Land Use

Despite $200,000 in recovery grants, Treme mansion faces demolition

By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |

It’s a 19th century house significant enough to have attracted a state Historic Building Recovery Grant of $45,000. And that was on top of $135,000 in Road Home money, plus another $20,000 grant from the Arab emirate of Qatar.

Whether to dismantle the house or repair it, work continues at 2013 Dumaine St. in defiance of a legal notice. Work has continued recently.

But today, with only minimal work to show for all that money, the Greek revival house at 2013 Dumaine Street has been slapped with a city demolition order, and Treme neighbors wonder if ongoing removal of old brick, timbers and architectural detail might lead the structure to collapse even before the bulldozers show up. The dismantling continues in defiance of a stop-work order slapped on the property.

The chain of events leading to the likely demise of yet another architectural gem is a tangled tale of botched rehabilitation efforts and seemingly little follow-up on how government grants for recovery and preservation are spent.

As early as 1946, l’Hote Townhouse – to give the residence its proper name – was identified in a city inspection report as “out of plumb 2 feet,” meaning the structure was starting to tip over. And the need for further remediation was noted in 2000 when the house was designated a landmark.

Efforts to save it intensified in early 2003. Owner Rod Lindauer, a local artist, occupied a small portion of the upstairs with his wife as they set about rehabbing a house that was falling down around them.

Termites had invaded the side of the house built of wood, but a wall of solid brick was structurally sound, Lindauer recalls.

Overwhelmed by the scope of the work, in 2004 the Lindauers sold the place to New York real estate investor Coy LaSister for $55,000.

Katrina likely worsened the subsidence that was tipping the house, Lindauer said, but on his visits to the place after selling it, he saw no sign that repairs were under way.

Neighbor Will Germain got the same impression. Now and then LaSister would come by and hang potted plants but, so far as Germain could tell, the new owner never spent a night in the house. To Germain it looked like an open-and-shut case of “demolition by neglect.”

Messages seeking comment from LaSister were intercepted by a brother who said he is ill and in a nursing home.

The historic townhouse dates to the 1860s.

The definitive study of the area’s housing stock, “New Orleans Architecture: Fauborg Treme and the Bayou Road,” describes the circa 1860 residence as a two-story Greek revival townhouse with significant iron work, the “major decorative element” on an otherwise “extremely restrained” façade.

After Hurricane Katrina, LaSister applied for and received funding to stabilize and renovate the property.

The $45,000 Historic Building Recovery Grant was awarded in March 2007. Work began but records on file with the state are spotty and in some instances were submitted past deadline or seek reimbursement for ineligible expenses, such as scaffolding, according to documents obtained by The Lens through a public records request to the state.

According to the contract LaSister submitted to the state, the work was being done by TH Montano General Contractors LLC, with a “principal place of business” on St. Claude Avenue.

Louisiana’s Secretary of State website shows no listing for TH Montano General Contractors in New Orleans, though there is a TH Montano Construction in Baton Rouge.

Lisa Batiste Swilley owner of the Baton Rouge business denies doing work on the Dumaine Street property but acknowledged that she has done work in the past with Tracy Williams, who eventually bought out LaSister and is now the owner of the beleaguered mansion along with David Taffet, her business partner on several real estate projects.

The New Orleans property assessor’s website lists Taffet’s home outside Philadelphia as the mailing address for Dumaine 2013-2017 LLC. The Secretary of State’s website calls Williams the LLC’s manager.

According to a letter written by Coy LaSister’s brother, Knox LaSister, an extension for the historic preservation grant was requested and approved, pushing the completion deadline back to December 2008.

In the letter submitted to the state, Knox LaSister said the contractor was “overwhelmed by the scope of the work” and subsequently fired.

LaSister went on to explain to state officials that a new contractor had been identified as well as additional funds from The Road Home and the Qatar Foundation’s $20,000 grant, which was to redo the roof. LaSister then  requested a further deadline extension, to May 2009.

In February 2009 LaSister was awarded the Road Home grant of $135,000. But in April 2009, the state partially withdrew the historic preservation grant. LaSister was forced to return $11,150 but was permitted to retain $7,000 as reimbursement for some early site-prep work. The rest of the $45,000 had not been spent.

In May 2009 LaSister sold the property and, by covenant written into the title, the obligations to rebuild the house with the grants received passed to the new owner, 2013-17 Dumaine LLC.

