Owen Courreges: Saving St. Charles Avenue

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Owen Courreges

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.

22 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Saving St. Charles Avenue

    • Fat Harry,

      From what I’m already seeing, the structure is architecturally out-of-place and the scale is all wrong. I heard in advance that it was actually adapted off a commercial design (not confirmed, mind you) which would explain the odd proportions and details. It’s definitely not looking better than the Weil house.

      Irrespectively, the issue really isn’t so much what replaces it, but the fact that powerful and connected people can get St. Charles mansions razed while the city causes problems for people with far less significant buildings. It really makes you wonder if we really want preservation.

  1. Mr. Owen, you are right. The “ordinary” people do not have the clout of the well-connected, but it is even more cynical (and sinister)than you portray. Not only can the ordinary NOT tear down mansions on St. Charles (which they would have little cause to do anyway), the ordinary cannot tear down problematic property in Treme, Bywater, Irish Channel, or any other “Historic District” they might unhappily find their property of many generations to become included in. I see it every time I watch an HDLC meeting re-run on tv.

    • You are wise beyond your years to have learned that the “well-connected” can get things done that “ordinary” people cannot. It is especially effective when they are “powerful” as Owen suggests. Other than being troubled by the inconsistencies you see, are you opposed to property owners demolishing houses you like, as is Owen, or do you think people should do be able to do what they want? Personally, I found the Weill building nothing special, and I like what I see in the new building, although I usually wait to the end of the play before writing the review.

    • Joanne,

      And that’s a problem, at least when it’s not practical to save the building. The times when exceptions should be made and demolitions of historic buildings allowed are when the building is not that historically significant and is substantially blighted to where a renovation is highly unlikely. Alas, while we quibble over those buildings (as we ought to) connected people with clout can knock down St. Charles mansions. It turns preservation into a farce.

  2. I don’t really follow how the change in zoning adds or detracts from the preservation chances for these old houses. As you note, such buildings can be torn down for new residences. As I recall the Weill case, the architect was famous, but the building was mediocre and chopped into apartments. It was not a cake walk for the owner who had to take its request to the City Council, where other rich and prominent people were heard in opposition. I like what I see so far in the new building. I really don’t understand this railing against the privileged. I think all of the buildings on the Avenue are probably now owned by wealthy people and institutions, and any application they make for anything will be tainted by their privilege. At least they can’t get out of speeding tickets.

    • Deux,

      You could be correct, but not all wealthy landowners are equal, either. “Well-connected” can mean more than simply “wealthy.” The chances of Loyola getting demolitions approved is higher than for your average St. Charles homeowner.

      As for the Weil house, I think you’re wrong on that. The building was very attractive and could have been converted back to its original floorplan fairly easily. The new structure, on the other hand, is not shaping up well. It doesn’t look much like your typical St. Charles home. The Goldrings had to go to through the normal hoops to tear down the Weil house, but ultimately the demolition largely sailed through. Also, the justification for tearing it down was pretty weak.

      • By the way, it was not “Chopped up” into apartments – it was built that way…a grand apartment on one floor (I think it was the first) for “Grandmother” and two apartments on the other floor for the families of her two children. I think that is a quite lovely arrangement.

        • Joanne,

          Thanks for the correction. Even then, I doubt it would have been difficult to convert to a single family residence.

      • The complaint about sub-set of the rich that are especially privileged and always get their way is Tea Party crazy. We’ve had lots of big names having trouble with their projects. There is no accounting for taste or point in arguing it. I sort of liked the Weill Building, but I never took mind of it till it hit the news. As I said to Joanne, I’m unclear the level of preservation the building had. Generally speaking, owners can tear down the buildings others like. I am hopeful for the new building.

