A new building is presently being proposed for 336 Decatur Street, a vacant site in the Vieux Carré that sits directly across the street from Bienville Park and the statue of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. It is a highly visible site where North Peters Street and Decatur Street split off forming the triangular Bienville Park and creating a unique trapezoid site that has frontages on three streets. For awhile the site was occupied by a small, vacant gas station that had a large billboard on its roof. The gas station and its billboard have since been demolished and now there is a great opportunity to build an attractive building that can enhance the neighborhood. The project has been reviewed by the Vieux Carré Architectural Review Committee (ARC) several times throughout the past year. Instead of pushing for the best design solution for the site, the ARC has unfortunately persuaded the architects to design a more modernist design. A recent iteration had glass curtainwall systems at the North Peters-Conti Street corner and dark grey metal panels everywhere else, and with a gallery on all three sides. The proposed building has a flat roof, part of which is supposed to be a roof terrace, and another part contains mechanical equipment that is concealed behind a taller facade that screens the equipment.
The preservation movement originally was a reaction to modernist architecture. Demolishing old buildings and replacing them with new building is as old as architecture itself. The expectation has always been that the new replacement building would be a better, more attractive building than the one that was to be demolished. When historic buildings started to be demolished and replaced with new modernist buildings, historic architecture enthusiasts fought against historic building demolitions because they feared that what would replace the older buildings would not be satisfactory. The tipping point was when New Yorks Pennsylvania Railroad Station designed by McKim, Mead & White was demolished and replaced by Madison Square Garden. It was the very best architecture of the past being replaced with the very worst. Later, Grand Central Terminal would be threatened with the construction of a large brutalist office tower over the top of the concourse. The preservation movement was born. Grand Central Terminal was spared, but unfortunately not soon enough to prevent the construction of the Pan Am Building (now the Met Life Building) designed by Walter Gropius and Emery Roth & Sons.
Part of this preservation movement resulted in the creation of numerous historic districts set up to protect entire neighborhoods and to provide guidance for renovation and construction within those districts. Architectural review committees (ARC) were set up to review the plans of architects and make recommendations and advisements. Interestingly, the buildings that comprise the historic districts, and give the district its character were done without the benefit of an ARC’s review. The Vieux Carré Commission is the second earliest historic district in the country, second only to Historic Charleston. Like many historic districts, the Vieux Carré has an ARC that reviews plans for any alterations to existing buildings and plans for any new construction. They are supposed to protect the historic character of the district.
The preservation movement today is not the same preservation movement that existed 50 years ago. Architectural preservation has become a lucrative business and modernist architects did not want to be excluded. They infiltrated the movement, set up onerous rules that when interpreted to the extreme had new construction and additions to historic buildings built in a contrasting, modernist architectural style. What threatened Grand Central Terminal actually happened to the Hearst Tower in New York City. The Hearst Tower is a building that was originally designed by Joseph Urban for the publisher William Randolph Hearst, except that only the lower six floors were built. In 2001, architect Norman Foster added an all-glass tower with a diagrid structure on top of, and within the gutted out facade of the six-story base. It was designed to purposely contrast with the original podium that was built in 1928, and similar “parasitic” additions are continuing to be designed and built atop historic “host” buildings, and they are published and given awards by the architectural media.
I fear that the Vieux Carré Commission’s ARC has similarly been infiltrated by modernists. Instead of projects being reviewed with a focus on what is best for preserving the character of the neighborhood, they are instead focused on buildings being “of its time” whatever that is supposed to mean. If a building designed in 2019 is supposed to be “of its time,” how is it not going to be outdated and obsolete before the scaffolding around it is removed? Instead, buildings should be designed “of its place,” something that is a bit more constant, and even then that should be a secondary consideration to everything aesthetical. In no way should a design credo overrule aesthetic judgment.
