Oct 042011
 

5428 St. Charles Avenue (photo by Preservation Resource Center)

A plan to tear down a mansion on St. Charles Avenue designed by one of New Orleans’ most celebrated architects to make room for a new single-family home in its place must be decided by the City Council, after the committee that oversees demolition requests cast a split vote over the issue Monday.

Homeowner Jeff Goldring and his supporters touted the agreements they had reached with two neighborhood associations, the St. Charles Avenue Association and Hurstville, as well as the national reputation of their Covington-based architect, Ken Tate. Opponents countered that the architecture of the existing building is already significant, and that the family should not be able to tear the home down simply because they want something different there.

The Neighborhood Conservation District Committee’s vote was 6 to 5 in favor of allowing the demolition, falling one vote short of the seven needed for approval and sending the project to the City Council.

In a brief introduction before the committee, Goldring described growing up in a home a few blocks away as part of the reason he bought the property at 5428 St. Charles Avenue.

“What we want to do is build a single family home, and give my son and wife the same opportunities I had growing up in this neighborhood,” Goldring said.

Consulting architect Dennis Brady noted that most of the opposition he encountered to the demolition came from people concerned about the possibility that “something different” — presumably a multi-family structure, such as that proposed by Goldring’s father several years ago — would be built in place of the mansion. The existing structure is technically a three-family dwelling, but is now vacant and poised to revert back to single-family zoning, Brady said.

To further assuage surrounding residents’ fears on this issue, Goldring is entering a good-neighbor agreement with the two associations to ensure what he builds remains a single-family residence.

“This sets a terrific precedent for your board,” said Goldring attorney Bob Steeg. “If there’s going to be a demolition on St. Charles Avenue, let’s go from multi-family to a single-family.”

Opponents, however, saw an entirely different precedent in the proposal. Next-door neighbor Barry Grodsky said his own house required extensive renovation when he bought it, also, but that demolition would have been an inappropriate response.

“You’re dealing with one of the most important streets in the country. Tearing this house down is going to set an example and set a precedent,” Grodsky said. “Let’s just go up and down St. Charles Avenue tearing houses down.”

The significance of the house itself was also debated. Michelle Kimball of the Preservation Resource Center enumerated the city landmarks designed by the house’s architect, Emile Weil, including the Saengar Theatre, Touro Synagogue, both the downtown and Carrollton branches of Whitney Bank, and numerous others, and said the house in question was “in harmony” with its surroundings on St. Charles Avenue.

Ann Abbrecht, the home’s previous owner, said it was intended for a single family originally — her grandmother built it for her children and other relatives, and only divided the upstairs into two separate units for some additional privacy.

“This building is beautiful,” Abbrecht said. “You have French doors. You have marble showers. You have transoms. You have gorgeous oak floors. You have a cypress skeleton to this building.”

Louis Lauricella of Octavia Street, however, suggested that he and his neighbors believe that Tate’s work will be better.

“There’s been a lot said about the significance of architect who designed this building,” Lauricella said. “Clearly, this was not one of his better works. There is really nothing significant about this building, and frankly we look forward to having an improvement to the neighborhood.”

Finally, the two sides — Goldring had about 10 supporters speaking on his behalf, while five opponents appeared — also disagreed on the building’s viability for renovation. John McAuliffe of Dufossat Street said he drives past it daily, and that it could easily be restored.

“There’s nothing wrong with this property,” McAuliffe said. “Someone called it an eyesore. It is not. If you would wash it and paint it, it would be fine. It is a perfectly lovely piece of property.”

Architect Donald Maginnis of the Lower Garden District said that he had surveyed the property, and disagreed. “If there was ever a case to demolish a property and replace it with something better, this is it,” Maginnis said.

Such a renovation would be technically possible, said Brady, the Goldring’s other consultng architect, but not what the owners desire.

“There’s no doubt that physically you could force a single-family residence into this structure,” Brady said. “Emile Weil designed it as a triplex. It has the presence of a triplex on the avenue. It does not have the presence of a grand structure, like the rest of the houses on St. Charles Avenue. Mr. Goldring is more interested in doing a new, classically-designed house on St. Charles Avenue.”

Contact Robert Morris at rmorris@NolaMessenger.com, or post your comment below.

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  • Eleanor

    I don’t care how renowned the architect, the fact of the matter is a NEW house will be built along the Avenue. I would like to call attention to the structure Mr. Goldring’s father built along St. Charles, a residence acceptable to the suburbs such as lakeview, but certainly does not belong on the avenue.