        • Deux,

          If you take issue with the very notion of preservation, sure, then owners can tear down whatever they want. However, we’re not actually supposed to be allowing that, and if the city hassles a person restoring a dilapidated shotgun about their choice of materials, it seems hypocritical to allow the outright destruction of old mansions on St. Charles designed by prominent architects. Personally, I’d prefer that we focus the brunt of preservationist efforts on preventing demolitions of prominent structures.

          • I support historic preservation both by private initiative and by government regulation in some situations. It is not every historic or interesting property that has an appreciative owner or that is protected by regulation. It is the case that some modest buildings are subject to complete protection (hassling) and some grander buildings are at the mercy of their owners. I am sorry you have had difficulty with the HDLC, but none of the properties you have discussed are within its jurisdiction. Expansion of city control would be very controversial. You might consider nominating the Loyola properties to the HDLC as local landmarks. If so designated, they would be subject to city protection and hassling. You could also propose the more sweeping law you think we need. I think the general notion that we ought to continue to highlight and appreciate historic buildings is a good one.

  3. Well thanks for the compliment, but I seriously doubt that it is “…beyond my years” – !!! I was sad to see the house go, because I always imagined what it could be like to live in one of those apartments (I love those old-time, built-to-plan, sprawling apartments uptown) and could mentally spruce up the outside. I haven’t any thoughts yet about its replacement, I’ll wait and see. I think rules should be fairly and evenly applied, across the board, which they are not. I am somewhat dismayed by the arbitrariness of some of the rules, and since they are unfairly tilted toward those who can afford to pay Justin Smith or John Williams to carry their water before the Commissions and Council, that makes those “rules” even harder for me to embrace. I love the way the Garden District Association finally agreed to a designation of “Historic District” – I call it “Historic District Lite” since THEIR rules do not restrict property owners from doing anything with their built property – any fence, any shutters, any window replacements, etc – all of the things that less wealthy property owners in the Irish Channel, Treme, Bywater, etc., are restricted from doing.(“Do as I say,, not as I do.”) The only thing that is covered by this designation is totally new construction (which of course there can be almost none of) and demolition, which, if you are connected,(and a campaign contributor) is no problem! It’s already happened.

    • We certainly do have a hodgepodge of rules for the preservation of historic and attractive old buildings. I’m not sure what kind of review the Weill house was given by the demolition agency and what part history played. Replacement of housing by new housing may carry great weight with that group. I don’t think you should expect any unified system across the city or even among the neighborhoods and buildings presently protected. The GD has the level of regulation it wants. I suspect there are many anti-government, anti-regulation people there. Think of it as mini-democracy. The big shots don’t always get what they want, the barbarians seem to be on the run downtown.

      • Guess what. I live in the Garden District, and am not in favor of regulation. I just think it’s very hypocritical for the GDA to weigh-in on issues that affect other districts with the restrictive status yet make sure they don’t have to be bothered with said regulations. I think they ought to stay out of historic district issues in the Lower Garden District, Irish Channel, and now maybe even parts of Central City.

        • Joanne, aren’t you doing what you say the GDA shouldn’t? Has the GDA taken a position on whether Loyola should preserve the buildings that Owen likes? Was it with the rich folks who wanted to demolish the Weill house or with the rich folks who wanted to keep it?

        • Aren’t we all weighing in on issues that affect others? Some are calling for more regulation in neighborhoods other than their own.

  4. No, the GDA would probably NOT weigh-in on that particular issue because it wouldn’t suite the individual agendas of the people who would do the “weighing” (i.e. going down to meetings at the Planning Commission, Council, HDLC meetings) but they are quick to take positions AGAINST any project in their, or any other (historic) district when the applicants are not in their circle of influence, or whatever. And Deux, please stop putting words in my mouth that I did not say – I have absolutely no problem with people being “rich” – I like to think I’m “rich” whatever that means, but believe me when I tell you that there are many. many long-time residents of the GD, (who many might consider “rich,”) who do not approve of or participate in the GDA’s many “positions.”

    You didn’t hear or see my “weighing in” on the issue in any official capacity.

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