A letter to John Klingman, professor of architecture at Tulane University and resident expert on Charles Culbert's Phillis Wheatley Elementary School:
I believe I have a potential solution to the planned demolition of Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, a cause that I know to be very important to you. It seems clear that the Recovery School District has no intention of compromising and rehabilitating the site for reintegration into the city's education system. I believe there may be an alternative program that would require minimal alteration to Charles Colbert's vision and still allow the site to function as an anchor for the surrounding community, as it did before the storm.
Radha Mistry and I have recently launched a design studio here in New Orleans; while still in our infancy, we have already had some nationally recognized success. One of the foundational concepts of our business plan is what I have been calling an "Innovation Incubator". The idea is for GOATstudio to shoulder the financial and organizational burdens of a design_fabrication office's start-up (software licensing, shop tools, plotters, studio space, insurance, laser cutters, routers, etc.) and then rent access to space, tools and advice to young entrepreneurs in a number of burgeoning design fields (architecture, furniture, graphic, and interior design, fabrication for the film industry, etc.), all with our studio as the nucleus. This would effectively establish a new, truly collaborative, cross-disciplinary work model in an industry that has long been thirsting for evolution. Additionally, community services like trade classes, outreach events, and neighborhood design_build projects will help the practice(s) develop a better, more symbiotic relationship with the community than would be possible independently.
Since conceiving of this scheme, I have imagined its ideal site as a rehabilitated warehouse, church, or perhaps a school, in one of New Orleans' many in-need, culturally vibrant neighborhoods. I also imagined that any application of this model would take a lot of planning and capital, making it at least a couple years off. Unfortunately, the Wheatley School does not have the luxury of years.
With the recent national attention the site has received and the emotional outpouring of local support, I imagine the City of NO is desperate for a viable, well-funded adaptive reuse proposal to come along and save them from the coming public relations disaster that demolition would spark. The road-blocks such a proposal would face are numerous and imposing; funding, zoning, bureaucracy, time, and the condition/size of the site are significant hurdles, no doubt. However, I think an ambitious campaign led by impassioned people has a real chance. Changing the program from a school alleviates the need for significant expansion and alteration, thus significantly reducing the stated $21 million rehab price tag. There are a number of significant grant opportunities for innovative start-up concepts, historic preservation, and community centric proposals. The national exposure can be translated into an ambitious crowd-funding campaign. Local support can be funneled to fundraising events and donation drives. I believe the funding and support is out there and with a quality proposal and cash in hand, the numerous other hurdles suddenly seem much less imposing.
Is this all naively ambitious? Absolutely. That may as well be the GOATstudio organizational motto. But naive ambition may be this landmark's last hope. In order to make a go of this, we will need the help of passionate people, especially those that have the influence and experience to lend this endeavor some legitimacy. We believe in this project. I would love to talk with you more about it at the earliest opportunity.