Nov 072011
 

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

This past Thursday, the New Orleans City Council did a curious and terrible thing.  It voted to overrule the National Conservation District Committee and allow the demolition of a historic St. Charles Avenue mansion designed by a prominent architect.

At first glance, this would seem to be contrary to the most fundamental principles underlying historic preservation in this city. The mansion, located at 5428 St. Charles Avenue, was designed by Emile Weil, the architect responsible for such beauties as the Saenger and Jerusalem Temple. Its present owner, Jeffrey Goldring (of the New Orleans Goldrings) wants to knock the sucker down and replace it with a home designed by Northshore architect Ken Tate.

Owen Courrèges

Now, if you or I owned a crappy, nondescript shotgun designed by a nobody, and we asked to tear it down to build a new house, we would face an uphill battle. Thus, one would think that razing a mansion designed by a big-name architect would be nigh impossible. Alas, you would be wrong.

So how did this happen? My own forensic analysis reveals that with money, time and genuflection to neighborhood groups, you could tear down the Cabildo.

The first step Messer. Goldring took towards realizing his champagne wishes and McMansion dreams was to toady up excessively to the St. Charles Avenue Association. At their worst, neighborhood associations can be like Eric Cartman in “South Park:” They’re loud, crude, and more than anything else they want you to respect their authority (or, as Cartman would say, ‘authori-TAH.’)

Now, dealing with neighborhood associations typically guarantees the next step – getting the support of the district’s councilperson. Because the path of least resistance is typically to defer to neighborhood groups (it saves the councilperson the trouble of thinking for him- or herself) getting their support is key. Accordingly, Councilwoman Guidry openly supported demolition of the Weil house.

Next, the Goldrings had to sway the rest of City Council, but this was a simple task because the council is a macrocosm of its individual members’ laziness.  They virtually always defer to the councilperson in whose district the property sits.

What all this means is that in order to get a historic home sent to the dustbin of history you need to lobby neighborhood groups like nobody‘s business. This requires copious amounts of cash which the Goldrings conveniently possessed (The Steeg Firm doesn’t work for free).

The Goldrings did enter into a Byzantine neighborhood agreement with the St. Charles Avenue Association, but it didn’t change the bottom line.  An old mansion in decent shape will be bulldozed. I personally own a large house that was built by a noted architect, Charles Hillger (he designed Trinity Episcopal, Rayne Methodist, and the original Temple Siani). My house isn’t architecturally remarkable. It’s a basic, Italianate double-gallery. Nevertheless, it’s still a magnificent house and I couldn’t conceive of razing it.

If we restrict historic preservation to architecturally unique properties, we’ll only be saving a few dozen structures.  Historic preservation is about the whole, not the part.

Moreover, a central virtue of historic properties is that they were built to last. As Ann Abbrecht, the prior owner of 5428 St. Charles, noted during the council hearing, the mansion designed by Weil featured “100-year-old cypress.” Old growth cypress is like Hardie board on steroids. I know from experience that newer woods are weaker, more prone to rot and more attractive to termites than the building materials of old. Put bluntly, they stink.

It’s disturbing that all it takes is money and time to demolish a historic St. Charles Avenue mansion. As Barry Grodsky, the Goldring’s neighbor and my own colleague, noted during the hearing, “there’s no need to tear this building down.” It is a senseless act of violence against this city’s architectural history.

I understand that architecture should not be static, and that every historic building isn’t worth saving, but this one was. All the wealth and power in the world doesn’t change that, nor does it make this ill-conceived demolition easier to bear.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

  • Eric

    Well stated, and I completely agree. This is shameful. With all of the empty lots and unsalvagable properties in this city, why tear this one down? It’s vanity, plain and simple. We’re going to regret this when the McMansion goes up.

    • Kate Ford

      Susan Guidry has shown Uptown time and again, she has no use for preservation or architecture, however, if you are a developer with deep pockets, you are her friend. If only she represented her constituents and not $$$.

      What can we expect from a woman who gets lost when she leaves Lakeview? “Anyone BUT Guidry”

  • AJ

    by the looks of it, all that house needs is a new coat of paint and maybe some more attractive windows.

  • Barry

    Nice article. I now have a reason to dislike the Goldrings. There goes a part of our city’s charm and uniqueness, pushing us one step closer to being homogeneous like Houston. I imagine Mr. Goldring would tear down Commander’s Palace and replace it with an Olive Garden if it would suit his selfish needs…

  • 504 Concerned

    Interesting conflicts of interest for both the Preservation Resource Center and Hurstville Assn. PRC’s treasurer, Opotowsky, represented Goldring, while the PRC’s first position was to oppose demolition. Don’t you wonder why the PRC didn’t show up to oppose demolition? Looks bad.

