One of Aesop’s fables is that of the young crab and his mother.
“Why in the world do you walk sideways like that?” said the mother crab to her son. “You should always walk straight forward with your toes turned out.”
“Show me how to walk, mother dear,” answered the little Crab obediently, “I want to learn.”
Mother crab tried in vain to walk straight forward, but she could walk only sideways, like her son. When she wanted to turn her toes out she tripped and fell on her nose.
The moral of the fable? Don’t tell others how to act unless you can set a good example. And local government could learn something from it.
City government tells us that preserving historic architecture is a matter of serious public importance. In certain core neighborhoods, it regulates even basic maintenance to ensure that historic structures are not unduly altered. It must approve demolitions, to ensure that historic buildings are not razed without good cause.
Nevertheless, our government has exempted itself from many of the standards it imposes on the rest of us rubes. The law is littered with exceptions for government entities.
This is especially evident with respect to the handling of the Carrollton Courthouse located at 701 South Carrollton, which is owned by the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB). The courthouse, designed by noted architect Henry Howard, was built in 1855 on the site where Andrew Jackson himself delivered a speech commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Orleans 15 years prior.
After the area was annexed by the City of New Orleans, title was eventually passed to the city and then to the McDonogh Trust, which developed public schools in the city. The building was used off-and-on for schools until 2013, and has since been vacant. Now, the OPSB is considering auctioning off the property to the highest bidder.
So why the concern over the Carrollton Courthouse? Isn’t it protected from demolition by the same laws that make the rest of us serfs grovel before a committee?
Actually, no. In the words of erstwhile city council candidate and political activist Drew Ward, “[t]he laws that were set up decades ago that enshrined preservation in law and established such things as historic districts and preservation commissions and all that actually specifically excluded OPSB-owned properties.”
“[I]f you look at all the preservation and landmark district maps for Uptown today,” Ward observes, “there’s a single block left out of all the various overlapping ones in the area.”
You can guess which block that is.
It’s all hugely perverse. If you had to pick one building out of the entire Carrollton neighborhood to preserve, you’d be hard-pressed to find a structure more worthy than the Carrollton Courthouse. It is the last remaining public building from the government complex built there in the mid-19th century, and is an iconic antebellum structure designed by one of New Orleans’ most noteworthy architects.
Nevertheless, some dilapidated bungalow built in the 1940’s has vastly more protection against demolition than the Carrollton Courthouse, and that’s disturbing. Local government is once again telling us, like a bad parent: “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Frankly, the hypocrisy is what sticks in my craw the most. I’m sick and tired of preservation being a sticking point for the little guy, while government exempts itself and wealthy interests buy their way through the process. The result is that those structures most worthy of preservation are also those that are generally at greatest risk.
This is why I often rant against the Historic District Landmarks Commission, which regulates preservation in local historic districts. They’re telling me to walk a straight line, when government is walking sideways.
It would behoove the OPSB to publicly declare that it will not allow the Carrollton Courthouse to be demolished, and to require covenants in any future sale that would ensure its preservation, even if those reduced the sales price. It would behoove the city to change our preservation laws to ensure that apply equally to all government buildings.
That, dear readers, would set a good example.
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.