The City Council voted Thursday (March 24) to uphold the Historic District Landmarks Commission’s approval of a developer’s request to raze a house on Henry Clay Avenue in the Uptown historic district. The demolition had been challenged by preservation advocate Susan Johnson.
The HDLC staff backed the demolition request in its report to the commission and its testimony to the City Council. It’s rare that the HDLC staff support a demolition, according to Eleanor Burke, the commission’s deputy director.
“Once historic resources or buildings that contribute to the heritage of a community are destroyed,” Burke told the council, “it is generally impossible to reproduce their design, texture, materials, details and their special character and interest in the neighborhood.”
The HDLC staff found the building at 1025 Henry Clay to be “contributing but altered.” It is a historic structure that has retained the overall scale and massing as well as some architectural features, such as the exposed wooden rafter tails and dormer windows, Burke noted.
However, the doors, windows, porch, columns and trim have been altered over the years with “what appears to be salvaged historic materials reutilized in a non-historic configuration.” She pointed out, for example, the two wide front doors that likely replaced a door with sidelights and a transom.
An HDLC inspector found the bungalow in fair condition, records show, but also found evidence of termites, rotted wood and other moisture issues.
“The building’s lack of architectural integrity, minimal contribution to the existing historic street streetscape and deteriorated condition led to the staff determination that its demolition would not negatively impact the tout ensemble of the historic context,” Burke stated in her report.
The City Code requires the HDLC to consider five criteria when deciding on a demolition in a historic district: the historic or architectural significance; the importance to the tout ensemble, or general impression, of the district; the special character and aesthetic interest to the district; the difficulty or impossibility of reproducing such a building because of its design, texture, material or detail; and the future utilization of the site.
The commission approved the demolition in a 10-1 vote on Feb. 2, with Commissioner R. Stephanie Bruno, who represents the Uptown district, voting against it.
Speaking to the City Council, Johnson pointed out that no structural engineer had evaluated the building. “When a demolition is hotly contested, as I’ve heard before from the HDLC, we need a structural engineer to evaluate the building,” Johnson said. “Do we have a report? There is no report from a structural engineer. I’ve looked. I assume that the reason there wasn’t a report is that it would not have helped the case for demolition.”
Johnson disputed the HDLC’s estimate that the house was built between 1930 and 1940, citing Sewerage & Water Board records that show it was connected to municipal systems on March 10, 1922.
She also objected to tearing down a modest 100-year-old house to build a high-end single-family home while the city is in an affordable housing crisis. “Why are we demolishing a good house because we don’t like double front doors or the salvage windows and because the interior needs work?” she asked.
District A Councilman Joe Giarrusso objected to the appeal, saying the arguments lack factual evidence to back them up.
“If you have a belief that you want to preserve history, I respect that belief. If you have a belief that a two-story house should not go in that area, I respect that belief,” he said. “But it is unfair when there is evidence saying that a house is essentially a Frankenstein mishmash of component parts to claim that the entirety is historic without having evidence.”
Twelve residents submitted online comments supporting the appeal. Some strongly objected to the plans by Baton Rouge based developer Jim Brown, of Butler Brown Development and Gulf States Construction, to build a large two-story house where the bungalow now stands.
Uptown is a partial-control historic district where owners need HDLC approval for demolitions only, not for new construction or renovations.
“This neighborhood has seen many tear downs that have been replaced with huge houses changing the character of this lovely residentially diverse neighborhood,” said Uptown resident Ann Gardiner. “These large new buildings block views of the sky for neighboring properties and generally diminish the quality of life for existing residents.”
Michael Burnside commented that the city does not effectively enforce the demolition-by-neglect law, which gives developers incentive to let a building sit vacant until it becomes blighted and can be torn down.
Giarrusso said he does not believe the residents’ arguments are strong enough to refute the HDLC’s findings, adding that he is sensitive to their concerns about the proposed development. “The answer then is to move from a partial-control district to a full-control district,” he said, “and that’s just not where this property is right now.”
The council voted 5-0 to reject the appeal and uphold the HDLC decision to allow the demolition. On Tuesday (March 29), the city issued a demolition permit for 1025 Henry Clay.
Editor’s note: Susan Johnson contributes copyediting services to NOLA Messenger. R. Stephanie Bruno, a freelance writer as well as an HDLC commissioner, covers historic preservation issues for the Messenger websites.
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This report was updated on March 30 to correct the spelling of commenter Ann Gardiner’s name and to add that a demolition permit was issued.