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  • August 2010 E-News Brief

    THREATENED: Phillis Wheatley Elementary

    Wheatley Addition Scenario 

    Photos: Courtsey of The Preservation Resource Center, www.prcno.org

    By: Francine Stock

    Efforts to preserve and reuse Phillis Wheatley Elementary constitute what is arguably one of the most pressing preservation issues facing New Orleans today. Designed in 1954 by New Orleans architect Charles Colbert, FAIA, it is a groundbreaking work of modern engineering and design. Though its cantilevered classroom wing avoided the ravages of flooding after Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) is pushing for FEMA funds to demolish the National Register-eligible building.

    Phillis Wheatley Elementary  According to the National Historic Preservation Act
      of 1966, any such use of federal dollars to demolish
      or otherwise alter a building must first be subject
      to the Section 106 review process to determine
      how such actions can be mitigated through
      discussion with concerned parties. FEMA began
      Wheatley’s Section 106 review last fall and the
      issue erupted into a contentious fight between
      those for and against preservation. The RSD halted
      the process to commission the Hammond, LA-based
      firm of Holly + Smith to perform a feasibility study
      for the site. Its findings were made public at an
      RSD-hosted community meeting on July 21st, while
      the official consultation process resumed July 29th.
     

     

    Holly + Smith considered two options for the site, total demolition and replacement with a new school building versus restoration of and addition to the historic building. The firm was not charged with formally designing either scenario, only with assessing current conditions and proposing hypothetical schematics. It found that both options were comparable in most respects, though estimated that the renovation scenario would cost an additional $900,000. The architects neglected to calculate how demolition costs would help to close that gap, but either way, the project would cost between $20 million and $21 million. RSD officials have asserted that either scenario would be completed by 2013.

    Phillis Wheatley ElementaryDespite these findings, detractors still maintain that Wheatley must come down. The RSD claims that it would be impossible to achieve an ideal learning environment for students using the existing building, and some echo this sentiment by insisting that the only way to achieve parity with other public schools would be to construct an entirely new building. These arguments seem somewhat disingenuous in light of the fact that the district already plans to renovate a diverse collection of forty-four existing school buildings, historic or otherwise. If it is possible to bring each of those to a reasonable level of programmatic equality, one is left to wonder why the rehabilitation and reuse of Wheatley is so insurmountable, particularly in light of those conclusions drawn by the RSD’s own consultants.

    Additional arguments against preservation come from those attributing a host of educational and social ills to the building itself. Wheatley was poorly maintained for decades, and prior to Hurricane Katrina it, like most of New Orleans’ public schools, was failing. Overall mismanagement was, after all, what spurred state takeover of the city’s school system by the RSD in the first place. These problems were endemic citywide, not unique products of Wheatley’s design. Others claim that the building, completed the same year as the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, painfully encapsulates the era of segregation in New Orleans and therefore should be demolished to start anew. One wonders then why those same detractors are not arguing for the demolition of all of the city’s historic school buildings, the vast majority of which were completed prior to World War II; the answer likely lies in the fact that these are mostly Classical Revival style structures which are more widely accepted as “historic.” In either case, these arguments reveal a disturbing brand of selective memory on the part of those seeking demolition most ardently.

    Phillis Wheatley Elementary  Holly + Smith’s feasibility study, which states that
      Phillis Wheatley Elementary is a viable resource,
      should be seen as a positive starting off point for
      creative solutions to satisfy all. Those arguing for
      preservation – including DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana,
      Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans,
      National Trust for Historic Preservation, World
      Monuments Fund, and citizens throughout New
      Orleans – believe that this historic building can
      indeed be incorporated into a 21st century school to
      benefit children for years to come. After all, that is
      the ultimate goal of preservation – to insure that
      future generations will inherit the architectural
      legacy of those who came before, rather than allow
      short-sighted thinking to deprive them of that
      opportunity.


    CHAPTER UPDATE: DOCOMOMO US/GEORIA

    Text and Photos by: Thomas Little, AIA

    Georgia Archives Building  RFQ Issued for Demolition Plans for former State  
      Archives Building in Atlanta
      In late July 2010, the State of Georgia issued a Request for
      Qualifications (RFQ) for design professionals interested in
      preparing demolition documents for the former State
      Archives Building (A. Thomas Bradbury, 1962-65). The
      building, a favorite of many Chapter members, is one of
      Bradbury’s most distinctive designs, and is visible from
      downtown freeways. The building was vacated when the
      State archives moved to a new facility in Morrow, Georgia.
     