    Hurstville Assn. has problems with conflicts, transparency and accountability. Mr. Brady, Goldring’s consulting architect, sits on the Hurstville Assn. board, but was he paid consulting fees by Goldring? Hurstville Assn. never communicated with the Hurstville neighbors.

    Courtesy of Sarbanes-Oxley, nonprofits sign tax forms to the IRS, attesting to conflicts policies. Transparency and accountability are important elements of board members’ fiduciary responsibilities.

  • Freret Neighbor

    I completely agree! What a shame to tear down this beautiful old building!

  • Roog

    Thank you for the insightful post. An important point that wasn’t vetted – how was the Neighborhood Association won over, besides by the owners’ successful courtship? They must have received something from the neighborhood agreement? Is Guidry an expert on the less-notable works of famous architects of the past? Or were they (neighbors and council) comforted with knowing that the new house will be single-family rather than the existing under-maintained three-plex?

    • 504 Concerned

      The neighbors never had the chance to know anything – the neighbors weren’t informed about the Hurstville agreement. One wonders if the agreement’s legally valid. Yes, it will be a single family home, but the current structure could have been renovated beautfully to be a single family home.

      • Kate Ford

        Tacky McMansion versus a house designed by the same architect who built the Saenger.

  • patty

    These houses arent that old. There is not one house on St charles that is from the civil war. Most of the houses were even bigger before. The people that owned JAX beer had a house that covered 3 lots on St charles. They had to sell there house because of prohibition. They now have 3 mansions on that property. 95 percent of these houses are less than 65 years old. If he cant rip it down and build what he wants. You must find someone who wants it and will repair it. Otherwise it is just another eye sore in this city. Say what you want about Goldring, but he has done alot for my alma mater Tulane University.

    • Eleanor

      So you are saying that because other travesties of demolition have occurred in the past, we should keep allowing it to happen? That is a ridiculous argument if I have ever heard one. We should learn from mistakes and not keep making them if that is the case with the JAX Beer family estate.

      This house is not an “eye sore.” If anything is wrong with it, it is because its owners have purposefully not kept up with it. If he wants a McMansion he can go live in a subdivision like English Turn. Keep these nouveau-riche houses off of St. Charles Ave. He didn’t have to buy this property from his father, he chose to do so.

      And I do not doubt at all Goldring supports Tulane University, a school that now caters to the money of the North Easterners. That’s what this entire thing is about – the City Council and other members of the community not wanting to lose Goldring’s “support.” I’d rather not have it, since it is so obviously in his own best interest and not that of the community. That comment about Olive Garden really sums up this man’s entire objective.

    • 504 Concerned

      Emile Weil built the home in the 1920’s, nearly 85 years ago, not 65. Most of the homes in the area were built in the 1920’s or 10 years prior. The Sully carriage house was probably built in 1887, which will be taken down, probably never rebuilt. This will destroy 2 landmarks by moving it away from the Sully house next door. The owners are capable of rennovating both properties but they’ve got a history of tearing down beautiful old homes and replacing them with new, out of place construction. BTW, just because you give money to Tulane or the JCC doesn’t entitle you to destroy our shared architectural history. What price have we paid for this thinking?

      • Susan Kierr

        Wasn’t the agreement with the neighborhood association that the carriage house would be saved?

        I have followed this issue both as a person who loves New Orleans but also as current president of Louisiana Landmarks Association. Ispoke to Jeff Goldring and his father during the debate regarding the value of saving this landmarks. Now my suggestion is that we find a way to connect with the new architect. Mr. Tate is very talented and may know how to do better than a tacky McMansion.

  • I had heard about this controversy but hit the wrong button in the heat of the Saints game yesterday and found myself diverted to the Council hearing and became fascinated. I am a modernist by training and preference and applaud good design and quality construction whenever possible however, in the thirty years I have loved New Orleans, I have NEVER seen any viable building demolished to make way for a higher quality design or construction. Is this going to be another pseudo mansion “in the manner of” the grand structures along St. Charles. Please, please NO! Just look at Harrah’s; the match stick dolls houses replacing the hurricane proof ‘projects’; the barren landscape awaiting the convention center at the expense of magnificent brick warehouses; the non-descript schools replacing award winning structures . . . Perhaps this Emile Weil is not in the top 5 but it has a soul and a place on the Avenue. Show me a McMansion that can hold a candle to that!
    I am horrified and disgusted by all the issues discussed above that are, by turn, either Disneyfying this city or destroying the unique, although not always picturesque, fabric of New Orleans that sets it apart from any other place in the world.
    The ‘Commander’s Palace / Olive Garden’ comment sums it up! How dare our elected officials even debate these self interested individuals when so much of this urban fabric needs serious attention.

