ARCHITECTURAL LANDMARK REFLECTS ITS ERA
Published: Sunday, December 11, 1994
Byline: By ELIZABETH MULLENER Staff writer
Architect Nathaniel Curtis strode across the vast floor of the Rivergate convention center a few weeks ago, a solitary figure in a starkly empty space. When a security guard approached him, he gave her a melancholy look.
"They're going to tear my building down," he said. "Isn't that terrible?"
When the ribbon was cut on the Rivergate in 1968, the building was widely lauded. It won awards. It was reported in trade magazines. It seemed to launch the city's reputation as a soon-to-be-go-go international trade center. Even the August New York Times took note, referring to the "sweeping, airy lines" of the forward-looking building.
To Curtis, the Rivergate has stood the test of time.
"It's the best building designed by our firm," he said. "As a pure piece of architecture, to me it's the best one."
But if the Rivergate once seemed to be Curtis' ticket to immortality, it now seems to be a goner. The windows are caked with grime, the floors are strewn with litter, a drinking fountain has been torn off the wall, the exterior has sprouted graffiti. Last week, workers began removing asbestos from the ceiling. Next month, the building is scheduled for demolition, making way for Louisiana's only land casino.
When demolition begins, it will happen over the exhausted bodies of the Friends of the Rivergate, a stalwart group of architects and preservationists who have waged a die-hard campaign to save the building. Their argument is that the Rivergate is a serious piece of architecture, quintessentially reflective of its era and a modernistic landmark in a city that has all too few.
"To me, it embodies the spirit of America at the midpoint of the 20th century, when everything was possible for us and we had only to turn our hand to do it," said architect Betty Moss, guiding spirit of the group. "It's an honest expression of the architecture of the time when this was a can-do country. It reflects the ebullient desire to do great things.
"The Rivergate is a first-class building, probably the most significant building from an architectural and engineering standpoint that has been erected in the city of New Orleans in this century."
*** Feat of engineering ***
As a work of architecture, the Rivergate was daring for the sculptural form that became its signature. Rather than straight and orderly, the lines of the building are fluid and free-flowing. The roof undulates, the columns taper, the entryway swoops up and makes the building appear ready to take off.
As for the interior, it is mostly unadorned but impressive in its simplicity and its enormity. Everything in it was custom-designed. The unique lighting system provides a glow so indirect that its source is hard to fathom. The air-conditioning grills were individually styled to complement the building's motifs. The concrete walls were hand-hammered for a rough, pebbled texture. Water, gas, electricity and phone lines were all laid out on a grid pattern imbedded in the floor. The water fountains were specially crafted by the manufacturer. Even the lettering was fashioned by the architects.
"When I look up at that roof and see it all bobbling along, it gives me a lift," Moss said.
"It's just exuberant. The Rivergate unites the twin sinews of architecture and engineering better than any building in the city."
As a feat of engineering, the Rivergate was significant for its early use of pre-stressed and post-tensioned concrete, which permitted large areas of uninterrupted floor space. In fact, the thin-shell concrete roof of the building set a record that still stands, spanning a longer distance than any other in the world. Under that roof, it is 253 feet from one set of interior columns to the other, allowing three acres of open exhibit space.
What makes that stretch of space possible is that the building relies on tension rather than compression for its support. The concrete structure was molded around wooden forms that were painstakingly removed after the roof was fitted into place and suspended between the columns.
"From time immemorial, buildings have been constructed by putting one brick on top of another brick, one stone on top of another stone," Moss said. "That's compressive architecture - you put something down here and you put something on top of it and it all bears down. The thrust is down.
"Then along comes the 20th century and we have impressive new tools and computers and high-strength steel and stronger mixes of concrete and we began to build buildings in tension. And those are the things that were combined in the Rivergate."
*** Nothing phony ***
But it is not architectural or engineering breakthroughs that make the Rivergate so compelling to its admirers. The word most often used to describe the building's virtues is "honesty."
