New Orleans School Among World Endangered Sites
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
The Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in New Orleans is in trouble. Built in 1954, the modernist school is elevated on large steel trusses, its playground directly below the classrooms. The school has been closed since Hurricane Katrina and it's slated for demolition. Well, today, Phillis Wheatley Elementary got a boost. It made it onto a watch list of endangered cultural sites put out by the World Monuments Fund.
John Klingman is a New Orleans architect and professor at the Tulane School of Architecture. And he's trying to save Phillis Wheatley Elementary from the wrecking ball.
P: It was designed with principles of sustainability and modernism in mind. It's elevated a full floor above the ground so that the flooding that can occur from time to time in New Orleans, including Hurricane Katrina, was not able to reach the classroom level. It also provided an outdoor shade and places for little kids to play because the supports are only in the middle of the building. And the extensions of the building are cantilevered about 35 feet from support, which is a very, very muscular kind of structure, the kind of thing that you usually see in bridge design rather than in building design.
And then that was combined with an idea of transparency. As you know, in the '50s, architects were very interested in buildings that could be seen from the inside all the way to the outside and vice versa. And so the building was to be a site - a kind of shining light in a working class African-American neighborhood of New Orleans.
BLOCK: Who was the architect?
P: The architect was a man named Charles Colbert who was one of a half dozen nationally prominent architects in New Orleans in the 1950s. And this is generally acknowledged to be Colbert's finest work.
BLOCK: You know, it sounds like the folks who want to tear it down and build a new school are saying a number of things. One of which is that new schools are putting in band rooms, performance spaces, science labs, a gym, none of that would fit into this old structure. They can build something bigger and way better for this community.
P: Well, of course there's room on the site to build more square footage. And those special spaces, which of course should be part of any 21st century school, could be incorporated in the new facility.
BLOCK: So, you're saying add on a new structure behind the Phillis Wheatley Elementary?
P: Adjacent - adjacent to, yeah.
BLOCK: Adjacent to it.
BLOCK: Is it - is this true, that younger students were in portable buildings; they are prohibited from being on higher floors because of fire codes?
P: Yes. But the new structure adjacent to the elevated structure could take care of that condition. The elevated structure is something that is very important from the beginnings of New Orleans architecture. If you look at the early buildings in the French Quarter, and the early plantation houses of Louisiana, they're all elevated. And they were elevated because of the problems with flooding. And they were also elevated to increase the natural ventilation because the breeze is always a little bit stronger when you get above the ground. This just shows regional architectural sensitivity and design intelligence, the kinds of things that we should be promoting, not destroying.
BLOCK: How much love is there in the Treme neighborhood for this school?
P: I think there's some fondness but there's also a kind of sore point in that, after Katrina, the building was not secured. The site was open to vandalism. It's a hangout for illicit activities in the neighborhood. And frankly since there's no alternative in - on the table, the neighbors see the potential of a new building as solving a problem rather than having to deal with this ongoing condition. And in many respects, their concerns are absolutely justifiable.
BLOCK: John Klingman is a professor at the Tulane School of Architecture. He spoke with us from New Orleans. Mr. Klingman, thank you very much.
P: Thank you, Melissa.
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