Land Use

What should we do with Charity Hospital?

Since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the soaring Art Deco masterpiece, it seems like everyone and his uncle has come forward with a plan for the adaptive reuse of Charity Hospital. And yet eight years later it stands empty. The Lens is soliciting the views of our readers and city leaders. What do you think should be the building’s future?

Huey Long didn’t live to see Charity open as a high-rise hospital in downtown New Orleans. An assassin gunned down the governor-turned-U.S. senator four years before the first gurney rolled through the door, in 1939. But even without the Kingfish there to cut the ribbon, Charity, with its six offshoots around the state, was unarguably the capstone of Long’s sweeping vision of cracker socialism, a hospital for the ailing poor, a birthplace for paupers — some of whom, such as Ernie K-Doe, Donna Brazile and Ray Nagin, went on to become big shots, even mayors.

This photo from the Historic New Orleans Collection shows Charity in its infancy.

Photo by Frank-Bertacci Studios. The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1994.94.2.349

This photo from the Historic New Orleans Collection shows Charity in its infancy.

Today, Charity is a question mark looming over every scheme put forward to revitalize downtown New Orleans. It’s a towering monument to Katrina’s lasting impact.

In that fateful first week of September 2005, as patients were herded or wheeled across the street and coptered from an adjacent building’s rooftop landing pad, the assumption was that Charity would be reopened quickly as the hospital for the indigent it always had been. And if it got a technological upgrade at FEMA’s expense, well, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

But Tulane and Louisiana State University had bigger eyes than that. Their medical schools fed off Charity, and in disaster they saw an opportunity to escape the confines of a 65-year-old building and start from scratch — with a little help from friends in Washington.

They teamed up with the Veterans Administration, which also was interested in replacing its flooded hospital, alongside Charity. There would be economies of scale. Facilities like labs, a blood bank and food services could be shared.

This being Louisiana, things didn’t work out quite that way. The universities fell to fighting — with preservationists, with FEMA, with each other — and the VA set to work on a new hospital, with blood banks, labs, laundry and a food service all its own.

Even if the billion-dollar plan for new hospitals hadn’t meant bulldozing 40 blocks of vintage housing on the other side of the Claiborne overpass, preservationists were sure to bemoan abandonment of Big Charity. The building was and remains a masterpiece of the Art Deco style, designed by the firm responsible for another Art Deco triumph ordered up by Huey Long, the Louisiana State Capitol.

The universities were a jump ahead of their critics, however. They hastened to say that it would cost more to retrofit the flooded 1939 building than to build from scratch across Claiborne. Though just the basement had been flooded, they pointed out that was where the electrical and mechanical systems were located. Later, they tried scare tactics and switched to plan A — A for asbestos. The building was choked with the stuff, they argued.

A study commissioned by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana refuted those arguments, showing that Big Charity not only was suitable for a new medical facility, it would be faster and cheaper to put it there.*

Over the universities’ protests, the Army cleaned up Big Charity and declared it ready to reopen as a hospital. But the universities revved their bulldozers and headed across Claiborne, amid accusations they were engaged in a duplicitous campaign to defy the public will at a hugely inflated cost to taxpayers.

Ever since it became clear that Charity’s days as a hospital are over, a variety of schemes have been floated.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu is not the first to talk about moving City Hall over there. With much fanfare, Nagin had locked arms with a hotel developer and announced plans to turn Duncan Plaza and adjacent buildings into a cultural center.

Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, Charity Hospital is a monument to the storm's lasting impact on the city. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has proposed moving City Hall and Civil District Court there.

Steve Myers / The Lens

Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, Charity Hospital is a monument to the storm's lasting impact on the city. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has proposed moving City Hall and Civil District Court there.

The hotelier was delighted, of course, and city government would have had a good excuse to leave its increasingly dilapidated digs. Nagin cast an eye at Charity as a new City Hall before deciding instead to focus on the Chevron Building several blocks farther downtown — a scheme that, like most Nagin schemes, died aborning.

