www.goldencoastbooks.com to find out more about Classic New Orleans.
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?"
In early September
2005, our SAF website led Washington Post reporter, Jeff
Turrentine, to contact me for a Classic New Orleans interview,
printed here. This mention of "Atlanta-based Southern
Architecture Foundation", as far as I know, is our first
national newspaper notice. As a result of this story, Classic
New Orleans, published in 1993 and shown here, has recently been
selling briskly. (The book is in its second printing!)
Katrina, New Orleans, and the Fate of New Orleans Architecture!
A City's Heritage,
Reflected at Home
Creole Cottages, Shotgun Doubles
By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005; 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
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
"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
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
"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