Friday, September 23, 2005
New Orleans Architecture
NEW ORLEANS is becoming a target for what used to be called urban renewal. Talking heads describe the city, beyond the French Quarter and Garden District, as a collection of "blighted neighborhoods" where the poor lived in "wooden shacks" that should long ago have been demolished, and that now will be. In their place, the argument goes, new homes will rise, better suited to modern life yet embodying the best of what was lost.
This line of thought recalls the 1960's, when federally sponsored demolition destroyed great swaths of cities like Cincinnati and St. Louis and handed them over to developers. If those old neighborhoods had survived, of course, we would be restoring them today. And as Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, pointed out last week, the building stock of New Orleans is particularly important to that city - representing its culture "more than even food."
The seeming trump card in the argument for demolition is that thousands of the wooden structures that give New Orleans its flavor are beyond saving. They were old to begin with, and Katrina's flooding and the ensuing rot and mold will surely finish them off.
In fact, though, even as some of the city's vernacular buildings may prove beyond repair, most - including whole neighborhoods now being characterized by politicians and developers as candidates for demolition - can and should be saved.
In the 19th century, local craftsmen devised structural techniques that allowed houses to stand securely on the city's pudding-like alluvial soil, and to survive in the region's notoriously humid climate, with its insects, termites and mold. In place of the heavy, water-absorbing brick-between-post construction that had been used earlier, or the brick masonry common on higher ground in the city, they began using light balloon frames, self-reinforcing structures of two-by-four joists that could be raised above ground on brick or stone piers. For these frames they used local cypress wood, which resists both water and rot, and for secondary woods they favored local cedar, which is nearly as weatherproof as cypress, and dense virgin pine.
The builders also used circulating air to ward off mold. Ten- to twelve-foot ceilings in even the smallest homes, as well as large windows, channel the slightest breeze throughout the house. And by raising the structures above the ground, builders assured that air would circulate beneath them as well, discouraging termites and rodents.
All this means that wooden structures in the New Orleans area are far tougher than they may seem. Thousands have undergone prolonged flooding in the past, yet survived. The owners cleaned them up, replaced secondary wood and wallboard, fixed wiring and replastered, and were back in business.
Between 1850 and 1910, whole streets of distinctive New Orleans houses were built in the Irish Channel, Faubourg Marigny, Bywater, Treme and Mid-City neighborhoods. These houses extended back from the street in narrow rows of rooms - some only 12 feet wide by 100 feet long - dictated by the long, thin plots laid out by the city's French (and later Spanish) surveyors. They came to be known as shotguns, for the fact that a shotgun blast at the front door could pass unimpeded through all the rooms to the back. A shotgun double consisted of two such houses sharing a common wall, while a camelback was a shotgun with a second floor added at the rear.
However small in scale, these buildings are anything but low-key in style. Early on, they had classical facades, often with galleries with columns that eventually evolved into Eastlake and Queen Anne porches. Later, a local industry poured out jigsaw brackets and ornaments that allowed even a New Orleans resident of modest means to indulge what Errol Barron, a New Orleans architect, calls New Orleanians' "deep-down operatic instincts."
These houses proved ideal engines for assimilating diverse people into a common life. French and Anglo-Saxon residents lived in shotguns all over the city, as did well-established Creoles of color; immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Italy; and African-American migrants from the countryside. There was no zoning, and no rigorous segregation. It was a society in which small homeowners of all races had equal stakes. Even today, fully 85 percent of those living in the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward are homeowners, a higher figure than in the Garden District. At a time when American cities have been lost in a tangle of suburbs or given themselves over to high-rises, New Orleans has maintained a distinctive urban life. The density created by those old French surveyors assured that people would interact with one another, as did the front porches and stoops built directly on the sidewalk. Even air-conditioning and TV did not end this situation. Is it any wonder that such neighborhoods have proved so fertile for what might be called the social arts? There are many reasons why New Orleanians have long excelled in cooking, music-making, dancing and story-telling, but the interaction of diverse cultures fostered by shotgun houses is certainly a major one.
Politicians and developers eying New Orleans today should bear all this in mind. Is it possible to create by destroying, especially when there is no need to do so? Why not treat those thousands of lower-income homeowners with the respect due to them as citizens, rather than as the objects of social experiments? Why not rehabilitate and restore, rather than demolish? Why not engage local practitioners of age-old crafts in this work, and build on their experience rather than obliterating it?
New Orleans is a damaged organism, but a living one. It deserves to be treated in the manner in which careful doctors treat their patients. In the words of the Hippocrates, "Do no harm."
S. Frederick Starr is the author of four books on New Orleans, where he owns a house built in 1826.
© New York Times 2005
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Mr. Starr's message warms the heart. I love New Orleans, and I hope that we can save these old houses.
New Orleans was a city perversely blessed by its poverty, the decline it had permitted in its harbor business, and its remoteness. Rather than being bulldozed and overbuilt into expensive modernist blandness, another Stamford or Columbus, New Orleans remained recognizably where and what it was, local, unique, and human. Much of the downtown and whole neighborhoods remained shabby. Except for the atrocious, over-sized new Marriott Hotel, Canal Street was shabby, lined with mid-rise commercial buildings of the old pre-war kind, with streetcar tracks down the middle. God must love shabby.
Perhaps the national government's shortage of money can also turn out to be a blessing for New Orleans. Perhaps in rebuilding New Orleans it is time for the national government to stand back and ask what local businesses can do. Or maybe if the national government does get involved in rebuilding, it should follow a new Slow Building rule, call it the Rome-Was-Not-Built-in-a-Day principle. As Jane Jacobs says, gradual money yields gradual change, which is the sort human beings can live with.
The way Chicago rebuilt after the Chicago Fire of 1871, might be our model of government non-intervention. As Chicago schoolchildren learn, the fire destroyed three and one-quarter square miles of buildings, and it left 100,000 people homeless. Chicagoans received generous sympathy and aid, as have New Orleaneans. It was the businessmen who started the immediate rebuilding, however, not the government. As a Chicagoan, I will testify that they did a good job. In a city, incidentally, where water and spongey ground also challenge engineers.
Let's take Mr. Starr's suggestion and help to save New Orleans's characteristic houses, so well adapted to New Orleans's climate, and not destroy them. And let's also ask the national government to hold back from exerting its power for unlimited immediate action in New Orleans. Let's take the time to find out what the old New Orleans says to the new. Let's let New Orleans be its true, local, idiosyncratic self. New Orleans is the city that time forgot.
Mary Campbell Gallagher
Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher at Sep 24, 2005 8:04:37 PM
Your blog is very interesting.
If you're interested in 3D visualisation techniques for architecture you might have a look at mine.
it's in french, but you can easely translate it !
you can also visit a site where I publish my images : http://www.edifik.fr
Posted by: edifik at Sep 27, 2005 5:10:20 AM
I am trying to locate guidebooks that might have been in existence in 1890 or 1891 to a visitor to New Orleans. Any suggestions. Failing to find any of these could someone recommend a good book that shows what New Orleans looked like - primarily in its public spaces- by February of 1891.
Posted by: marilyn baker at Jul 11, 2006 11:10:12 AM