      Photo: Courtsey of Georgia Archives
     
     
    Rumors of structural problems and extensive hazardous materials have circulated for years, but the RFQ does not mention such problems. In addition, no clear plans for the site have been established, a special concern given current State budget problems. The Chapter believes that that the building’s stature as an important example of Modern design in the State of Georgia from this period and its association with the work of Thomas A. Bradbury’s office should be considered prior to proceeding with final plans for demolition of the building.
     
    This RFQ follows soon after the State’s demolition of Bradbury’s Moderne-style Department of Transportation Building (1956-57) immediately across Capitol Avenue earlier this year.

     
    McNeill House  Georgia's Modern Byways:
      Augusta and Thomson
     
    In April, the Georgia Chapter partnered
      with Historic Augusta and the Historic
      Preservation Division of Georgia
      Department of Natural Resources (HPD) for
      a tour of historic Modern sites in Thomson
      and Augusta, Georgia.
     
      In Thomson, Richard Cloues and Steven
      Moffson (HPD) provided historic
      background before the group visited the
      McNeill House (1937), one of Georgia’s first
      International Style National Register
      listings, based on an Edward Durell Stone
      design published in Collier’s Magazine in
      1936.
     
     
    Lamar Building Penthouse
    A number of sites were visited in Augusta’s historic Downtown
    District, including sites designed by I.M. Pei’s office. Pei’s Bicentennial-era projects include the now-vacant Chamber of Commerce Building (1975),
    a streetscape and parking project (1976), and his unique Lamar Building Penthouse (1975). Tour leader Erick Montgomery of Historic Augusta
    also highlighted the Moderne Miller Theater (Roy Benjamin, 1940), the
    now vacant International Style Augusta Public Library building (Eve and
    Stulb, 1960), and the Miesian Wachovia Bank Building (Robert McCreary, 1967).
     
    Georgia Tech Demolishes Burge Apartment Building
    As expected, Georgia Tech proceeded with demolition of the
    International Style Burge Apartment Building (Stevens and Wilkinson, 1947) in early 2010. In 2009, the Chapter submitted a statement encouraging Tech’s reconsideration of plans for demolition and
    expressed disappointment at the limited technical study of adaptive
    use options that were conducted.
     
    Georgia Chapter Participates in “Phoenix Flies”
    The Atlanta Preservation Center’s annual “Phoenix Flies” series of events included the Georgia Chapter’s tour of the recently rehabilitated Auditorium and original Dean’s Office located in P.M. Heffernan’s iconic Architecture Building (1952) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dr. Leslie Sharp of the College of Architecture presented on Heffernan’s legacy and James Choate, AIA, of Surber Barber Choate & Hertlein, P.C. spoke about the auditorium rehabilitation project.
     
    The Chapter hopes these projects will serve as examples for further restoration and rehabilitation projects of other Modern-era buildings on the Tech campus.
     
    Ranch Houses  State of Georgia Publishes
      Guidelines for Evaluation of Ranch
      Houses
     
      The Ranch House in Georgia: Guidelines
      for Evaluation provides step-by-step
      procedures for researching, recording,
      and evaluating ranch houses. The
      guide received The Georgia Trust's
      Excellence in Preservation Service
      Award in April, was prepared by New
      South Associates in collaboration with
      the Historic Preservation Division of the
      Department of Natural Resources, the
      Georgia Transmission Corporation, and
      the Georgia Department of
      Transportation, and several
      architectural consulting firms. The
      guide can be accessed from the
      Georgia HPD website.
     
    May’s Preservation Month events included HPD Section Chief and Deputy SHPO Richard Cloues’ presentation of his related research into the split-level house in Georgia at Rhodes Hall in Atlanta.

    CHAPTER UPDATE: DOCOMOMO US/New England

    Christian Science Center

    Photo: Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, Architects

    Boston's Modern Heritage
    Boston, Massachusetts is perhaps the epi-center in the discussion on the preservation of Modern architecture in the United States. With the controversy over the landmarking of the Christian Science Center complex coming to a head, DOCOMOMO US/New England president David Fixler was featured on WBUR’s daily news program Radio Boston to discuss why Modern architecture deserves to be saved. To hear the entire broadcast, and David’s piece on Modernism (about 36 minutes in), visit the WBUR website. For more on the history to preserve Boston's Christian Science Center visit our archives.



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