by Sandra Stokes and Walter Gallas
On July 3, news reports surfaced that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu had been quietly working on a plan to move municipal government operations from the 1950s-era City Hall into the Art Deco Charity Hospital building. Preservationists reacted to the announcement with a certain amount of skepticism and caution.
Charity Hospital anchored the Historic Medical District and provided health care for much of New Orleans for generations. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, officials shuttered the hospital, depriving citizens of adequate medical care--and calling into question the future of the building.
While preservationists are relieved that New Orleans is finally considering the adaptive use of Charity Hospital, the lingering irony is not lost on the community. After Hurricane Katrina, residents were repeatedly told that this building was in terrible shape and could not be reused because of its flooded basement. Many said it should have been demolished shortly after the storm to end the debate. Luckily, through the work of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Smart Growth for Louisiana, Louisiana Landmarks Society, Louisiana Justice Institute, and many other groups and citizens, the building is still standing today and is finally included in a discussion about its rehabilitation.
However, it is a little early to celebrate the announcement by Mayor Landrieu that the iconic Charity Hospital building will be rehabilitated into the city’s new Civic Center. This is not the first time we have heard a New Orleans mayor announce plans for a new Civic Center. In May 2009, then Mayor Ray Nagin presented his plan to move muncipal government operations into the former Chevron Building in the Central Business District. Nagin’s plan never got off the ground. And although Landrieu’s new plan appears to be the best of all possibilities for Charity, it is still only a notion at this point.
The flaw with the current plan is that it relies on the Civil District Court also moving into the Charity building, along with the revenue stream that the Court brings. The judges have said that will not happen.
Back in 2010, the Civil District Court judges received approval from the Louisiana legislature to build a new stand-alone courthouse--near the current City Hall. The legislature also approved the courts adding a surcharge on court filing fees to be dedicated to a fund for the much-needed new courthouse, thus providing the judges their own stream of revenue. In 2010 Mayor Landrieu even wrote a letter of support to the State Supreme Court Chief Justice fully endorsing the courts' plan to build on Duncan Plaza. Now the mayor wants to change direction and force the judges into the Charity building against their will. It seems the city needs the guaranteed funding stream the courts can provide for the Charity Hospital Civic Center to become a reality.
Additionally, studies presented by the judges say the layout and column system of Charity do not allow for the lines of sight required for courtrooms. Although the building may not be suited for courts, it was eminently suited for reuse as a state-of-the-art hospital.
In 2008, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana (FHL) raised $600,000 to carry out a request from the Louisiana legislature to study the feasibility of reusing Charity Hospital after Hurricane Katrina flooded the basement. The FHL study not only showed that Charity was structurally sound, but that it could be gutted down to the 1938 limestone shell and rebuilt with a state-of-the-art hospital inside that met all the programmatic needs of the proposed new hospital construction plan. Furthermore, reusing Charity could have returned health care and jobs back to New Orleans in three years of construction time--while saving $283 million in the cost of the hospital construction alone. The National Trust for Historic Preservation joined FHL to lead the preservation and economic development battle to reuse Charity Hospital and to save the surrounding historic neighborhood slated for demolition for the construction of a new medical complex. The cry of the preservation community was “Faster, Cheaper, Less Destruction."
The story is far from over--and the future of the Charity Hospital building is still not secure. But at least there is renewed discussion about the historic building, which gives preservationists hope that it will be rehabilitated and used once more. Of course, these developments also open the door to what could be the next preservation battle--the future of New Orleans' midcentury modern current City Hall. We will need to all stay tuned and stay vigilant.
Sandra Stokes is a board member of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana and Advocacy Committee chair for Louisiana Landmarks Society. In 2009 she recieved the Peter H. Brink Award for Individual Achievement in Historic Preservation for her work with Charity Hospital and the City of New Orleans.
Walter Gallas is executive director of Louisiana Landmarks Society and former field office director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.