Furthermore, modernism doesn’t work in urban settings. Modern architecture was meant to replace historic neighborhoods, not fit in harmoniously; it was intended for tower blocks in open space and not set within traditional urbanism. Modern architecture is anti-traditional and can never fit in with a historic district’s architectural character. Modern architecture, when set into a historic neighborhood, can only contrast and stand out; it can never blend in. When architects start off designing a building with the idea that the building has to be free of any historic architectural styles and therefore has to be modernist, they start off with a completely contrasting building that is alien to its historic neighbors. Every design modification made to improve the initial design is an attempt to minimize the contrast of the two conflicting architectures, but no matter what, no modernist “of its time” design will ever blend in like a well designed traditional building.
What is happening in the Vieux Carré and other historic districts is that ARCs are discouraging architects from designing traditional buildings that would otherwise fit well in traditional neighborhoods, despite the fact that their purpose is to protect the character of the historic district of which they control.
The building that is proposed at 336 Decatur Street is no exception. Its first Vieux Carré Commission submission was vaguely traditional and every one after that moved it more and more towards a modernist building. At one point a building with a metal panel facade with an all-glass corner segment at the North Peters-Conti corner and a flat roof terrace. The design did not fit in with the historic character of the Vieux Carré and the project spent an entire year being reviewed by the ARC. Why? Because there is no way to make a modernist building fit into a neighborhood of traditional buildings. Instead of taking the simple approach and encouraging the architects to design the best traditional building they can, they are coerced into designing a mediocre modernist building. They suggest some modifications, and the revised submission a month later is still unsatisfactory.
To demonstrate just how easy it is to design a good traditional building, I developed this alternative design for 336 Decatur Street. I spent quite a few hours developing the drawing sufficient enough to present it here, but the actual design was simple and it didn’t take very long to arrive at this solution.
The design is for a three-story building with a hipped roof that covers the entire building site and features a wrap-around gallery over the sidewalk on all three sides. The facades have traditional double-hung windows on the third floor and traditional doors and transoms on the second and first floors. The openings of the first floor are wider than the openings above because it is anticipated that some type of commercial use would be located on the first floor. A slate shingled roof effectively conceals a lower flat roof that can conceal all the mechanical and exhaust equipment. Because the building is in such a highly visible location, I developed the Conti Street elevation with a more tripartite facade, with seven bays, three at a projecting center panel topped by a pediment. At the apex of the roof is a hexagonal cupola.
What also distinguishes this alternative design from what is presently proposed is that it is intentionally designed in a more generic traditional design. What is currently proposed is a building that originally was designed for the restaurant/bar Margaritaville, but since they backed out, it has now been designed for a future speculative restaurant tenant. What’s problematic is how the design is custom-tailored to a tenant that as of yet doesn’t exist. What happens if the restaurant tenant closes? Can the building find another restaurant tenant or can it be adapted for another use? Consider all the restaurants that have opened and eventually closed in the Vieux Carré. Hard Rock Cafe, Fashion Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Bubba Gump’s and Bella Luna all come to mind. The difference is that all those restaurants were located in traditional buildings that are easily adapted into various uses. A retail store is located where Hard Rock Cafe was, condos are located where Planet Hollywood was, a Walgreens occupies the space that was Fashion Cafe, etc.
The solution proposed in this alternative design is an open plan for all three levels, giving it much greater flexibility. It could be occupied by a restaurant on all three levels, but it could also have commercial/retail space on the first floor and the upper floors could be subdivided into residential apartment units. The building could also be an office building on all three floors or just the upper floors.
The purpose of this alternative design is to show what the result is when “of its place” is considered rather than “of its time” and once an alternative, traditional design is seen, it hopefully can’t be unseen. All that matters is what will look best sited on this most prominent and highly visible site, perhaps the most visible building site to become available in the Vieux Carré since the construction of the Royal Orleans Hotel. If one is still not certain about how little “of its time” matters in design, then consider what the Vieux Carré would look like if 50 years ago the ARC didn’t insist on a traditional design for the Royal Orleans or the Royal Sonesta hotels. Imagine if modernist buildings were built there instead. I doubt that anyone looks at those modern-era traditional buildings today and laments that they were built in traditional styles, or were not built in more modernist styles. If that’s the case, it proves my point. “Of its time” doesn’t mean anything, especially to anyone viewing the building in the future. Hopefully, something traditional like this will be built on the site and in the future, it will be obvious that it was the right decision.