Talk of reusing Charity Hospital building is familiar to preservationists

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Since Charity Hospital was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, it seems like everyone has come forward with a plan for the adaptive reuse of the Art Deco masterpiece. And yet eight years later it stands empty. Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to put City Hall and Civil District Court in the building, though he hasn’t gotten the judges to agree. The Lens solicited the views of our readers and city leaders; over the next several days we are publishing edited versions of their ideas. Post your reactions in the comments below each story.

While preservationists are relieved that New Orleans is finally considering the adaptive reuse of Charity Hospital, the lingering irony is not lost on the community, which was repeatedly told after Hurricane Katrina that the building was in terrible shape and could not be reused because of its flooded basement. Many said it should have been demolished shortly after the storm to end the debate.

Luckily, through the work of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Smart Growth for Louisiana, Louisiana Landmarks Society, Louisiana Justice Institute, and many other groups and citizens, the building is still standing today and finally the focus of discussion about its rehabilitation.

However, it is a little early to celebrate the announcement that Mayor Mitch Landrieu envisions the iconic Charity Hospital building as a civic center. This is not the first time we have heard a New Orleans mayor announce plans for a new City Hall. In May 2009, then-Mayor Ray Nagin presented his plan to move City Hall into the former Chevron Building in the Central Business District. Nagin’s plan never got off the ground. And although Landrieu’s new plan appears to be the best of all possibilities for Charity, it is still only a notion at this point.

The flaw with the current plan is that it relies on the Civil District Court also moving into the Charity building, along with the revenue stream that the Court brings. The judges have said that will not happen.

Back in 2010, the Civil District Court judges received approval from the Louisiana Legislature to build a new, stand-alone courthouse – near the current City Hall. The Legislature also allowed the court to add a surcharge on filing fees to be dedicated to a fund for the much-needed new courthouse, thus providing the judges with their own stream of revenue. In 2010, Mayor Landrieu even wrote a letter of support to the Supreme Court Chief Justice fully endorsing the court’s plan to build on Duncan Plaza. Now the mayor wants to change direction and force the judges into the Charity building against their will. It seems the city needs the guaranteed funding stream the courts can provide for the Charity Hospital Civic Center to become a reality.

Additionally, studies presented by the judges say the layout and column system of Charity do not allow for the lines of sight required for courtrooms. Although the building may not be suited for courts, it was eminently suited for reuse as a state-of-the-art hospital.

In Katrina’s aftermath, many fought to keep medical services in Charity, but were told that medical reuse of the building was simply not possible. Ironies abound today as talks emerge of using the building for medical support services. Nothing would be more appropriate for a building built to serve as a medical hospital and located in the Medical Historic District to be used for medical purposes.

There are discussions for reusing part of the building for research on neuroscience as well as hyperbaric medicine. A recent news story indicating that Delgado Charity School of Nursing is considering using a portion of the building seems most appropriate and deserving, particularly since the Charity School of Nursing Alumni Association was a strong supporter of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana study and efforts to reuse Charity Hospital.

In 2008, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana raised $600,000 to carry out a request from the Louisiana Legislature to study the feasibility of reusing Charity Hospital after Hurricane Katrina flooded the basement. The FHL study not only showed that Charity was structurally sound, but that it could be gutted down to the 1938 limestone shell and rebuilt with a state-of-the-art hospital inside that met all the programmatic needs of the proposed new hospital construction plan.

Furthermore, reusing Charity could have returned healthcare and jobs back to New Orleans in three years of construction time – while saving $283 million in the cost of the hospital construction alone. The National Trust for Historic Preservation joined the Foundation for Historical Louisiana to lead the preservation and economic development battle to reuse Charity Hospital and to save the historic neighborhood slated for demolition for the construction of a new medical complex. The cry of the preservation community was “Faster, Cheaper, Less Destruction.”

The story is far from over – and the future of the Charity Hospital building is still not secure. But at least there is renewed discussion about the historic building, which gives preservationists hope that it will be rehabilitated and used once more. Of course, these developments also open the door to what could be the next preservation battle – the future of New Orleans’ current City Hall, a fine example of mid-century modern architecture. We will need to all stay tuned and stay vigilant.

Sandra Stokes is vice president of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and a board member of the Foundation for Historical Louisiana. 

Walter Gallas is executive director of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and former field office director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

This column was adapted from a longer article published by the National Trust.

Others weigh in on the future of Charity

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