A Plea from New Orleans

I recently received an email from filmmaker Evan Mather, alerting me to his most recent—and urgent—project, which I thought I'd share with you. It's a short video about the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in New Orleans, which despite its standing as a rare and important work of modern architecture (one of the best examples of regional modernism in the city), and despite surviving the storms and levee breach of 2005, is currently slated for demolition this summer. DOCOMOMO Louisiana and the World Monuments Fund, which listed the school on its Watch List in 2010, are lobbying to save the building through adaptive reuse. The school was designed by architect Charles Colbert in 1955; Colbert considered it his highest achievement in architecture and planning. It incorporated both traditional and innovative design ideas, like an elevated structure for flooding and natural ventilation, and a playground beneath its cantilevered wings.

phillis wheatley school

The Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in New Orleans, which despite its standing as a rare and important work of modern architecture (one of the best examples of regional modernism in the city), and despite surviving the storms and levee breach of 2005, was demolished in 2011. It incorporated both traditional and innovative design ideas, like an elevated structure for flooding and natural ventilation, and a playground beneath its cantilevered wings.

"Once Wheatley is gone, another part of our history, of African-American culture in New Orleans, is demolished," said Phyllis Montana-LeBlanc in 2011. Montana-LeBlanc is a cast member in the HBO series "Treme" who attended Wheatley in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

A Plea For Modernism from Evan Mather on Vimeo.

The video does a great job putting the structure in context, both in terms of the neighborhood (it's in the African-American neighborhood of Tremé—and in fact the film is narrated by actor Wendell Pierce, of the TV show "Treme") and the history of architecture and architectural appreciation in New Orleans and the U.S. As John Stubbs, Vice President for Field Projects at the WMF, says in the film: "Preserving modern architecture in the United States is somewhat an uphill battle for historic preservationists because it's art and architecture of the recent past." He also points out, quite significantly, that "if Wheatley School is lost through demolition, it will be the first site on the monument Watch List to have died in our arms."

The video is essentially a call to action; at the end, Mather lists the phone numbers for the city's mayor and the superintendents of the school district and school board. Saving this school will cost the same as tearing it down and replacing it—and it's well worth preserving. Nice modernists unite!

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