal loan applications for recovery projects, with the majority of approved loans going to wealthy neighborhoods. "It's still a catastrophe," Gay says. "We do need more funding from the federal government."

Trust staffers have testified before Congress and participated in regional panels and conferences to advocate for financial assistance and guide recovery. Peter Brink, for example, served on an Urban Land Institute panel that offered strategies to the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, and Stanley Lowe, vice president of community revitalization, consulted on the Gulf Coast initiative of the Mayors' Institute on City Design.

Over the long term, people are sustained and empowered by rehabilitation, Brink says. "They feel a connection to something real and lasting that wind and water cannot destroy."

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