Williams, who owns numerous properties in the area, says she believes an earlier permit for repairs, issued in July 2011, is all she needs to continue the work; the city disagrees. On March 22, inspectors declared the house in imminent danger of collapse and issued a demolition permit.

Four days later, the city issued a stop-work order.

According to neighbor Will Germain, workers have been on site in recent days hauling away the bricks, in defiance of the stop-work order.

Williams contends the brick is being removed only temporarily and will be returned to the site as part of the restoration she plans.

Christina Stephens, communications director with the state Office of Community Development, the agency overseeing Road Home grants, declined to speak about individual cases but made clear that an owner who buys a property that has been awarded rehabilitation grants is responsible for completing the work.

“The new owner who accepted the covenants would be bound by the same timeframe for rebuilding and re-occupancy,” she said.

In the case of this property the deadline was February 2012, Stephens said.

She added that LaSister’s eligibility for hurricane recovery grants hinged on his being the owner/occupant of the property when Katrina struck, not just someone who came around from time to time to hang potted plants, as neighbors allege.

“If we suspect that this was not the case and the program had been misled by the applicant, certainly we would investigate the situation for potential fraud,” Stephens said.

Germain assumes the 150-year-old house is doomed. As he watched a laborer hauling off a wheelbarrow of ancient brick recently, his only question was whether removal of structural materials will cause the building to collapse even before the city demolition order can be executed.




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About Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use for Squandered Heritage. For her work with television reporter Lee Zurik exposing widespread misuse of city recovery funds — which led to guilty pleas in federal court — Gadbois won some of the highest honors in journalism, including a Peabody Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award and a gold medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She can be reached at (504) 606-6013.

  • Chris Freeman

    What a shame!
    I understand that people (occasionally) have good intentions, but where did the money go? You can’t really tell from the article if it was ever actually given out. You can’t tell how much was wasted and what was just deposited in someone’s personal bank account.

    Having watched this house crumble over the years, I’m pretty sure that very little was spent on fixing anything.

    Also, Tracy Williams doesn’t own alot of properties – she seems to be in control of alot of Limited Liability Corporations (LLC’s) that own alot of properties. You can look them up on the state web site. Her address on the state documents is usually different for each LLC, so it’s hard to tell where she really is unless she’s standing in front of you.

    Given that shell game of LLC’s, it’s also hard to envision any honest effort to really restore this historic property.

    Treme needs this house. It’s not just a historic building – it has a long interesting history and it is about to be lost forever. Please post a comment and show some support.

    Send an email to you city council representative.
    Susan G. Guidry –

    Her staff:
    Enrico J. Sterling
    Director of Constituent Services
    New Orleans Council Member Susan Guidry, District A
    Phone: (504) 658-1010
    Fax: 504-658-1016

    Tell them you don’t want this house demolished. You don’t want unauthorized demolition to continue. Ask them to do something.

  • Rick Perez

    This is horrible. Why can’t the City do something to help a landmark building be renovated and maintained? It’s really a crime.

  • Migou

    @rick: I think you’re missing the point. The city and state DID give the owner money. Taxpayer money. She took it but clearly didn’t spend it on this house. The better question is, what are they doing now that she is demolishing the house? Given the fraud that has occurred here, she really ought to be put in jail, and the house sold out from under her.

  • more kangaroos please

    This is a clear cut example of how we need to strengthen AND enforce our historic preservation codes in this city. This NEVER should have been allowed to happen.

    A penalty needs to be added to people who are fined for demolition by neglect. If the house is historic and it actually comes down, the owner should be given an extra fine and a heavy one at that.

  • for a better NOLA

    Susan Guidry has been strangely quiet on this issue – very little support has come from her. Other City Council members have been more helpful and it isn’t even in their district.

  • This breaks my heart! I sold this house to Coy after spending years making it stable and habitable. It was a crack house when I got it, carved up into eleven apartments, full of trash. We renovated the upstairs back with almost no money, just hard work. I stabilized the rest of the structure and was working on it as time and money allowed. Storms Rita and Lilly came along and dropped a huge hackberry tree on the back, renovated, part of the house and caused extensive damage. Our neighbor had insurance and was told before the storm that the tree was dangerous, but her insurance company refused to pay. My foot was crushed removing the tree and that started a downward spiral that forced me to eventually sell the house, even though I was able to re-renovate the upstairs. I met Coy through the PRC and he seemed genuine. I would never had sold the house if I knew it would come to this.