The houses remain uninhabited, but itinerant New Jersey artist Henry Hechavarria has found a use for them. Credit: Karen Gadbois

You don’t have to be Einstein to know that time and space are relative and sometimes interchangeable concepts. Living in New Orleans offers proof enough. Take the epic task of moving houses out of the footprint of the dual hospitals complex along Tulane Avenue.

Jacking up a hundred houses, placing them on trucks and rolling them across town was never going to happen at the speed of light. But who would have thought it would take two years, time enough, indeed, for a good number of the houses to crumble into the ground or be reduced to ash, as though the century-old structures had aged another hundred years in a few months.

The latest round in this slow-motion saga involves ten houses that were offered to private housing agencies along with more than $1 million in public money to  renovate them. The houses had been relocated in 2010 but stood open to the elements when the request for proposals went out to the non-profit housing community this past November. The lucky winners were selected with unaccustomed speed. The results to date? Inconclusive. While some of the selected agencies have done work, others are still awaiting environmental approval.

“Given the environmental reviews and other hurdles that had to be cleared prior to contract execution, it was actually a pretty fast turnaround.” — Andreanecia Morris

Past spasms of activity have led to certifiable disaster: houses with their upper floors lopped off to get under utility wires; houses moved to temporary staging areas where they underwent demolition by neglect, a process eventually assisted by bulldozers after the houses were deemed hopeless losses. Some houses wound up on swampy lots or prey to vandals. A couple of them burned down.

But, hey: a few eggs are gonna break when the omelet you’re making is the biggest preservation project in the city’s history.

Let’s review the whole mess:

The original vision, inspired by dismay over the scheduled destruction of 67 acres of vintage New Orleans architecture, was to move as many houses as possible to empty lots — a good number of them lots that had been cleared by Hurricane Katrina. The decision was viewed as a “win/win.” Vintage housing would be saved and decimated neighborhoods rebuilt.

An interior shot shows the dilapidated condition of one of several houses staged temporarily on the Lafitte Greenway linear park: The whole batch of them was bulldozed recently lest they offend the eye of Super Bowl visitors.
An interior shot shows the dilapidated condition of one of several houses staged temporarily on the Lafitte Greenway linear park. The whole batch of them was bulldozed lest they offend the eye of Super Bowl visitors. Credit: Karen Gadbois

One hundred houses were targeted for removal from the footprint of what was to become the Veteran Administration’s hospital; another 14 from the adjacent site of University Medical Center, the successor to Charity Hospital.

The 114 houses shrank to a combined total of 81 once the group of them had been evaluated to determine their structural integrity and whether they would withstand a move. The survivors were jacked up and the moving began.

To the astonishment and dismay of preservationists, when the nomadic houses alit again on terra firma, or what passes for it in New Orleans, some of them had had their upper stories and porches stripped away along with a lot of the detailing and ornament that made them interesting in the first place.

And many of the houses then had to be elevated in accordance with FEMA flood maps (a federal requirement) — further stripping them of authenticity and architectural relevance.

Builders of Hope, the North Carolina company hired to handle the moves, at a projected cost of $3.2 million, hastened to say that houses dismantled during the move would be made whole again. But in many instances, they were left exposed to the elements for months on end, even those without roofs, and many were ruined beyond any possibility of repair.

The relationship between the city and Builders of Hope had soured as the project went on.

The Landrieu administration blamed the fiasco on the moving company, which fired back by saying the city had been so slow in reimbursing expenses that the project ground to a halt, with some houses far short of their intended destination.

Indeed, after one wrong turn in this protracted misadventure, eight of the houses from the University Medical Center were dropped temporarily onto the Lafitte Greenway, the linear park-to-be that runs along the Orleans Canal. They had been there for more than a year awaiting assignment to a final destination, when the city — nervous as a wet cat ahead of the Super Bowl and the media attention it would bring to New Orleans — ordered up a bulldozer. The houses were reduced to rubble and hauled off to a landfill.

Bottom line to date: Of the 114 houses originally targeted for relocation and preservation, 27 have been fully rehabbed, according to city spokesman Hayne Rainey. And another two are being rebuilt. A further 29 are still intact but have not attracted non-profit sponsorship and face a very uncertain fate.

Of the 10, for which proposals were solicited from non-profit housing agencies in November, Providence Community Housing took the lion’s share of the properties (six — later reduced to five) and the money ($720,000, subsequently reduced by an uncertain amount) to rehab them.

Providence says it’s moving swiftly. Swiftly, as Einstein would agree, is a relative term.

Lead abatement should start soon, with construction set to begin in April, according to Andreanecia Morris, Providence Community’s vice president for Homeownership and Community Development.

“Given the environmental reviews and other hurdles that had to be cleared prior to contract execution, it was actually a pretty fast turnaround,” Morris said.

Providence is the only developer to have taken the extreme measure of stripping the houses down to their studs, removing the weatherboards as well as windows and doors. In other instances of renovation this drastic, the finished product, however solidly built, bears little resemblance to the richly detailed original.

The 10 properties awarded in November are as follows:

  • The five accepted by Providence Community Housing are 2501 Ursuline Ave.; 1727 and 1715 St. Ann St.;  2630 Palmyra St., and 1601 Dumaine St. (1560 N. Johnson Street was included in Providence Housing’s original proposal but, according to Morris, that property was “misplaced and is not under Providence’s control.”)
  • Jericho Road, another non-profit developer, was awarded $219,230 to renovate two houses: at 2429 Danneel St. and 1934 Second St., in Central City. Work crews are active at both sites.
  • Harmony Neighborhood Development was awarded  $156,280 to renovate the house at 2827 Fourth St.
  • Neighborhood Housing Services received $117,927 to renovate 1832 Louisiana Ave.

Preservationists can only hope that on whatever timetable they are returned to use, the newly awarded houses fare better than two others from the VA site that fetched up on First Street, in the Hoffman Triangle area, between Broadmoor and Central City.

One burned to the ground; the other was declared to be in “imminent danger of collapse” and was bulldozed by the city.

But take heart. Art has bloomed where residents still have no reason to tread. A number of the remaining houses, though vacant, have become canvases for an itinerant muralist named Henry Hechavarria.

Hechavarria, a New Jersey resident, has made a habit of returning to New Orleans to paint murals on blighted houses, abandoned garages and the like. On his most recent trip to New Orleans, Hechavarria painted four of the moved houses that had been dropped in the Hoffman Triangle neighborhood.

On a recent weekend afternoon three young girls sat on the porch steps in front of their home, which is adjacent to two of the moved and now decorated mural houses. The girls voted unanimously in favor of art; they said the fanciful colors remind them of a school trip into the swamps of Lafitte, an improvement over the aura of decay hanging over other structures that their parents contend were “dumped” in the Hoffman Triangle.

In an area that has seen more demolition than preservation and limited rebuilding, the added burden of these relocated homes and the attendant blight makes the promise of meaningful redevelopment seem more unlikely by the day.

Karen Gadbois

Karen Gadbois co-founded The Lens. She now covers New Orleans government issues and writes about land use. With television reporter Lee Zurik she exposed widespread misuse of city recovery funds and led...