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Thursday, September 08, 2005

By Jeff Turrentine Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, September 8, 2005; Page H01 Whatever sort of new New Orleans emerges from the aftermath of last week's catastrophic flooding, it seems likely that the architectural core of old New Orleans -- the part of the city familiar to most visitors -- will remain intact. But as for whole neighborhoods of houses that don't show up in guidebooks, but that do retain the affection of locals and historians who see them as inextricable components of New Orleans culture, it's anyone's guess. It now appears that the French Quarter and the Garden District were spared the kind of wholesale devastation visited upon other areas. Both are fortunate to sit relatively high on the lip of this basin city that rests below sea level. Nevertheless, they almost certainly will be among the first to receive the ministrations of architectural preservationists. As the city's two most famous and visited neighborhoods, theirs are the icons we automatically summon whenever we imagine the charms of the Big Easy. At some point, tour buses will resume their slow creep past novelist Anne Rice's Greek Revival mansion in the Garden District. Tipsy conventioneers will once more stare up admiringly, if dizzily, at the French Quarter's famed wrought-iron balconies. And gaggles of elementary school students will again file into the Old Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street; dating from the mid-18th century, it's the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. But what's to become of the modest Creole cottages of Faubourg Marigny, downriver from the French Quarter? Or the "shotguns" and "camelbacks" scattered throughout neighborhoods such as Faubourg Tremé, Bucktown and Bywater? The city's vernacular architecture, says William R. Mitchell Jr., is richly varied and widely distributed, and of vital significance to its overall architectural legacy. Mitchell, chairman and president of the Atlanta-based Southern Architecture Foundation and author of "Classic New Orleans," a 1993 book that explored the city's identity through its buildings, knows New Orleans as a collection of precincts, each with a distinct flavor and filled with unique architectural delights. "By no means is New Orleans just two neighborhoods, the Garden District and the French Quarter," says Mitchell. He recalls examples of important architecture throughout the city -- houses off the tourist track that now will have to be carefully and expensively restored, assuming that they haven't been utterly annihilated by treacherous winds and flooding. "In the Esplanade Ridge district, for example, there's the Mayor James Pitot house -- a fabulous French Colonial-style plantation house. I remember an unusual five-sided Creole cottage in Faubourg Marigny, built that way to conform to the wedge-shaped lot. Classic New Orleans consists of many historic neighborhoods: Marigny, Bywater, Esplanade Ridge, Carrollton -- I could go on and on. And at this point we just don't know how much has been threatened." Of the different vernacular house styles, the most well-known is probably the shotgun: a long one-story house, often with a covered porch, which is entered at the gable end and is typically only as wide as its widest room. The camelback is simply a shotgun to which a second story has been added over the rear. The Creole cottage, another characteristic style, was borrowed from Caribbean architecture. From the time they first started appearing in the 19th century, all three were popular among the city's working classes, including freed slaves and their descendants. "The flavor and physical setting of the city's culture is locked up in the vernacular wooden houses of the 19th century," says S. Frederick Starr, a historian and international affairs specialist at Johns Hopkins University who has written four books about New Orleans culture and architecture. "And I fear for them now. These are fragile buildings." With special regret, he notes that the West End, an area of town just below Lake Pontchartrain's western curve, was among the hardest hit. "At the turn of the 20th century, it was a great entertainment district: a center of dancing, socializing and jazz. Now the West End is gone. And it was something that was very colorful." Jonathan Fricker, director of the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, expresses hope that many of New Orleans's older houses, built on piers so that they rest several feet above the grade, may turn out to have stood up better than expected, once the final damage tallies are in. "Also, many of these old wooden houses are cut from virgin timber, which is fairly resistant to rot and insect damage," Fricker adds. "That type of wood is what they were building with a hundred, 200 years ago. It's of a much better quality than what you can get today in the lumber yard." But Starr, whose own 1826 West Indian-style plantation house in the Bywater neighborhood was completely underwater at one point after the flood, is less optimistic. "The fact that they're built on props is fine -- unless they start floating off their props," he says. "Remember, there was a hurricane before there was a flood. And these houses took a lot of hits in the wind." Although he agrees with Fricker that houses of wood, especially super-resilient cypress wood, might survive, he's less sanguine about houses built from pine, which is more vulnerable to rot and insects. And he is especially doubtful about the prospects for houses built from the local "batture" brick. "They dug into the bank of the lake for the clay. It's beautiful, but it crumbles and dissolves. And worst of all, if it's sitting in a foot of water, batture brick will transmit that water right up to the top of the wall through capillary action." What worries Starr most, he says, is that momentum within the city government over the past several years has been toward new development, not preservation. "Given that [city officials] have done nothing for the preservation cause, and indeed have done a lot of damage to it, [are they] going to seize on this as an opportunity for mass demolition, in order to build something akin to Houston?" Starr says that his greatest fear is that the city's political powers will "clean-sweep whole neighborhoods, in the name of 'health' and 'safety' and 'a great future' and all that, and end up doing what Ceausescu did to Bucharest. And then it will be gone." From a preservation standpoint, he says, "the fate of the city's mass of wooden vernacular architecture is the key policy challenge for the next period. Do you put in place programs to salvage and renovate it? Or do you start demolishing it in the name of creating some faceless, suburban type of city?"


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