    This demolition will set a precedent for others to do the same thing. You can put all the planning you want into a new design that will go along with the other houses in the area, but the truth of the matter is, houses are not built like they used to be. The cypress structure of the residence is magnificent, as Mrs. Abbrecht mentioned at the hearing, and will make the house last for another 100 years. There is no reason for the demolition of this property except for the fact Mr. Goldring and his family want something more to their liking.

    There are many properties along St. Charles, why did he choose THIS ONE (and left out of the hearing was the emphasis that his father owned this property for several years prior to Mr. Goldring purchasing it) to raise his family? One of the committee members asked why this structure could not be turned into a single-family style house, the response of which was something along the lines of that it most certainly could, but is not feasible. To maintain the history of this property (which coincides with the neighboring house owned by Mr. Grodsky) I think it is important to make it have to be feasible.

    It will be a travesty if the City Council appeals the demolition committees ruling. I certainly hope this article will bring more support (might I also add more than a few of those speaking in favor were more character witnesses for Mr. Goldring than having anything positive to say about the demolition) in protest to this project.

    The argument for its demolition is basically that of neglect. Mr. Goldring and his father have let this structure deteriorate by their own means. They have the funds to fix it up, and make it look more presentable (though at its state now, it is still a gorgeous house). If I am correct, demolition by neglect for these types of historic properties is not allowed, and the city council should therefore support the demolition committees ruling opposing Mr. Goldring’s demolition and construction of a new single-family home.

    • Robert

      The existing house isn’t even the slightest bit attractive. If you know Ken Tate’s work, then you would know that whatever design he proposes for this site will easily blow the existing house out of the water.

      “houses are not built like they used to be”
      -Well, they can be, if you do it right. Ken Tate sees to it that the best contractors build his designs. I had the opportunity a while back to talk to a former employee of Tate, and he said that they literally have people come in from Italy to do plaster work.

      I can assure you, and everyone else who opposes this project, that the proposed house would certainly be an upgrade.

      • Matt

        “the proposed house would certainly be an upgrade”

        You could say that about any house, since “upgrades,” like so many other things, are in the eye of the beholder. The caliber of the architect for the redevelopment is not the point. NCDC rules only require a redvelopment plan be in place, not that it be spectacular.

        The criteria for a decision by NCDC are the following:

        “(1) The current condition of the structure as evidenced by photographs provided to the NCDC members at the hearing;
        (2) The architectural significance of the subject structure;
        (3) The historical significance of the subject structure;
        (4) The urban design significance of the structure as it relates to:
        i. Pedestrian perception and movement;
        ii. Height, area and bulk of the structure and how it relates to the street scene, traffic, and to other buildings in the vicinity;
        (5) The neighborhood context of the subject structure, including the condition and architectural, historical and urban design significance of other structures in the vicinity of the subject structure;
        (6) The overall effect on the block face;
        (7) The proposed length of time the subject site is anticipated to remain undeveloped;
        (8) The proposed plan for redevelopment; and
        (9) The stated position of adjacent neighbors, neighborhood associations, or other interested individuals or organizations, either provided in writing in advance, or during public comment at the hearing.”

        The criteria are based mostly on the merits of the current structure by itself and within the context of the neighborhod, not whatever is proposed in the future. And on that basis, five of the Committee-members felt the historical, architectural, and neighborhood significance of the building merited its preservation over its demolition.

        If it was all about what was coming next, then no city or Road Home demolition would ever be approved, because every one of those depressingly leaves an empty lot with little hope of redevelopment.

  • Jean McAuliffe

    I noticed that Jeff Goldring neglected to mention that the house he grew up in on St. Charles Ave. (corner of Soniat, across from the Latter Library), is a brick suburban style home that his father built after another “old home not worth saving” was demolished.
    Does Jeff have any siblings that may want the same advantages he had? How many of Mr. Goldrings grandchildren will feel deprived if not permitted to build new structures along our most venerated Avenue?
    Mr. Goldring’s philanthropy is greatly appreciated my many, but to reciprocate by granting this demolition would not be in our city’s best interest.

  • Emily

    If you want to build a big “new” house then go do that somewhere else outside of Orleans parish but not on historic St. Charles Avenue.

    I live across the street from the old Castle Inn in the Garden District. It is enormous and in desperate need of repair. Fortunately, it was recently purchased by someone who is currently renovating it – not demolishing it! It will take a large amount of work and money to make the Castle Inn livable as a single family residence but the work will not be done in vain. Rather, it will be in accord with the historic preservation of our beautiful city.

    This house on St. Charles Avenue could be gorgeous if given some TLC. Maintaining an old house is a labor of love and is the reason why New Orleans is an historic gem. The historic architectural significance alone should be reason enough to stop the demo. Think of the Arts Council bldg on Lee Circle – thank god that building was not torn down! The building underneath the ugly facade that had been put over it is wonderful.

