A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on a lunchtime roundtable discussion at the Society of Architectural Historians meeting hosted by the Louisiana chapter of the Modernist preservation group DOCOMOMO (a slightly difficult but fun-to-say acronym which stands for “DOcumentation and COnservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the MOdern MOvement”). The discussion was well-attended, and it centered on the efforts of the Louisiana chapter since its establishment a few years ago to advocate for the preservation of Modernist landmarks in New Orleans threatened by various Katrina-relief programs, most especially with FEMA funding. Specifically, the discussion centered on the failed efforts to save these buildings, as Francine Stock and Keli Rylance went down the list of buildings that have been demolished after going through the Section 106 process set up by Congress in the Historic Preservation Act of 1966: Cabrini Catholic Church and George Washington Carver school being high on that list.
I don’t have the time or energy to go into the ins and outs of the Section 106 process–if you’re interested, go to the source at the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation website. Basically, the process was designed to ensure that federal agencies and state and local agencies using federal funds consider the effect of their proposed actions on historic properties. This was in response to the devastation wrought on historic neighborhoods by the Urban Renewal program and the building of the interstate highways, among other 1960s government projects. The “process” involves the agency getting together with the state historic preservation office or SHPO, and whatever local interested parties want to participate, and consulting about how the project might avoid destruction or other adverse impact on the historic properties involved.
So, knowing that the Section 106 process was designed to encourage community participation, the New Orleans DOCOMOMO group threw its energies into getting involved in the consultation process in hopes of saving some of New Orleans’ impressive stock of Modernist landmarks from unnecessary demolition after Katrina.
Lately though, having fought and lost almost all of their battles, DOCOMOMO_NOLA has decided that the process has been a colossal waste of time and energy and that disengagement from it might give them time to spend more productively. Just this past weekend, they participated in a Hands Around Wheatley event to help show and build public support for the endangered Phyllis Wheatley School. They’re also putting the final touches on a Regional Modernism iPhone app–those of you who have entered the smart-phone age will know that that means, I’m sure.
Such grassroots advocacy is certainly the past of historic preservation, and it may also be the future if Section 106 continues to produce nothing but endless and meaningless consultation meetings. This return to the grassroots may be a good thing in the end, but it certainly demonstrates that the Section 106 process has lost its way.
I have made rumblings here on MissPres about the Section 106 process and its dismal record for preserving any buildings on the Coast after Katrina, and I’ve followed some of the disheartening stories from New Orleans (as you may recall, Francine Stock wrote a photographic essay “Is there a future for the recent past in New Orleans?“).
I’m not sure where to lay the blame for this ongoing failure of preservation in the realm of public funding for demolition of landmark buildings. For those who say it’s only about Modernism and that people just don’t like Modernist buildings, I need only raise the issue of East Ward School in Gulfport and the Administration Building at Gulf Park College, both built in the 1920s, handsome structures and easy to sell to the public as “historic.” Both came down after damage from Katrina that could have been repaired, and both demolitions were paid for with federal monies through FEMA. FEMA also paid for the demolition of the Tivoli Hotel, listed on the National Register but neglected by its owners for many years before Katrina. I feel sure that if, perchance, the board that oversees Beauvoir had decided they really just wanted to tear down the battered remains of Jeff Davis’ house, sell the beachfront property, and use the money to establish an inland museum, FEMA would have paid for that too.
Is this a problem only with FEMA? Is it confined to the Gulf Coast region? Is it the disaster mentality of local residents who primarily want to get the money and move on? Or is it a broader problem of federal agencies learning how to get around the process, check it off their checklist, and give a whistle for the bulldozers? If the process of bringing preservationists to the table for discussion and consultation isn’t actually saving any buildings, then should preservationists just pull out of the process altogether?
Non-profit preservation groups such as DOCOMOMO or our own Mississippi Heritage Trust operate on extremely limited budgets and are often staffed by volunteers. If the Section 106 process of talk-talk-talk-demolish sucks all the energy out of those organizations, then it does seem to me that–purely as a self-defense mechanism–they need to find better ways to save buildings, ways that actually, you know, preserve buildings, rather then ending with yet another wrecking ball. But on the other hand, if no one shows up to the consultation, are we just making things worse by letting federal agencies go on their merry way ignorant of what they’re destroying? Wouldn’t that be a return to the 1960s, when historic buildings had no protection whatsoever?
Anyway, while y’all ponder these deep thoughts and consider your own opinions, let me end by presenting a few pictures of Charity Hospital I took on one of my jaunts. As long-time readers will recall, this is a New Orleans issue we’ve been following for a while here on MissPres–read a brief synopsis of the building and the controversy surrounding it here and on the Trust’s website.