What is meant by honesty in architectural terms is that the exterior of the building reflects the interior and vice versa. The form and function are explicit and obvious. Nothing is coy or camouflaged or phony. Nothing is made to look like something else. There is no fancy veneer over the plain concrete.
"What speaks to the quality of the Rivergate is that what you see is what you get," Moss said. "Inside and outside."
For Curtis, the building's candor is a form of purity, forthrightly expressing its structure and the materials used to build it. It was an architectural philosophy much in vogue at mid-century. Other practitioners of the free-form, sculptural style - sometimes called expressionism, sometimes called romantic expressionism - included Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen and occasionally Frank Lloyd Wright.
The style was relatively short-lived, in high gear from about 1950 to 1980. But it produced some notable buildings, including Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the St. Louis Arch and the Ronchamp Chapel in France, as well as the Guggenheim Museum and TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport, both in New York.
"This building has readability," Curtis said. "You can look at it and see what it is. There are no superfluous finishes or ornament on it. It's an elegant building, in good taste. An honest building, made of good materials."
Readability, however, is in the eye of the beholder. If the Rivergate was a hit with the cognoscenti, it never grew to be beloved by the public at large. To many, the building was and is incomprehensible.
The Superdome, another Curtis creation, managed to knit itself into the cityscape, for all its futuristic design. But many New Orleanians, who have a special affection for their architecture and a reverence for their traditions, never acquired a taste for the Rivergate. As a consequence, the potential demolition of the building never provoked the kind of widespread hue and cry that attended the threatened loss of the St. Charles Hotel, the Orpheum Theater, the Fair Grounds or the Cabildo.
*** Just one Rivergate ***
Curtis, who is tall and solid and white-haired at 76, has spent much of his life in Uptown New Orleans. A graduate of the Tulane School of Architecture, he has designed many prominent buildings here and elsewhere, most of them during his 30-year partnership with architect Arthur Davis. Along with the Superdome, his credits include the Tulane student center, the New Orleans Public Library, St. Francis Cabrini Church, the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel and the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
"I think the Rivergate was the high point of his career," Moss said. "Some people think the Superdome is a better building, but I don't. The Superdome is a building that could be copied. There's only one Rivergate. It's unique."
At the time it opened, the Rivergate could handle 80 percent of the exhibits then being mounted. Today, with the explosive growth of the tourist and convention industry, it could barely handle 50 percent. With the construction of the sprawling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center down the street, the building gradually fell into disuse.
But in its early years, when it was state-of-the-art, the building witnessed some memorable moments. One was when it became home to the Bacchus ball.
"It's the first time I know of where they brought a parade right inside like that," Curtis said. "With all that music and sound and color and the lights and the people in costume and the women in their evening dresses - it was just a beautiful, exciting event to me."
Another was when the American Institute of Architects held its annual convention there, an honor bestowed on buildings deemed to be of particular architectural interest.
The demolition of the Rivergate probably would not be so galling to some preservationists were it not to be replaced by a casino whose design they find kitschy and corny and generally distasteful.
"New Orleans is famous for its architecture, and it should not embark upon a new business in a new century with something that is a poor copy of who-knows-what," Moss said.
Besides, she argues, the Rivergate could easily be adapted for use as a casino. The proposed casino design, which is double the size of the Rivergate, is too big for its site anyway, she said, and unworthy of its exalted location in the heart of the city, where Canal Street meets the river.
Although Curtis has moved on to new projects - he is designing a resort hotel in southern India - he can't help looking back.
"I can't conceive of anybody having the mentality to tear the Rivergate down," he said. "At the time it went up, this city aspired to be a world trade center. Now it aspires to be Las Vegas."
Illustration: The concrete roof of the Rivergate convention center walks the deserted length of the convention center.
The undulating, concrete roof of the Rivergage, center, is pictured at sunset in a 1992 photo. The building has anchored the foot of Canal since 1968. [COLOR]
STAFF PHOTOS BY G. ANDREW BOYD.
A 1966 photo shows the Rivergate taking shape along the riverfront.
Copyright © The Times-Picayune Publishing Corp.