As a parting shot, Nagin muttered something about turning Charity into condos, apartments — some kind of housing for the nurses and interns and lab techs that the billion-dollar medical complex would need. Nothing came of it. Nor of the idea, briefly touted, that Charity might make a nifty nursing home.

The renewed interest in making Charity the center of city government has inspired collateral ideas. Because Charity is bigger than needed for city government and because its conversion would be pricey, at about $300 million, Landrieu has tried to sweet-talk Civil District Court judges into taking over a wing. The court, it so happens, generates a steady revenue stream that could be useful for floating bonds.

Motion denied — at least for now. They have come up with a fresh argument against relocating to Charity: the structural columns that hold up the floors. They’re too close together to provide galleries, juries, lawyers and the robed ones with an unobstructed view of one another.

Developer Pres Kabacoff, the latest to roll out a sweeping vision for downtown renewal, contends that the column issue can be overcome. And he’s got another idea for the part of Charity that City Hall doesn’t need: a neuroscience center. It would be nicely aligned with the hospitals that have vaulted the Claiborne overpass and are now taking shape alongside, they hope, labs and office space for the nascent biotech industry the city hopes to foster.

Condos, neuroscience center, city hall, courthouse, nursing home — or is there a way to reopen Charity as a clinic or the hospital it once was?

With so many ideas in play, The Lens wants to hear from readers, preservationists, developers, city leaders. What’s your vision for Charity? Describe it and explain why it’s a good one. We’ll post the more provocative and sensible responses. Try to keep your pitch to a few hundred words or less.

To get you thinking, The Lens will host a live chat here at 12:30 p.m Tuesday. You can also weigh in via Twitter and by leaving a voice message with the Listening Post NOLA.

Share your ideas

Post your ideas and comments during the live chat, Tuesday at 12:30 p.m.

Tweet with the hashtag #charityfuture.

Call the Listening Post NOLA hotline at (504) 224-5314 and leave a message.

Stop by one of the Listening Posts and record a message there:

  • HeadQuarters barbershop, 1101 N. Broad St. in Mid-City

  • Norman Mayer Library 3001 Gentilly Blvd. in Gentilly

Email a proposal by Oct. 16.

Live chat, Tuesday 12:30 p.m.

*Correction: This story incorrectly stated that the National Trust commissioned a study on the suitability of renovating Charity; it was commissioned by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana. (Oct. 7, 2013)

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
About Jed Horne

Opinion Editor Jed Horne is a veteran journalist who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize as part of the Times-Picayune team that covered Katrina and the recovery. He is the author of “Desire Street” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005) and “Breach of Faith” (Random House, 2006, 2008), which was declared “the best of the Katrina books” on NPR. He can be reached at

  • Jen L

    Saying that Big Charity could offer 21st century health care is a bit naive. In 2005, the upper floors of the building had no fire safety system or climate control. The building was given OSHA waivers every year because it did not comply with modern standards. And while the fight was raging about how many beds the LSU Hospital would have (finally settled at 424 down from 500+)…Big Charity was built to house over 2500-5000 (depending on who’s account you read) in open wards. The renovations to that building to bring it up to HIPAA standards as well as OSHA and AHA rules would be astronomical if not impossible.

    I love the design of the building and I hope something of value can be placed there. But saying it could have continued as a 21st century healthcare facility is perpetuating a myth.

  • Jason Brad Berry

    Jed, could you clarify something for me? Who actually owns the building? Doesn’t LSU own the edifice, itself? Maybe I missed that in the piece but I think it’s important to distinguish the difference between the actual ownership of the building and the “hospital” system. LSUHC essentially became the Charity hospital system after Katrina and as of this summer, it is privately owned by Children’s. I think there is a lot of confusion on the public’s part surrounding this, including me, and I was hoping you could clarify the actual ownership of the building for us and whether or not it’s even up to the public to decide what happens to the building or if it’s solely the decision of LSU.

    I may be way off, sorry if I am. Thanks.