    Just because someone wants to make things right for them does not mean that is the right decision for our city! Please save this house. After Katrina wiped out so many houses with so much significance, why would anyone want to tear anything else down?

  • Lisa

    So the city won’t allow struggling homeowners to demolish a termite and vine shotgun on some side street in Central City, but they’ll allow someone to tear down a home that looks more than feasible for a renovation on St. Charles Avenue?

    My husband and I renovated a corner grocery that you could see daylight through the walls and ceiling and with studs and floor joists that had fed many a termite colony in their day – was it feasible to make it into a fine single family home? Absolutely.

    With the right architect and the right attitude it’s feasible to save almost any structure in this city. And along St. Charles Ave. we certainly should.

    Didn’t the committee just deny the demolition request of a couple on Henry Clay who wanted to build a “modern style” home there because the maintenance was “too great” and the house was “rather boring” and not “architecturally significant” but the location was lovely?

  • Eric

    This is getting ridiculous. Save this home.

    If Goldring wanted a single family home, why did he buy this one? There are plenty of single-family mansions in the city for sale, and in a given year more than a handful of properties on St. Charles change hands. If he doesn’t want it, why doesn’t he simply sell it and buy something that doesn’t have to be torn down?

    And then there’s this gem:

    “If there was ever a case to demolish a property and replace it with something better, this is it,” Maginnis said.

    Ha! This is post-K New Orleans. There are at least 100,000 homes that would be better candidates for demolition than an intact mansion on St. Charles. Get real.

  • Matt

    “The Neighborhood Conservation District Committee’s vote was 6 to 5 in favor of allowing the demolition, falling one vote short of the seven needed for approval and sending the project to the City Council.”

    Please note that the NCDC ordinance requires two-thirds of the committee members present to vote in the affirmative to pass a motion. 7 is not two thirds of 11 (the number of committee members present yesterday), so even if this property had gotten 7 votes, its approval would have been of dubious legality.

    The NCDC’s rules allow this mathematical mistake because they are written wrong. They also allow motions to pass with five out of 8 members present. These errors have been in place for over three years and have not been corrected, allowing over 20 houses to be approved for demolition in contravention to the actual law, including two during yesterday’s meeting: 2545 N Miro and 2202 Gallier. The City Attorney’s office, which has a representative at every NCDC meeting, has signed off on this.

    In addition, one of the members present at yesterday’s meeting, Pearl Dupart, publicly announced her retirement from the committee on August 1st and was recognized for her years of service on that day. Yet she reappeared yesterday. She is the mayoral appointee on the committee, and her reappearance is evidence of the administration’s joy in tinkering with committees no matter what the rules and facts are.

    • http://UptownMessenger.com Robert Morris

      This is a pretty interesting issue you’ve raised, Matt. Has there been any effort to clarify the 2/3 rule, or has it been used successfully to counter any NCDC votes?

      • Matt

        Under the law, one cannot appeal an approval. So once a property is approved with 7 of 11 or 5 of 8 votes, that’s it.

        On the flip side, a denial with the same numbers is still a denial, it’s just the flavor that’s changed. Under the [incorrect] NCDC rules, it is a straight up denial. Under the law, it’s officially “no action,” but in practice is a de facto denial. Either way, it’s a denial. So the problem only comes about on approvals – the worst possible way for such a problem to manifest itself since approvals result in immediate demolition.

        The law is clear – 2/3rds to approve any motion. But the NCDC persists in a math-free world where 7 divided by 11 (0.6363) and 5 divided by 8 (0.625) equal 2/3rds (0.666).

  • Sharon

    I’m bothered by the fact that these appointees don’t take their role/responsibilty on these committees seriously enough to attend the meetings on a regular basis. I understand that the occasional family emergency or professional committment may conflict, but too many miss meetings where pivotal votes are needed. This is one of several occurences in which one of these committees has forced the City Council to make the final decision without a recommendation due to a lack of votes. Can we say politics?

    • Matt

      The appeal is to City Council not because of a lack of a quorum. The minimum number of members required to attend is 7, and the NCDC has never cancelled a vote because of lack of a quorum.

      The property will be appealed to City Council because the rule in the NCDC law is that any motion must be approved by 2/3rds of the members, which this was not, so it was de facto denied. Any property that is denied can be appealed to City Council. The owner has 30 days to request an appeal. Council has 60 days to act after receipt of that appeal request.

  • http://www.dogbedspot.co.uk/ Emma Cobber

    Thanks for the excellent post! I first seen that St. Charles Avenue mansion and I’m so glad to read about their commitment. That’s sound appalling too. Thanks a lot! :)