Block By Block

Two years after Katrina, a new New Orleans is finally taking shape.

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
Houses on Dauphine Street in the Holy Cross neighborhood,
including the nearly restored home of Robert Smith (center)

Credit: Chris Granger

Sarah Bonnette slows her car as she drives down Dauphine Street in the historic Holy Cross neighborhood of New Orleans. She pulls up along a row of century-old shotgun houses and points out a gray house that recently surfaced on the city's demolition list. You needn't be a structural engineer to see why. The sides bow out as if someone had placed an unusually large anvil atop the residence, and the roofline twists into an inverted parabola. It could be a classic New Orleans home as reimagined by architect Frank Gehry.

The neighborhood, which sits at the edge of the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, was swamped when the levees failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina two years ago. Houses in the heart of the Lower Nine, less than a mile away, were swept off their foundations; at Holy Cross, the water welled up six feet high inside homes and lingered long enough to damage virtually every structure, demanding wholesale restorations from one end of the neighborhood to the other.

But Bonnette notes that this splay-walled house wasn't actually a victim of the flood—at least not directly. It was a victim of good intentions. Hundreds of volunteers with more energy than expertise swept into the city to help gut homes. They tossed out festering furniture, moldy sheetrock, warped floorboards—and original baseboards, window moldings, and structurally significant walls.

"Houses were gutted a little too aggressively," says Bonnette, the information manager of Operation Comeback, a program of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans (the local partner of the National Trust in the hurricane-recovery efforts). "A lot of things ended up on the trash pile. It got to the point where we'd just hop in the car, come down here, and grab things out of the trash—like doors and windows." PRC moved swiftly and worked to educate volunteer groups that gutting a house didn't mean removing everything but the studs.

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