After more than a dozen speakers took the microphone at a forum dedicated to saving the Carrollton Courthouse on Wednesday night, a common theme emerged from their comments: The best future for the landmark structure is some sort of public use.
Some described a new community center or an expanded library, perhaps to replace the nearby Nix branch. Others mentioned museums about the history of public education, of the city of Carrollton, or even New Orleans music. If not that, then flexible museum space, they said, where the city’s other museums could rotate exhibits. The large space could host city archives or recreation offices, they said, and its grounds would be perfect for park space with the crumbling old temporary buildings removed.
The question looming over the courthouse’s fate — and likely defining it — is who will actually own the building. And to that question, no answers emerged Wednesday night.
What seems clearest is who won’t own it — the current owner. While Orleans Parish School Board officials have expressed support for saving the courthouse, they have not expressed any support in keeping it and renovating it themselves. A historic renovation of the sort that would be necessary is outside their budget, they say, and the building itself is not especially well suited for a school building, despite its decades of use as one. Meanwhile, its annual groundskeeping, insurance and security costs total around $100,000 — not an expense the School Board wants to retain.
New Orleans voters passed an extension of a property tax last December that will create a permanent fund for school building repairs, but Chief Financial Officer Stan Smith and Board member Woody Koppel both said that money cannot be used for the courthouse. As the tax generates the repair money, it will be allocated to occupied OPSB buildings based on their student populations — and since the courthouse is now empty, none will be earmarked for it.
“That’s for buildings that are occupied,” Koppel said after the forum, which was hosted by the Louisiana Landmarks Society. “It’s not for School Board administration buildings. It’s not for vacant buildings.”
Nor could that formula be changed by the Orleans Parish School Board, Koppel and Smith agreed. Because the language allocating the money to occupied schools was written into the law approved by voters, any inclusion of vacant buildings would likely require approval by the state legislature and another vote by the public.
Thus, the options open to the School Board to dispose of the property are fairly limited. Essentially, they must either sell or lease it at a public auction, or sell or lease it to another governmental entity.
“It’s a pretty restrictive process that we have to follow to make sure that we comply with all of the guidelines,” Smith said.
Preservationists describe the auction of the building to a private developer as a “worst-case” scenario — in part because it is not currently protected from demolition. Many of the functions on residents’ wish list, meanwhile — library, parks offices, city archives, museum space — fall at least in part under city government, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu has not expressed any interest in taking over the building, either, and his office was not among the presenters at the forum Wednesday night. (Councilwoman Susan Guidry was scheduled to speak, but had to cancel at the last minute and sent a representative from her office instead, organizers said.)
“The City is not pursuing the acquisition of the Carrollton Courthouse from the Orleans Parish School Board at this time,” wrote Bradley N. Howard, a spokesman for the mayor, in an email to Uptown Messenger on Thursday afternoon.
A number of speakers Wednesday night were professors at Tulane University, which is growing its facilities nearby but generally landlocked by the neighborhood around it. After the meeting, however, John Stubbs of the Tulane School of Architecture said he did not know whether the university would have any interest in acquiring the facility either.
“A lot of people are rooting for the right solution here at Tulane,” Stubbs said. “This buildings is part of the cultural landscape of the Uptown community. There’s no question about the importance — symbolic, historical, architectural and otherwise.”
Tulane is not the only large institution in the Uptown area, Stubbs noted, and the building could serve some other organization. It is clear, however, that it can and should be saved, he said, and the more that becomes known about it, they more some entity may realize a use for it.
“If they built it in the first place, we can sure as heck restore it,” Stubbs said.
While preservationists’ greatest fear is that the building may be torn down, there may be some protection for it to come. At a question from Louisiana Landmarks Society member Sandra Stokes, Smith and Koppel pledged to look into the feasibility of putting some sort of “conservation easement” on the building, preventing its next owner from demolishing it. That may be possible, Smith said, as long as it does not have the appearance of steering the building to a particular owner.
In the meantime, neighborhood activist Keith Hardie urged supporters of the courthouse to keep its plight in the public eye, by placing yard signs in front of their homes and contacting any public officials who might listen.
“We want every politician, everybody with money, everyone who’s involved in civic action in this city to be seeing those signs and thinking of saving the Carrollton courthouse,” Hardie said.
To read our live coverage of the meeting, see below.
Note: Live coverage of the forum was first posted Wednesday evening, and the article was subsequently updated, most recently with the comment from the mayor’s office at 3:39 p.m. Thursday.