Tuned In

Tuned In Architecture: New Orleans Edition

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The Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Tréme.

With some time on my hands before visiting the set of David Simon’s Treme (the reason I’m in New Orleans, along with the premiere screening of HBO’s The Pacific), I took my rental car and explored the city, which I’d been to several times, but not since Katrina.

Obviously the effects of Katrina were greatest in terms of lives lost and homes ruined, and you still see plenty of evidence of destruction in the most affected neighborhoods. But while looking around the Tréme neighborhood, where the series is set—and, OK, getting some really great fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House—I came across another Katrina casualty: The Phillis Wheatley Elementary School.

I didn’t realize the building was, or had been, a school when I parked across from it, but it was and is a remarkable structure. Built in 1954 (and named for an American poet and emancipated slave), it stands on posts, which provided a shaded playground area —and, ironically, helped protect it from flooding damage, although the rest of the building still has not fared well since. After the storm, the building was closed down and may end up being demolished.

Last year, the school building was placed on the World Monuments Fund’s lists of endangered buildings. See here for its architectural significance explained by someone who actually knows something about architecture as well as some really gorgeous photos of the building in better days.

To a fan of modernist architecture, the building in itself is striking and would be an awful loss. (Though according to the Times-Picayune, not everyone in the neighborhood was a fan of the school even before the hurricane; there’s also an illustrated essay in Metropolis magazine.) But again, more than a thousand people died in Katrina and many more were left homeless, so I’m sure it seems out of proportion to mourn a building.

Murals on the school grounds (click to enlarge—apologies for the terrible iPhone photography).

It’s when you look around the building grounds that the human loss becomes clearer. The rusted playground equipment still sits in place. On the asphalt, against the posts and around the building are still painted colorful murals of the continents and pictures of children with exhortative slogans like WORK AND PLAY.

A building is just a building, and it’s just one tiny example of loss in this city. But it just reminds you the lingering effects of the storm—and the rebuilding or lack thereof—in the lives of people, the routines of kids, all the little pieces of civic stability that make a community. From my entirely un-expert visitor’s view, there seems to be a lot of positivity in New Orleans right now—the psychological shot in the arm from the Saints’ Super Bowl victory still seems to be lingering, for instance. But you can still turn a corner and come across something like this, which is sad in ways that have nothing to do with elegant cantilevered structures.