Architectural Remnants at Risk in New Orleans

About 30 years ago, when Joyce and Pat Blaize put an addition on the Plaquemines Parish home that had been built by Pat's grandfather, they searched all over Uptown New Orleans for cypress trim. Recently, the couple looked on while a grapple hook tore apart their Katrina-ravaged two-story, wood-frame house the area. The millwork, pine floorboards, wallboard and lumber that formed their home are now in a landfill, in the company of thousands of tons of hurricane debris.

Historic preservationists and salvage workers are now fighting to keep thousands of tons of building materials from being heaped onto landfills, stolen, or otherwise lost. At stake are period doors and trim, floor-to-ceiling shutters that covered countless shotgun-house windows, wood trim, hardware, plumbing, light fixtures, and other materials. And, because the lumber from which these homes were built is of significantly higher quality than is available today, it may be worth saving.

Since it is unclear whether forthcoming legislation will address architectural salvage, it appears most residents are taking the issue into their own hands. Rather than wait for guidelines to protect structures and their elements, some residents are actively pursuing preservation before their homes are gutted, demolished or picked apart by thieves. David Adams, spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department, indicates that no arrests have been made in association with theft of architectural elements, and it appears that catching such thieves is not a high priority in a department that is overwhelmed by much more serious problems.

To New Orleans locals like Nathan Favaroth, it seems like it's a race between the debris removal crews and the criminals to see who will get a bigger chunk of his home first. "The guy was picking up stuff with a bulldozer and tore that up," he says, pointing to the broken stoop of his 100-year old Lower Ninth Ward home. Angry that two decorative metal registers were stolen, Favaroth spray painted the side of his house with a message, daring the criminal to take the remaining one. "Everybody's taking advantage of what they can," he said, shaking his head.

David Reynolds, who is the assistant director of The Green Project, a local, non-profit that salvages recyclable materials, says he has heard of people removing truckloads of architectural elements from the area, even though the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry issued a quarantine on wood in the hurricane affected areas of the state to prevent the spread of termites. "I think, in fact, there are thousands and thousands of architectural elements leaving daily but, officially, there is an embargo," he says.

"What really make me ill are the well-meaning kids who are trying to help and are ripping the souls out of these houses," says Sue Sperry, also with the PRC. Apparently, some volunteers have been instructed to gut houses down to the studs. During Spring break, when the city received an influx of volunteers from church organizations and college campuses, tons of historic elements were placed curbside, Sperry adds.

For its part, the PRC has been working through neighborhood associations to educate homeowners about the value of historic materials, and its members have been sifting through curbside debris and storing treasures in the PRC warehouse for future renovations. The Green Project is working to expand its role as salvager and reclaimer to include deconstruction, in which unsalvageable homes are taken apart piece by piece. This alternative to demolition employs more people, slows the waste stream to landfills and provides affordable materials for those in the community who are rebuilding.  It also makes it possible to create visible, finished elements, such as flooring, cabinetry and interior trim, from formerly invisible elements like framing and roof decking, explains Reynolds. 

Katrina cost the Green Project its headquarters building and inventory, but helped it capture the attention of Mercy Corps, an international relief organization, which gave them support and personnel through the Rebuilding Center, a non-profit based in Portland, Oregon. The Rebuilding Center employees taught Green Project employees how to dismantle a house piece by piece, salvaging all the reusable materials, says Preston Browning, Mercy Corps' reclaim program manager. 

To date, The Green Project has only deconstructed a handful of buildings, Reynolds says. The agency has five new employees and the capacity to deconstruct one home a day, but most houses slated for demolition are still headed for landfills. "FEMA, the Corps and the City are all open to deconstruction but, once they schedule a demolition, they want them done in 10 to 12 weeks," Browning says. "The Green Project couldn't keep up." Mercy Corps is organizing a coalition of interested salvage companies and contractors for a deconstruction training session sometime in May.

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