THE RIVERGATE title page | contents | appendices | cd-book cover

chapter 10

what the rivergate could have been for the city
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by nathaniel curtis and michael rouchell


I. Advantages Of Adaptive Reuse Presented To The Morial Administration
II. The Rivergate As A Casino
III. Friends Of Rivergate Adaptive Design Proposals
IV. Conclusion
V. Bibliography

I. Advantages Of Adaptive Reuse Presented To The Morial Administration

As we view highlights of past events -- Harrah's bankruptcy, the overnight loss of 3,300 temporary casino and construction jobs, the mounds of lawsuits that have ensued, unrealized city income built into the budget, and the irreversible loss of public property -- adaptive reuse of the Rivergate made good sense for the City.

In the spring and summer of 1994, Friends of Rivergate presented plans, perspective drawings, cost estimates, and a list of adaptive reuse advantages to Mayor Marc Morial and members of the City Council.

Adaptive Reuse Advantages

Casino will be in operation more than two years sooner than demolition and new construction with earlier jobs and revenues to the City and State.

Present approval stalemate with City Planning Commission and Historic District Landmarks Commission over Harrah's new design will be alleviated.

Lawsuits and appeals will tend to be eliminated.

Disruption and danger caused by demolition in congested Central Business District will be eliminated.

Traffic congestion in the area will be alleviated.

Image of New Orleans as a culturally astute city will not be compromised.

The noble aspirations of the developer will be achieved. The casino will take its place among the landmarks and focal points of the city and have an identity giving a visitor a sense of being in a special place.

The well constructed Rivergate is more substantial than Harrah's proposed replacement building.

New Orleans will retain a building of architectural significance.

Marc Morial's campaign for mayor was designed around "A New Direction For New Orleans." The young Morial's campaign managers touted him as a new breed of public servant. It was the hope of Friends of Rivergate that the new Mayor Morial would be different from his predecessor and would be interested to learn -- at no charge to the city -- from the designer-planner component of Friends of Rivergate -- none of whom was scouting for work -- the most economical, prudent, and beneficial course of action for a casino building in New Orleans.

Unfortunately for the City, the new Mayor Morial, with the orchestrated vote of the majority of the City Council, pushed hard to enforce the deals cut by the previous Barthelemy administration.

City Hall Reasons For Razing The Rivergate

The Rivergate was too small.

Adaptive reuse was not labor intensive.

The Rivergate had asbestos in it.

A new building will revitalize Canal Street.

The Rivergate was ugly.

II. The Rivergate As A Casino

Size Of The Rivergate
The Rivergate contained 130,000 square feet of column-free first floor exhibition space that was up to 50 feet in height allowing ample space for a mezzanine if additional area was required. The South Peters Street side of the building, the service side, was approximately 50 feet wide by about 270 feet long. A casino, unlike a convention center, would not require such a large service entry; therefore, this space was available to accommodate an expansion of the building's envelope. In addition, the tunnel under the Rivergate offered 45,000 square feet of space two stories high. The Rivergate could have been expanded into a facility equal in size to or larger than the replacement building.

Conversion Of The Building Labor Intensive
Renovation projects are typically performed in two stages: selective demolition followed by restoration and new construction, both of which are labor intensive. Conversion of the Rivergate would have been no exception. Selective demolition would have been labor intensive because of the necessity to remove portions of the building while leaving adjacent portions intact. The restoration/construction stage would also have been labor intensive because of the difficulty of erecting new construction within the building's existing envelope while protecting elements of the building proposed to remain and repairing any damage resulting from demolition/construction activities. Selective interior demolition, or non-structural demolition, could have been performed by a local company. Structural demolition of the Rivergate, removal of the whole building, required complex engineering and was too sophisticated for most local companies. Demolition of the Rivergate was performed by an out-of-state contractor. Conversion of the Rivergate would have required all the materials and building trades necessary for new construction including new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems and could have been accomplished by local companies.

Asbestos, A Political Excuse Not Sound Reason To Tear Down The Rivergate
Asbestos had nothing to do with the question of whether the Rivergate remained or not. At the time the asbestos was installed, it was the state-of-the-art insulation and acoustical material used in many buildings. Whether the Rivergate remained or was demolished, asbestos abatement would be required prior to any construction activity.

In 1987, when the Dock Board was owner and operator of the Rivergate, some of the asbestos was removed. Most of what remained was in the form of asbestos felts used as roof covering in a location where it posed no danger to anyone. There is, however, official hysteria about the presence of any asbestos fiber. According to Michael J. Alline, M.D., "Most asbestos removal projects are a boondoggle, allowing politically connected contractors to get rich at the taxpayers' expense" (Alline 1996).

Harrah's Massive Casino Not A Magic Formula To Revitalize Canal Street
Numerous renovations executed throughout the neighboring historic Warehouse District successfully revitalized that neighborhood. It is a reasonable assumption that renovation of the Rivergate could have contributed to the revitalization of Canal Street. A single project, even of the magnitude of Harrah's casino, is not alone capable of completely revitalizing Canal Street, the main street of New Orleans, extending from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain.

