- For one thing, the project made no sense from an economic perspective: why would you spend $4 million to build an elevated metal warehouse in a flood plain when there are plenty of non-elevated metal warehouses sitting around in non-flood plains.
Second, knowing several archivists, I couldn’t imagine any archivist even conceiving of a plan to build an archival facility in a flood plain. After all, even if you elevate the building higher than the last big flood (1979), who’s to say the next flood won’t be a couple feet higher? For a too-close-to-home example of the folly of such planning, see the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library down at Beauvoir, opened to much fanfare in the late 1990s, and built above Hurricane Camille’s surge line–who could imagine any surge being higher than Camille? Katrina took out the first floor of the library, washing straight through to the bayou behind the building and taking with it many invaluable and irreplaceable artifacts. At least in the case of the library, Beauvoir doesn’t exactly have much choice in site locations, so you can hardly fault the planning process. That isn’t the case here.
- Third, from a preservation standpoint, I just couldn’t imagine the state’s preservation agency making the decision to demolish a very large original section, albeit a rear section, of a National-Register listed property.
Unfortunately, none of the above logic has stopped this project, as I noticed this week, when a large dumpster appeared in front of the building. This after hearing reports about an e-mail circulated to MDAH staff regarding the upcoming project and describing Phase I of the project as involving
the demolition of most of the three wings behind the Naval Reserve building proper (the “boat”), the construction of a large storage building (approx. 16,904 gross sq. ft.) in place of the demolished structures, the construction of associated drives and parking areas, and the restoration of the exterior of the “boat.”
As I understand the project, from sources who have seen the plans, most of the three rear wings (original to the structure, although not of the same architectural quality of the front) will be demolished, except for the drill hall in the center wing. Those of you who attended MHT’s 2003 Ten Most Endangered Unveiling in the building will remember this drill hall space as the center of that event (along with the rain pouring in through the leaky roof).
In place of these rear wings, a large metal building will be attached to and possibly encompass the drill hall (I’m not clear on the exact footprint). This metal building, which will be the actual records center–not the front “boat” section–will have to be elevated to about 6-8 feet above the ground, meaning that even if the rest of the building were the height of a normal building’s single story, the roof would be roughly level with the front section. Problem is, the part of the building above the elevated section is a warehouse, not a normal-height building, so it will be taller than the front section. How tall? Not sure, but I’ve been told it’s not a few inches but a good number of feet taller.
Depending on how tall this monolithic structure is, it could dwarf the much-beloved front section and diminish the view of the Old Capitol, seen by thousands of commuters and visitors to the city every day as they enter on the Pearl Street exit or drive past on Jefferson Street near the fairgrounds.
I wish I knew who to blame for this project, who to put on my Wall of Shame, but I don’t. I want to blame MDAH, because it’s their record center. Maybe I’m too loathe to blame them. But no one I’ve talked to, even those at pretty high levels at MDAH, claims to like this project. Given that, why is it going forward? Or more accurately, why is it speeding forward when other more deserving and more logical projects, like the old GM&O depot, continue to sit deteriorating even though there is a good use for the building–offices for MDAH’s museum division, homeless since Katrina. Is the Dept. of Finance and Administration/Bureau of Buildings pushing the project? If so, with what motive? Is there some legislative or political maneuvering behind the scenes? Again, what is the motive?
Maybe I should just put all of the above on the Wall.
Or maybe I shouldn’t put any of the above on the Wall. I’ve heard people I have some respect for say that this might be the last chance for the front part of the building–that if this partial demolition project doesn’t move forward, the fate of the building will be complete demolition. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not–I lost my power to tell the future when my spaceship crashed into Earth. There’s no denying that the building, abandoned for almost a decade and not well-maintained by the Navy before that, is in bad shape, leaking like a sieve, pieces of plywood facade popping off, etc. Possibly I could buy the argument a little more easily if the back warehouse section doesn’t turn out as tall as I’ve been led to expect.
But I still go back to the “is it ok for the state’s preservation agency to tear down most of a National Register-listed building in order to save the front section?”–that question will stick in my craw for a long time to come.
What say you, MissPres readers? Wall of Shame-worthy or acceptable compromise?