Published: Tuesday, October 19, 1993
The latest proposal for New Orleans' land-based casino moves toward review by the City Planning Commission and approval by the City Council. I write to support the most efficient, pragmatic and beneficial choice for the city's casino: adaptation of the existing Rivergate building for gaming.
The mayor and some City Council members appear to view this building's demolition as a necessity - this fueled their original choice of lessor.
On the other hand, the gaming board and much popular sentiment favor its retention, though opinions vary on how much of the original structure to preserve.
Unlike older historic structures, the Rivergate cannot be protected through landmarking, having stood for less than 50 years. After neglect and lack of maintenance, it appears shabby, lonesome and, it might be argued, out of step with its immediate downriver context, the French Quarter.
On the other hand, this structure is a prime example of a heroic phase of organic modernism in the style of Eero Saarinen's Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., the TWA terminal at New York City's Kennedy Airport and the St. Louis Arch. Its structural innovation is unparalleled; it is claimed to be the longest single span of pre-stressed, post-tensioned concrete.
When built, it won national professional and journalistic awards, and it has hosted many civic events over the years so that it figures irrevocably in the city's cultural history. If reclad with more appealing materials and strategically amended for its public entry sequence and exterior fronts, I guarantee that this structure could be an exciting, elegant and exuberant palace for gaming.
Preservation should not disregard the needs of its context - economic, political, cultural as well as aesthetic - and the metropolis is an organism that must grow and evolve over time. But the question here rests with greatest need: Is it necessary to abandon one building, recognized to have architectural merit, to replace it with another of similar size and purpose? If not resolvable as an aesthetic dilemma, environmental conservation alone compels.
Perhaps less obviously, the debate raises a deeper question. Arguments for the Rivergate's demolition are made by those who dismiss mid-century modernism as bland, unmemorable, acontextual and overly monumental.
Does this not dismiss too easily one of New Orleans' most significant stylistic periods, when the creative imagination of numerous local architects filled the city with fine examples of the International Style and other strains of 20th century modernism? Does this not deny the exciting mid-century growth period of this city?
Modernism is a widely recognized, valuable architectural style. A thoughtless "urban revitalization" strategy that disregards this era could cause us to lose many important structures, crucial examples of a notable period in New Orleans' architectural history.
When McKim Mead and White's Pennsylvania Station in New York City was demolished, the developers labeled it an outmoded white elephant. We now mourn its loss even if that tragedy gave birth to the modern preservation movement and its legislation.
Let us not too casually disregard another fine example of our architectural heritage. Adapt it, let it grow to meet changing times, but most important, let the Rivergate stand.
Donna V. Robertson
Dean, Tulane School of Architecture
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