Modernism in New Orleans

Many of the Big Easy's Midcentury Buildings Face Demolition.

Whitney Bank, New Orleans

Credit: Trevor Meeks

The year is 1955; the place, New Orleans. Progressive Architecture magazine has just held its second annual Design Awards, juried by Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius. The list of winners brings a surprise: New Orleans and Louisiana capture six of the awards—more than any other city and state in the nation. The awards recognize the work of five different architectural teams, including the noted firm Curtis and Davis, whose later work will include the 1975 Superdome.

Fast forward 55 years, and this auspicious beginning has turned into a decidedly uncertain future. Modernist buildings in New Orleans are under attack, "in crisis mode," says Francine Stock, president of the Louisiana chapter of DOCOMOMO (DOcumentation and COnservation of the buildings, sites, and neighborhoods of the MOdern MOvement). Although many withstood Hurricane Katrina, the wave of reconstruction that followed has brought the demolition of numerous Modernist structures—and threatens many more.

Battle lines have shifted back and forth, and the fate of Modernist buildings has depended largely on where they are located (with local historic district and National Register-listed properties faring the best) and who owns them (private owners have engaged in fewer demolitions than governments and churches).

More than a dozen of the city's Modernist structures have been lost recently or are currently threatened. Among those already gone are the Motel Deville on Tulane Avenue (1953), the intriguing Esso Standard Building (1947), the 1952-1960 Duncan Plaza Civic Complex (including the State Office Building and former Louisiana Supreme Court building, razed for new offices that have now been moved elsewhere), and the Goldgate house (1951), the first built design by prominent architect Albert Ledner, winner of the Louisiana Institute of Architects' 2009 Medal of Honor.

Another post-Katrina loss, which polarized residents and symbolizes the contentiousness that Modernism engenders in this historic city, was St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church (1961; Curtis and Davis) in the Gentilly neighborhood. Abandoned after Katrina, Cabrini was targeted for demolition so the Holy Cross School could relocate to a new campus, after vacating its 1870s building in the Holy Cross area. Despite significant opposition from former parishioners and consideration of its National Register status, Cabrini was razed in 2007.

"Watching the situation unfold made me realize that with federal dollars and the potential for redevelopment, we could lose this whole bit of history without the opportunity to get to know it," Stock says. In spring 2008, she and others founded the Louisiana chapter of DOCOMOMO, building on "interest in a chapter that was here before Katrina." 

Curtis and Davis' 1963 Auto Life Building, New Orleans

Credit: Colm Kennedy

Stock also pulled together a core of students at Tulane, where she teaches a class called Regional Modernism, to document the Modernist structures in New Orleans. They started a blog and documented approximately 150 Modernist structures (remaining and demolished) in New Orleans and the surrounding suburbs.

During the survey, Stock received notice of the New Orleans Recovery School District's plans to demolish and rebuild 13 of the 14 extant (from 30 originally) 1950s-era New Orleans schools. "It made me say, 'Oh my gosh, everything is about to go,'" she says. At the time, Stock was preparing a lecture on midcentury schools. DOCOMOMO LA stepped up its efforts, and the Louisiana Landmarks Society named Midcentury Modern public  schools to its 2009 Nine Most Endangered List. Yet New Orleans' Modernist schools remain targeted for demolition.

Michael Desmond, architectural historian for the LSU School of Architecture, sees a challenge for Modernist structures in New Orleans because they are so sparsely dispersed among much older structures. He also believes Modernism's unique appeal can be its undoing. "There was so much invention going on;  it was unprecedented. These architects abandoned copying history." Because of these innovative approaches, he says, people often have a difficult time appreciating the Modernist aesthetic, especially in history-rich New Orleans. Desmond says  when this happens, buildings that are highly useful tend to fare the best. Modernist structures "can either become irrelevant or fundamental to how we live," he says.

Desmond points to Hammond, La., a small town about an hour from New Orleans where Modernist buildings are strictly protected by city ordinance. His father, award-winning architect John Desmond, designed numerous Modernist buildings in Hammond, most of which survive today.

"If there are enough [Modernist buildings] and they are useful, over time, people come to appreciate them and love them," Desmond says. "In Hammond, they have decided those buildings are an important part of the character of [the town]. That is very unusual for a small town, but it is a model for how one can consider that 20th-century architecture is integral to the community."

New Orleans-born architect Albert Ledner, now 82, is dismayed but not surprised Modernist structures in New Orleans are threatened.