  • drag strut

    The saddest part is how much they spent to have it demolished. Time and money for what? If they left only part of the building in tact they could have gotten a full permit for renovation and completely changed the overall appearance without raising any questions. Clearly the architect and owner wanted controversy to prove a point.

  • patty

    Lets just do what the city would normally do. Lets just keep complaining, keep the red tape going for as long as possible. Make the Goldrings mad, have the property sit in disrepair for 4-5 years. Then they can sell it and turn it into an apt complex. Then we can have neighbors complain saying they dont have enough parking spots legally for an apt complex. It can go back to the city council, they can do absoultly nothing as usual. Finally in 10 years, the place will be sitting there falling apart like everything in the New Orleans area. Finally, the reason why they ripped down the JAX mansion and made 3 of them is because of prohbition. They simply could not afford to keep it up and find a buyer. If you want to keep this mansion intact find a buyer. You probably wont because it easier to buyer a nicer mansion on St. Charles and not have to worry about the repairs and the neighbors looking into your property to make sure you have the right permits. Unfortuantly this city has 2 difficult decisions. Rip it down and build something new, or have it just sit there and fall apart. I am guessing they will take it just sitting there, no power on and not paying taxes. This city does that better than anyone. Goldberg should just do the right thing and move to old metairie or lakeview. They will let you build anything. Thank you for the Jewish center on West Eslplanade and on Broadway. Also, the 3 buildings you have donated at Tulane Uiniversity

    • Devaud

      As a Tulane Foundation employee, Goldring did NOT donate the buildings. He donated money to secure naming rights. patty, you are falling into the same pattern of rationalization of behavior into which these neighborhood associations have fallen. I strongly believe that most “preservationists” are obstructionists who wait until someone steps up to do something with a dilapidated building instead of trying to find people to preserve them in earnest. This situation is the inverse. Because Goldring strategically has bought off the neighborhood groups, he has a smoother path to destroy something that really could and should have been preserved. Because he “bought” naming rights to buildings at our school, doesn’t translate into allowing him to “buy” our opinions. Academia is the pursuit of truth, not the highest bidder.

  • David

    In 2-3 years all will be forgotten.

  • You are forgetting that a few years ago, the owner, at the time attempted to get a permit to demolish this “historic” property to build a high rise condo similar to the Octavia apartments across St. Charles Ave. I certainly agree that a high rise condo would not be suitable at that corner, but believe a new single family residence on that lot will be a positive move.

    • 504 Concerned

      New is not improved, nor is it positive to destroy an historic house. Read what the National Trust says about McMansions – they are out of scale, out of place and you lose the character of a neighborhood.
      http://www.preservationnation.org/issues/teardowns/

  • Matt

    While most of the points made in the column are quite valid, there is one that is incorrect. In fact, it is quite easy to demolish nondescript but nonetheless historic housing in New Orleans.

    The committee charged with supposedly preserving such housing – the NCDC – actually approves close to 80% of all applications it receives. Most of those demolitions happen far away from the heart of Uptown and all the attention that area receives from the press, but in no less important neighborhoods.

    As far as Councilmember Guidry’s direct voting record on preservation, it is quite poor. She has had an opportunity to overturn or uphold 11 NCDC denials within District A in appeal votes since her term began (4 other appeals were withdrawn before they came before the Council). She has upheld just 2.

    Councilmember Midura voted to overturn 14 and upheld 9 NCDC denials during her term, a better record. 12 others were withdrawn before Council votes.

  • Kay

    This isn’t about preservation, it’s about power. The Goldring’s and others have it, and “we” don’t. The hypocrisy of this city and organizations like the PRC just doesn’t get blatantly exposed very often. It’s usually just running in the background and we are droned to sleep by it. We wake up for this kind of thing for a little while, then…zzzzzz.

    I can imagine the process went something like “The Goldring’s have some beautiful drawings of a big house, and will bring a beautiful project to the Avenue. Those poor people in those little shotguns in Back of Town or wherever they are, don’t know any better and will just have to do what we tell them to.”

  • Nuria

    What a waste, to tear down a beautiful and historic home with architectural details and a level of workmanship that can’t be replicated today. The owner has to be an arrogant SOB to insist on destroying such a fine residence just because he wants something new, when he could just build on an empty lot or one with a structure that didn’t have any particular character and wouldn’t be missed.

  • Guest

    CORRECTION: I’ve been notified that the HDLC has changed its guidelines as to half-round guttering (but not yet updated the public guidelines online) and that they have also started to accept and process applications for certificates of appropriateness via e-mail, so an in-person visit may not be necessary.

    My opinion remains the same that low-level maintenance should not require any permitting, but it is worth noting that the HDLC has instituted some reforms in recent years. It just needs to do a great deal more to shed its reputation as an obstinate, overly-bureaucratic agency, and that work needs to be done before we expand the HDLC’s jurisdiction.