  • Kb Ott

    Jen L. perhaps you had not read the RMJM study (the same folks by the way, that built the Louisiana Cancer Center building, South Claiborne and Tulane Avenues):

  • Anonymous

    Jason, a quick search of the NOLA Assessor shows the property is owned by the Board of Administrators of the Charity Hospital:

    Tulane’s library reveals that the Charity Hospital was founded in the year 1736, (though the 1894 annual report states 1786):

    Here are some pretty awesome PDFs of some of their annual reports:

    Looks like this is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

  • Sandra Stokes

    The Foundation for Historical Louisiana Study, which was charged by the LA Legislature – developed a concept plan that gutted the entire building and rebuilt a brand new 21st century hospital inside – while retaining the iconic limestone shell. Please feel free to look at the study in the link provided in the Lens article.

  • Janet Hays

    Residents have critical needs that are not being met. Critical needs are being sidelined for the whims of developers. We do not need a new City hall. We ned to renovate the one we have and build a stand alone court house on Duncan Plaza. Charity should be used as a psych center to care for the currently incarcerated mentally ill as well as mental health research and laboratories for biomed, biosciences etc. it would not cost the City a penny and solve multiple problems.

  • Why should NOLA have more mental health services/clinics when after they get out of the clinic, there are no jobs for them? Or if they don’t want to follow the rules of the clinic, they hang around the area as, again, there is no job for them since they themselves, scare away customers to the surrounding businesses? Of which many have left, hence, no real surrounding businesses like that of Oretha Castle Haley and that NOLA Homeless mission and Bridge House.

    If there is one type of person who needs a complete change of scenery, wouldn’t it be those most at risk, like those with mental health problems? In other words, those with mental health problems don’t need just a mental clinic, they need a new stable community and new set of stable friends and acquaintances, would they not? And don’t these mental health patients need help today, not years from now? Hence, a one-way ticket to a stable place that has JOBS is what they really need, and they need it today.

  • Anonymous

    Jason, the links are automatically truncated. You can still click them. Like this one:, which is a link to the Louisiana Revised Statute describing the membership of the Health Education Authority of Louisiana which is a part of the Department of Health and Hospitals. Charity Hospital is specifically listed as a “Primary Institution” within the purview of the HEA.

  • Jason Brad Berry

    Truncated you say! Sorry about that.

  • Jules Bentley

    Any answer besides “tech start-up incubator” or “pop-up restaurant” is neo-marxist

  • Magazine Street Dave

    When I hear a discussion about what should be done with Charity Hospital now, I see Wallace Thurman’s face and Sam Jupiter, Jr.’s face and the faces of all the other once residents of Lower Mid-City. I wish we could hear what they think should be done with Charity, but, we won’t. They’ve been scattered to the winds. But I bet they would suggest that we get some real public input before we rush into another big plan.

    I might suggest we consider some housing for seniors since this demographic is about to explode in New Orleans.

    I might suggest healthcare for folks with limited or no income since we took this away from them.

    I might suggest affordable housing since we were so hell bent on tearing it all down without replacing it.

    And I find it ironic that the same doctors that pushed so hard to vacate Charity because it was “destroyed” by Katrina are now suggesting that it would be perfect for a new “international brain research center”.

    Are any of the predictions of cost savings and efficiencies of scale combining LSU with the VA in Lower Mid-City coming true? Is the financing magically falling in to place? Is privatizing what had been state healthcare for our neediest citizens working out?

    Judging a society by how well it takes care of it’s weakest and neediest members is an old adage that still should ring true today. How do you feel New Orleans is measuring up to this?

  • Sandra Stokes


    I think you were looking at the Cost Estimate in the Executive Summary of the Charity Hospital Study. You may want to read the full report – located at:
    Even after this report was released, prior to going to speak before the Appropriations Committee of the LA Legislature, we again asked VJ Associates Cost Consultants to recalculate and break out the costs more. A second company was hired to double check the numbers. These numbers were then given to the NTCIC (National Trust Community Investment Corporation) to do a calculation of tax credits on the eligible parts of the project. Both the NTCIC and VJ Associates representatives joined us at the 7.5 hours Appropriations Committee hearing.