Tear down that wreck? Not if it's historic

Owners of Katrina- ruined homes want to rebuild, but activists fight for New Orleans' distinct architecture.

January 21, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The often-contentious relationship between historic preservationists and private homeowners has flared up here in recent weeks, as activists determined to save the city's distinct architecture face off against Hurricane Katrina victims who can't afford to repair architecturally significant homes -- and need a place to live.

On one side are Laureen Lentz and Karen Gadbois, who say it is their "duty" to safeguard the architecture that distinguishes New Orleans: The eclectic mix of ground-hugging Creole cottages with steeply pitched roofs; low-slung, horizontal Arts and Crafts bungalows; ornately trimmed narrow, rectangular "shotgun" houses.

On the other side are homeowners like Rosilyn Anderson and Linda Ireland, who want to demolish their Katrina-ravaged homes and replace them with new modular structures.

In the middle is the city government, which decides what is saved and what can go. The decisions could lead to a lingering landscape of blight.

It's a question of preservation for the long-term good versus immediate need in the short term, said Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane University who has been studying building trends in the city since Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than 123,000 properties here.

"I fully understand and appreciate the predicament," Campanella said, but his support is fully behind preservation. "Our incredible inventory of distinctive, historic, well-built structures ... form integral parts of expansive neighborhoods.

"This is an extremely valuable resource that should be preserved. This is money in the bank for New Orleans. When you tear down, it's like a gap in a smile, a tear in a fabric."

Preservation zeal

Such sentiments spur the preservation zeal of Lentz, a law librarian, and Gadbois, a former textile artist turned full-time community activist.

The pair met through the Internet. Gadbois was upset over the demolition of several buildings in her northwest Carrollton neighborhood that seemed to have little damage. Lentz was raising similar concerns while blogging about the feat of rebuilding her own house, which fell down during Katrina.

A friend suggested the two join forces. And that's when the website SquanderedHeritage .com that Gadbois started early last year really took off.

Assisted by volunteers, the duo trek through the yards of notable homes that they have discovered from public notices might end up under the wrecking ball.

They peek through windows and wriggle into crawl spaces. Sometimes they trespass inside properties, where a door or window might be open.

"We know that in order to look at a house [properly], it's best if we go inside," Lentz said.

She is typically accompanied on her fact-finding missions by a salvage expert.

And even though Lentz acknowledged that preservationists might sometimes misjudge the worth of a building, she believes it's "better to err on the side of letting [homeowners] appeal," than risk losing an irreplaceable piece of architecture.

The preservationists take photographs of the properties and post them on their website, often commenting on the significance of a building. Readers can add their views after visiting sites and are encouraged to make their objections known -- as Lentz and Gadbois frequently do -- at public hearings on potential demolitions.

The pair said they hoped readers of their website might help find buyers for properties destined for destruction, offer assistance to homeowners to repair the structures, or salvage material from them.

They say some homeowners are using hurricane damage as an excuse to tear down distinguished properties that they wanted to get rid of even before the storm.

"Some of the demolitions are not related to Katrina," Lentz said. "They just have a crappy house, and they want to get rid of it."

"And some of the houses aren't even crappy," Gadbois chimed in.

The New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits, the Housing Conservation District Review Committee and the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission can all grant or deny permission for demolition depending on the structure's location.

The city could not readily provide the total number of demolition permits granted, but it has allocated funds to demolish 10,000 homes by the end of the year.

Some homeowners use private companies to demolish their buildings. Others -- a total of 2,451 since Dec. 1 --have requested help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's free demolition program. So far, FEMA has completed 1,300 such teardowns, according to agency officials.

'Just get rid of it'

For Gadbois and Lentz, that is too many, and they accuse the city of embracing an unspoken rule that "if a structure is a hindrance to recovery, then just get rid of it."

C. Elliot Perkins, acting executive director for the Historic District Landmarks Commission, which oversees 16,000 buildings in 13 historic districts of the city, acknowledged that his agency usually encouraged homeowners to repair.

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