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FEMA Section 106 Notices for Louisiana
Comment on "Public Notice Regarding Section 106 Review of State of Louisiana, LA Dept of Education/Recovery School District (RSD) Proposal to Demolish and Replace the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, 2300 Dumaine St, New Orleans, LA - Seeking Public Comment"
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Name: Susan Karlowski
City: Brooklyn, NY (Formerly NOLA)
Phylis Wheatley School, 2300 Dumaine Street, New Orleans La, 70119
Comments: As a former resident of New Orleans, and a student of Art and Architectural History, I strongly urge FEMA to consider the value and importance of Charles R. Colbert's Phylis Wheately School, and save it from demolition. I must remind you that it is not only New Orleanians who are watching your proceedings. Historians everywhere are concerned about losing important architectural treasures such as this building, which is ripe for renovation or repurposing.
The following is a portion of an essay I am working on to raise awareness for this building and others like it in the New Orleans area. It is from a post I put on the CUNY Baccalaureate website, where I am a student. The CUNY BA helped me obtain funding to return to New Orleans to research this project. New Orleanians are not the only people who care about saving important structures such as the Wheatley School.

Featured, Student Activities
Saving a Vision in New Orleans
By Susan Karlowski ⋅ February 13, 2009

Mid 20th Century modernist buildings are not the first image one conjures up when thinking of New Orleans. Yet the architecture of this city is as diverse as its unique culture and communities, reflecting deep layers of sophistication and a rich, intricate past. The post-hurricane landscape of New Orleans consists of many buildings in crisis, encompassing many different styles. I am grateful to Thomas Smith and the Special Programs grant which allowed me to take a look at the effort to save one of the 122 regional modernist structures being threatened with demolition, the Phillis Wheatley School (1955, architect Charles R. Colbert). My hope is not only for raising awareness to the importance of this historic structure and others under threat, but to draw attention to the many battles that continue to be fought in New Orleans in their efforts to rebuild the city. I will give a brief overview of the Wheatley School and Colbert's vision, culminated primarily from what I have learned from Francine Stock, Visual Archivist of Tulane's School of Architecture, who has accomplished some outstanding research regarding Regional Modernism in New Orleans. I am deeply grateful to Ms. Stock for the generosity of her intellect and the tireless effort she demonstrates in her work and love for the city.

Part of being a New Orleanian today can be said to consist largely of "choosing your battles" and those with an interest in architecture have their hands full. Currently, energy is being exhausted regarding the plight of Charity Hospital; a magnificent Art Deco building that was once a world-renowned teaching hospital, in full operation until August, 2005. Despite a study of the historical and fiscal viability of saving this building (and a desperate need for the hospital), plans are moving forward to raze it. The approved plan is to build a completely new facility despite higher costs and longer construction time, in addition to destroying a repopulated 19th century neighborhood that is home to many historic buildings itself (please see Lolis Eric Elle's article here ). In light of this egregious plan, it is understandable that the plights of many lower profile buildings have taken a back seat in the public eye. Yet the importance of saving these structures is implicit in the attempt to restore a part of the cultural and intellectual history of the city.

The Phillis Wheatley School was designed by Charles Colbert, head of the Office of Planning and Construction as well as New Orleans School Board Architect starting in 1952. His design for Wheatley, as well as his overall philosophy, display the tenets of the International Style of Architecture which eschewed ornamentation and incorporated "modern" building materials; concrete, glass and steel. Wheatley in particular can be seen to reflect the Five Points of Architecture championed by LeCorbusier: an open plan (achieved by separating the load bearing columns from the walls), pillars raising the structure off the ground, a free facade, flat roof, and ribbon windows. But Colbert also employed a remarkable innovation for his design. Concerned with the small footprint of the property the school would be built on he raised the building, not just a few, but 16 feet off the ground, providing a shaded play area underneath. He was also concerned with the childrens safety regarding the supporting pillars. This is where his design literally took wing, as evidenced in the cantilevered sections that jut out well beyond the supports. This innovation was achieved by incorporating structural trusses that distribute the weight bearing load. This cantilevered design had been pioneered in Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water" home for the Kaufman family in 1935. While "Falling Water" notoriously had problems regarding the cantilevers, by 1955 Colbert resolved these structural issues to wonderful effect. (It is also worth noting that Wheatley won the top award for The School Executive, Better School Design Competition in 1954, and was shown by the U.S. State Department in Berlin , 1957 and Moscow , 1958).

The Wheatley School was in operation until Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. It suffered no damage from the hurricane, but sadly has suffered from neglect of maintenance. Ms. Stock is keen to point out that "while 19th century buildings sometimes become more romantic as they decay, the results of deferred maintenance on mid-century modern buildings are unflattering at best" (Stock). The Wheatley School is an ideal candidate for renovation, having already been constructed of materials and design that have proven to be nearly hurricane-proof. FEMA currently has 47 schools in line for demolition, while there are plans only to rebuild five (to see a detailed map of the buildings in question, please see Ms. Stock's blog "Regional Modernism: The New Orleans Archive" here ).

In raising awareness for this and other modernist buildings in New Orleans, I think it is important to take the "zeigeist" into consideration. Colbert and his contemporaries were concerned not only with the temporal structures they were creating, but also the spiritual well-being of the people who would occupy them. The airy, light filled classrooms of a rehabilitated Phillis Wheatley School would be a welcome inspiration to a city that continues to struggle with rebuilding its identity.

Works Cited:

Stock (with Burke, Owen and Weiss). "Threatened: Mid-Century Modern Public Schools". Compiled for DOCOMOMO. 2008.