"Renovation" of the Dumaine Street house that once stood here could be called quite thorough; it can also be called demolition. Credit: Karen Gadbois

The saga of a house moved from the hospitals construction site and plunked down in Treme took a new turn last week when the nonprofit renovating the house decided the best way to restore it was to demolish it.

The house, at 1601 Dumaine St., is owned by Providence Community Housing. Moved from the site of the hospitals project back in March 2011, it stood open to the elements for months, roofless and with no back wall.

The city’s epic house-moving effort was a sop to preservationists who had expressed horror at the decision to destroy a 40-block Mid-City neighborhood of vintage shotguns and doubles in order to build a post-Katrina campus for hospitals run by the Veterans Administration and LSU.

“Simply reusing the studs doesn’t make them historic. You can’t, with all honesty, call it a rehabilitation.” — Sandra Stokes

At a cost averaging $35,000 each, some 81 houses eventually migrated to older neighborhoods across New Orleans, some of them to Treme, itself the target of extensive renovation as part of a plan that has included demolition of portions of the Lafitte and Iberville public housing developments and their replacement with a variety of housing units aimed at mixed-income tenants and owners. Providence Community Housing is a major player in the neighborhood overhaul, with a commitment to rebuild or upgrade as many as 200 units of housing.

Given that the 1600 block of Dumaine Street falls within a protected neighborhood, the house moved there was subject to oversight by the Historic District Landmarks Commission.

In June 2012 the HDLC met and considered whether to cite the house for “demolition by neglect,” a move that puts an owner on notice and opens the door to further action by the city, such as placing a lien on the property.

At the meeting Providence vice president Brenda Richards-Montgomery asked that the house not be cited for demolition by neglect but instead be listed on the agenda for the next HDLC meeting as a candidate for demolition. HDLC agreed to allow the nonprofit more time to come into compliance.

Providence then changed course, announcing plans to renovate the house in partnership with Treme 4 Treme, a local nonprofit. That plan fizzled and Providence moved back into solo mode, securing $720,000 from HUD to complete the renovation of the Dumaine Street property and five other houses that were moved from the hospitals site.

According to the city’s permit database, in June the HDLC issued what’s called a certificate of appropriateness for the Dumaine Street property, stipulating: “1. Renovate existing building and construct addition as per attached drawings, approved 6-20-13.”

A demolition permit was not applied for, nor was one granted by the landmarks commission. And yet on Thursday, the building was razed, notwithstanding the HDLC rule of thumb that dismantling more than 50 percent of a structure amounts to its demolition.

Contacted by The Lens, Andreanecia Morris, Providence’s vice president for homeownership and community development, initially denied that the demolition had occurred. “They had to deconstruct the house to fix the piers and treat the studs (for termites) so we can put them back into the house,” she said in an email to which she attached a photograph showing the original wood in a pile next to an all-new concrete-block foundation.

When pressed as to whether proper permits had been secured, Morris claimed “everyone is clear on the measures necessary to restore this house.” She later conceded that a city inspector had visited the site and work had been halted.

Landmarks commission guidelines state that “no work may begin on a proposed demolition until a C of A [Certificate of Appropriateness] has been issued by the Staff and the applicant has obtained all other necessary permits from the applicable City agencies including the Department of Safety and Permits.”

Sandra Stokes, vice president of advocacy for the Louisiana Landmarks Society and a board member of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, refuted Morris’s claim of preservation through demolition. “Simply reusing the studs doesn’t make them historic,” she said, adding: “You can’t, with all honesty, call it a rehabilitation.”

The city can slap liens on properties that are demolished without legal permits.

According to Landrieu administration spokesman Tyler Gamble, the contractor told the inspector from the city’s Department of Safety and Permits that “the condition of the pre-existing structure could not be salvaged and it had no choice but to deconstruct the remaining structure and save any historic materials.”

Gamble went on to say the the demolition was “outside the scope of what the City originally permitted, and the contractor agreed to stop work pending further review and approval from Safety and Permits.”

Providence made news last April when two houses it was working on in the Treme neighborhood collapsed, injuring four workers.

Correction: The photo on this story was incorrectly attributed. The error has been corrected. (Nov. 1, 2013)

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...