Carver High School Auditorium, 3059 Higgins Boulevard, New Orleans, LA (1958, Curtis and Davis, architects). Progressive Architecture First Design Award 1957, New Orleans Nine Most Endangered 2008, Eligible for National Register, Demolition permit: November 1, 2010. Photo: Francine Stock
In the past two years the mid 20th century modern public school has become an endangered species in New Orleans. Of the city's thirty public schools designed and built in the 1950s, today only four are left standing. Soon only one may remain.
Earlier this week the City of New Orleans issued a demolition permit for the George Washington Carver Junior-Senior High School designed by Curtis and Davis, architects. The Helen Sylvania Edwards Elementary School shared many campus facilities with Carver, but has already been demolished. The integration of three schools (elementary, junior and senior high) on a 65 acre campus in the upper ninth ward allowed the schools to share common facilities (cafeteria, kitchen, auditorium) and yet retain age-segregated classroom buildings. The auditorium was also available in the evening for community events. The striking design of the auditorium with its soaring (40 ft high and 200 ft long) parabolic concrete vault and hinged buttresses is truly monumental. The Federal Emergency Management Association determined the Carver auditorium building eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana advocated for the auditorium structure to be retained as part of a new campus plan and suggested that it be adaptively reused as an open air pavilion. Unfortunately, the auditorium will be demolished with the remaining buildings on campus.
The concept of a "school village" was first articulated by architect and planner Charles R. Colbert in 1952 in A Continuous Planning and Building Program, an analysis of existing public school facilities in New Orleans and plans for expansion. The city had not built a single school facility in the 1940s and the population was rapidly expanding. Urban land values in center of the city were twenty times higher than in the newer suburbs. Selecting a site of "ninety beautifully wooded acres, at the edge of urban development, six miles away" from the densely populated center of New Orleans would save six million dollars in land acquisition. Colbert calculated that this savings would support nearly a century of "quality bus transportation." Colbert envisioned the buses as "mobile classrooms." The teachers would travel with the students and with a set of visual aids to extend classroom instruction during the commute to their "semi-rural, college-like campus." Though the mobile classrooms never materialized, Colbert's idea of a "school village" formed the basis of the Carver campus plan designed by Curtis and Davis.
In It Happened by Design, architect Arthur Q. Davis recalled that the firm initially was contracted to design a senior high school, a portion of the site allocated for a junior high to be designed by another firm, and room left over for a future elementary school. Curtis and Davis convinced the school board that it was more economical to develop the three schools as part of an overall campus plan from the beginning. The board approved their plan for a more efficient campus of ten buildings linked by covered walkways. In 1957 the plan of the Carver schools gained national recognition winning both Progressive Architecture's First Design Award and the American Institute of Architects' Best Overall Plan for a School Complex.
The 2008 School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish (SFMPOP) called for the demolition of the Carver School suggesting "complete replacement." In fact, the SFMPOP called for the near eradication of the 1950s public schools. The only facility from the era reserved for the future by the SFMPOP is McDonogh 36 (1954, Sol Rosenthal and Charles R. Colbert). This school has been renovated by John C. Williams and reopened this year as the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood Family Learning Center.
DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana successfully nominated Carver and three other schools to the Louisiana Landmarks Most Endangered List in 2008. McDonogh 39 Elementary School (1952, Goldstein, Paham and Labouisse; Freret and Wolf, Curtis and Davis, associate architects) the first modern school in New Orleans was demolished earlier this year without review. McDonogh 39 (later renamed after local civil rights activist Avery Alexander) was in Gentilly and thus outside of the Neighborhood Council District Review Committee.
FEMA also determined that the classroom buildings at Thomy Lafon Elementary School (1954, Curtis and Davis) and the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School (1955, Charles R. Colbert) were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Recovery School District's desire to use public funds to demolish these historic structures triggered a Section 106 consultation in accordance with the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. This bought these facilities some time during the consultation process, but they are likely to be demolished in the coming year.
Idea: the Shaping Force, Charles R. Colbert, 1987, Pendaya PublicationsIt Happened by Design, Arthur Q. Davis, 2008, University Press of Mississippi