July 28, 2011

SH[it]PO: The Incomprehensible Hypocrisy of Preservation

by C. VanWingen

I leave you all alone for a couple weeks and look what happens; if you haven’t already heard, brace yourself.  Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School, Charles Colbert's Modern masterpiece and the former future home of GOATstudio was demolished on June 22nd.  While on vacation, I had a perfectly chilled Oberon ruined by the news that the demo schedule had been fast-tracked.  Apparently, New Orleans now has the unfortunate distinction of being the first city to destroy a building under the protection of the World Monuments Fund.  Lucky for me, I don’t bear the sentimental burden of attachment to this building that so many seemed to.  To me, Phyllis Wheatley was little more than a beautiful building in disrepair with a sweet location across the street from the world’s best fried chicken (Willie Mae’s; check it out and become a believer).   It would have made a great, if insanely expensive, home for a design studio (or food co-op, or art market, or office park, or a…).  If I’m honest, the only inconvenience this loss causes me is that I’ll have to start hunting for a new run-down, dilapidated site to renew as the home of our little endeavor.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of potential sites in this city that fit that description.

Others, however, spent years fighting for this building’s preservation.  A former professor of mine vocally and passionately advocated its importance for as long as I’ve known him, and managed to rally the support of hundreds throughout the region.  Their work spawned a number of fundraising groups, social networking efforts, viral videos, petitions, and celebrity endorsements.  Undoubtedly, the demolition has dealt these folks a significant blow, perhaps even shaking the belief and commitment they once had in community activism.  I just thought the damn place would make a nice office.  The passion of so many, however, drove us to step forward with an outside-the-box business proposal, a willingness to fight for funding, and enough naiveté to believe someone important would listen.  The outpouring of support was incredible.  Had we received a stay-of-execution, I believe we could have resurrected the iconic building and had access to all the fried chicken we could handle for years to come.  With so much public support and national attention, a viable proposal, and such a plucky attitude, how could we fail?  With little political, economic, or social pressure to move forward with demolition, how did this happen?

by GOATstudio
How is it that one cannot replace a door knob in the French Quarter or install a new mailbox in place of their obscenely undersized model in the Irish Channel without incurring the wrath of SHPO, but this travesty can occur without that aristocratic bunch of hypocrites even raising a finger?  That is what eats at me about this situation and by extension, this city.  These assholes are directly responsible for Adam the Mailman’s bi-weekly mangling of my Rolling Stone, but they cannot “preserve” one of the most significant representations of an entire era of regional architecture.  Bullocks.

My anorexic, historically irreplaceable mailbox
Being an architect(ish), I am often asked by those that do not know any better, “What is your favorite building in New Orleans?”  Occasionally, I offer a smart-ass reply like “Loyola’s parking garage” or “the abandoned plant on the river.” Usually, however, I try to explain that my love for this place has more to do with my future in it than its past without me.   I love the rich, historic fabric that the city is known for and would generally agree that it deserves protection from the too-often undiscerning advances of the developer’s wrecking ball.  But when did we decide that “rich, historical fabric” only applies to shit built before 1940?  Seriously.  If my mailbox is more historically significant than the Wheatley School, that is the message that I am getting; that this beautiful, vibrant city has not been capable of making any significant architectural contributions since WWII.  Imagine if you were an artist and your city’s controlling lobbies told you that the only acceptable subject matter to paint was St. Louis Cathedral, or a chef that could only serve Creole, or a musician relegated solely to jazz, because these are the things that make New Orleans "unique".  It is the same as telling an architect that the only design worthy of the city’s lexicon was built a century ago (cheap replicas are also acceptable; see New Urbanism).

Ugh... This guy.
Ironically, it seems that the State Historic Preservation Office is causing irreversible damage to New Orleans’ architectural legacy.  Lost Modernist gems like Wheatley, laughable Post-Modern follies like the Piazza d’Italia (probably the next to go), and contemporary projects like Make It Right, deserve a place in our historical narrative as much as any 19th century cathedral or pre-war shotgun.  New Orleans deserves to be more than a museum.

Rant over. RIP Wheatley,
Colin Van


  1. i couldn't agree more (with like paragraph 3 & on... probably the stuff before too, but if i just sat down & read blogs all day, i'd be homeless); when people ask, i just sigh. the state of recovery in this city will, at best, be pigeonholed reproduction of some faux-era of the late 18th & 19th centuries.

    i hate that a very small, niche group controls so much of what they've never been educated in. it's just those wealthy special interest groups attempting to hold on to a piece of American history when they truly thrived.

    A) not all of America's history is good. in fact, most of it isn't anything to be proud of, & we're lucky to have survived as a nation.

    B) even if "A" is completely untrue, it's over, & it has been for hundreds of years. take off the arbitrary handcuffs, take a step back, & let this generation do its fucking job.

    sorry for swearing.

  2. I'm so sick of jazz music and creole / cajun cuisine that I could stick a fork in my eye. Time for something new, New Orleans.

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  4. Jazz and brass bands are great. Cajun and Creole food is awesome. But our hip-hop and indie scenes are pretty cool too. And if you haven't been to La Boca for Argentinian steak or Stein's for some pastrami, you're missing out. Our design scene needs to be the same way; right now, "innovative" is a bad word and everyone is obsessed with preserving this spirit of dysfunction that is less about culture and more about a history of incompetence (case in point: http://bit.ly/pvRpOk). I love what New Orleans was. I'd like to love what New Orleans will become.