"I am very disappointed that quite a few residential, institutional, and commercial Modernist buildings have been demolished to put clearly inferior buildings in their place," Ledner says. "In New Orleans, the majority of people are conservative, and they are not suddenly going to switch ideas to a modern approach. Of course, they buy modern automobiles and appliances, and modern furniture seems to be more popular now, but they don't have an appreciation for Modernist buildings."

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Submitted by limey at: September 29, 2010
Is there anyone, or any Historic District Organization, out there who has dealt with allowing contemporary, or Modernist projects (ones that clearly do not meet ALL the Historic District Guidelines, but are clearly very well designed) ? We have situation here in a designated Historic District, where the District was established, design guideline written, approved and adopted after (because?) "contemporary" residences were designed and built in a basically historic neighborhood. At least one of the contemporary residences (not all) have been somewhat accepted by the historic district. However, it is clear that the District Guidelines as written, would not allow or approve a high-design contemporary residence within it's boundaries. Has anyone found a potential solution, or procedure that could be adopted by the Historic District to allow well-designed buildings that do not conform in every-respect to the adopted Design Guidelines..........or to have to go through the Courts for an appeal process?

Submitted by hartleylover at: September 28, 2010
I would have liked to have seen images of these buildings. I have gone on-line but cannot find an image of the "intriguing Esso Standrad Bldg."

Submitted by The Architects Daughter at: August 15, 2010
My father was a life long resident and architect in NOLA - a Modernist, in the 60's he designed and built, by his own hands, a beautiful home of redwood and glass. Clean lines, integrated with nature, a center courtyard, hand laid St Joe brick floors. It is beautiful. If an architecture grad/prof/student would be its next owner, we would be eternally happy to have it in good, appreciative hands. Dad attended Tulane and was a prominent architect of the Times Picayune building. Address of his home: 5515 Sutton Place - google for more info. Thank you for your work in preserving modernism on NOLA. The Architect's Daughter

Submitted by BCinDC at: August 12, 2010
99% of these "Modernist" buildings were ugly and poorly built of cheap materials when they were new, and they are still ugly and poorly built of cheap materials today. Is is foolish to want to save everything that is old. "A building that makes the people who live, work, or study in it, or even simply gaze upon it, unhappy is a failure."

Submitted by debralombard at: August 10, 2010
no one can rebuild these commercial buildings with the good materials they were originally built with for anywhere near what they can be renovated for if we factor in a societal cost for the annoyance of living and working down building's being torn down and new cheap ones rebuilt. NOLA residents get off your butts, get out of the bars and go fight for these historic buildings. I'm serious. NOLA will go to the dumps if it looses ANY of its' historic architecture including Modernist buildings. Besdies, who wants to deal with demolition material disposal when THERE IS NO C&D WATE RECYCLING AT ALL FOR NOLA.

Submitted by Gentilly at: August 6, 2010
Large numbers of perfectly sound public buildings are being demolished purely for the sake of GRAFT.

Submitted by garysoft at: August 6, 2010
It is indeed sad that Modernist buildings are being replaced by inferior architecture in New Orleans and across the country. The city government in my town, Owensboro, Kentucky, plans to demolish a 1949 Modern-style National Guard Armory. Alas! Like New Orleans, Owensboro's citizens have little regard for Modern architecture.

Submitted by just4thesake at: August 4, 2010
If you can think of a re-use for these buildings I am all for saving. We throw away too easily. But, to save just for the "historical" seem frivolous at these economic times. Be creative and conserve the ones you can by making them useful.

Submitted by turtlerun at: August 4, 2010
We must not let those buildings be torn down!

Submitted by patmatricia at: August 3, 2010
When it comes to New Orleans...........I want to play (only an interior architect would find it play!). By that I mean working to save these buildings from any standpoint, whether historically, economically, or environmentally is just the right thing to do.

Submitted by craigtrent at: August 3, 2010
there are also lots of great examples of residential modernist housing all over the city that katrina affected....some great examples were demolished in st. bernard parish

Submitted by phishnin at: August 3, 2010
Most Modern architecture in NOLA tries to stand as its own piece of art, without even trying to blend in with the surroundings, which makes it hard or even impossible to appreciate That's why we have Modern crap like the Whitney Bank building (which flooded HEAVILY after Katrina) and The City Hall Annex (a couple blocks to the river on Canal St.). Compare the two pictures in the article to the TWA wing at JFK. That is TRULY a piece of art, and it fits with its surroundings.

Submitted by pabbit at: August 3, 2010
Get Brad Pitt involved. He loves modernist style

Submitted by Dee Dee at: August 3, 2010
It is a sad state of affairs when certain buildings are not appreciated because they are "too young." Fortunately, our Unity Temple of New Orleans, 3722 St. Charles Avenue, 50 years young this year, is useful and loved!