Loyola University has staked out a clear position on its St. Charles properties: “We are not tearing down any mansions.”
However, many local residents are less than sanguine regarding Loyola’s intentions. Loyola presently owns the Fabacher Mansion in the 7300 block of St. Charles Avenue. The proposed comprehensive zoning ordinance will change the zoning on this iconic property from RM-4 (moderate residential density) to EC (Educational Campus).
Following approval in 2011 of a private homeowner’s replacement of a house at 5428 St. Charles by noted architect Emile Weil with a garish monstrosity, there’s cause for concern that the well-connected have full rein. Preservationists want St. Charles to continue to play host to historic mansions instead of whatever flavor-of-the-month comes down the pike.
Adding to the skepticism is the fact that Loyola has already set a precedent for culling old mansions. In the 1980s, Loyola owned three large mansions at the corner of St. Charles and Calhoun, all of which were razed to make way for Loyola’s new Communications/Music Complex.
Certainly at first glance, there is nothing sinister about Loyola seeking to have all of its properties rezoned as educational campuses. Loyola is, after all, a university. It is only natural that it would seek to plant its proverbial zoning flag on any property it owns.
Yet, as resident Louis Kong told The Advocate: “The main concern is that they’re going to turn around and demolish buildings and then be allowed to build any number of high-density structures: dorms, classrooms, auditoriums. If we keep demolishing things one by one, we are going to destroy our heritage and our culture and our architecture.”
Despite general turmoil in higher education, many (if not most) universities look to the future with an eye for growth. It’s viewed like breathing: if you stop, you die. Future demand may be more suspect with weak freshman enrollment, but if Loyola has plans to shrink, I haven’t seen them.
Universities and repurposed structures have never been a comfortable relationship. Old houses are relatively small, with inconvenient floor-plans, high maintenance costs and low energy efficiency. Universities tend to prefer larger, angular buildings of stone, glass and steel. It’s bad for the aesthetic integrity of St. Charles Avenue, but great for university officials whose concerns have, at least in recent memory, rested elsewhere.
Thus, while there’s no clear conspiracy by Loyola to cull St. Charles mansions, there’s a great cause for future concern. If current trends are any indication, Loyola would do better to sell off some of its properties, not rezone them as potential demolition targets.
Moreover, it’s a tad galling how our system for historic preservation is so slanted in favor of the wealthy and well-connected that Loyola’s actions are regarded with immediate suspicion. Loyola has clout that ordinary citizens simply don’t. You and I might face a brick wall if we sought to tear down a St. Charles mansion. Loyola might not.
Although the new comprehensive zoning ordinance will surely be an improvement, I am far from convinced that we aren’t just going to see the same old battles play out again, with high-minded preservationist principles going by the wayside the moment somebody important approaches the dais. Preservationism for the “little folk” isn’t just a tough pitch, it’s counterproductive.
The structures in New Orleans that are most worth saving also tend to have the most value and be in the most prominent locations. Powerful people debate the fates of these properties; if they can skirt the rules, the rules lose general authority.
Loyola said: “We are not tearing down any mansions.” Let’s hold them to that.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the ownership of the Levy Mansion. Loyola bought the Fabacher Mansion from the Dominican sisters, but the sisters retained ownership of the Levy Mansion, city officials have confirmed.]
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.