Avant-Garde And Technically Perfect
The style of the Rivergate, "Expressionism," is derived from its honestly expressed structural system demonstrating the plasticity of concrete. The simplified style of the Rivergate, with its pure and precise lines, fully embodied the principals of Modern Architecture. The building was a testimonial to the construction challenge met by highly skilled craftsmen of a caliber rarely found in today's constructions. The Rivergate was a building of high quality and technical perfection.

The bush-hammered exterior concrete finish, often criticized by the general public, could have been reclad in a different material giving the building a new look. The construction budget for the casino was generous enough to have allowed the walls to be clad in the most exotic marble or granite available. For $825 million, the total amount spent by Harrah's, the Rivergate's exterior surfaces could have been covered with gold leaf!

III. Friends of Rivergate Adaptive Design Proposals

The design professionals associated with Friends of Rivergate took on the task of adaptive reuse of the building and provided an alternative schematic design with a cost estimate -- at no charge to the City or the developer. Friends of Rivergate went through this exercise to prove that conversion of the building into a land-based casino was an achievable option.

They concluded that the Rivergate with its large column-free space and ample porte-cochere could very easily be adapted into a casino. In fact, a casino operator could have moved into the building making only minor changes necessary to adapt the structure and bring it into compliance with current building codes.

Issue Of Size
Friends of Rivergate never agreed with the promoters' market analysis that required New Orleans to have the world's largest casino. But the issue of size was addressed to be comparable to the proposal that was on the table.

Friends of Rivergate proposed an expansion to the South Peters Street side to address the aesthetic issues regarding this side of the building while giving the existing building area a sizable boost. In addition to this annex, a proposed mezzanine would wrap around South Hall. At North Hall, modifications were proposed that would provide accessibility to North Hall's roof, offering a unique view up and down Canal Street. This required a domed addition atop North Hall that would act as a counterpoint to the original building's vaulted roof.

Issue Of Aesthetics
The loading dock, extending nearly the length of the South Peters Street frontage and facing three principal hotels, demanded aesthetic attention. The exterior bush-hammered concrete walls, which were criticized for presenting a cold hard face to the street, also needed to be addressed. This finish was not originally intended for the building. Photographs of a model and renderings of the Rivergate indicate a stone exterior, perhaps a random-coursed rock-faced limestone. Construction documents in the Tulane University Southeastern Architectural Archives clearly indicate a repetitive geometric pattern of smooth and bush-hammered finishes. Perhaps the finish that was executed was a cost cutting decision.

Friends of Rivergate proposed cladding the Rivergate's bush-hammered interior and exterior concrete with new materials that would give the building a sleekness appropriate to a casino. The underside of the vaulted roof structure, the Rivergate's signature feature, would be restored and refinished. The clad walls below would be of a contrasting texture and material in keeping with the Rivergate's original design. Different ideas about the exterior design circulated among Friends of Rivergate. Nathaniel Curtis suggested that the walls could be clad in a mosaic tile; Dean Robertson of the Tulane School of Architecture suggested that the building be clad in marble arranged in the form of scales similar to the exterior of the Sydney Opera House. The final version that was presented to the Mayor, the City Council, and the Louisiana Economic Development & Gaming Commission indicated a stone cladding that featured horizontal banding of a contrasting colored stone which added scale to the windowless walls, complimenting their sinuous configuration.

Other changes to the building included the restoration of the dramatic exterior night lighting, new interior finishes throughout, a new flat seam copper roof system covering the vaulted roof structure, and landscaping.

The proposed modifications were, with the exception of the South Peters Street addition, essentially "hand-work." Scraping and cleaning the undersides of the vaults, applying new cement plaster, and recladding the existing interior and exterior bush-hammered concrete walls would employ many local artisans.

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The Rivergate as a casino, Canal and South Peters Streets.
Drawing by Michael Rouchell with Stephen Monette, 1994, Special Collections, Tulane Library.
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Interior perspective of the Rivergate as a casino.
Rendering by Michael Rouchell, 1994.
Special Collections, Tulane Library.

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The exterior perspective rendering of the Rivergate as seen from the corner of Canal and South Peters Streets showing the proposed additions, stone cladding, and the proposed Canal Street streetcar was prepared by Michael Rouchell with Stephen Monette. Rouchell prepared an interior perspective rendering which was a composite of ideas proposed at a Friends of Rivergate meeting at the School of Architecture. Some of the architects present were Dean Donna Robertson, Eugene D. Cizek, Nathaniel Curtis, John P. Klingman, E. Eean McNaughton, and Michael Rouchell. This rendering was presented at the Rivergate symposium on 11 October 1994 at the Royal Sonesta Hotel sponsored by the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Louisiana Landmarks Society, and the Preservation Resource Center.

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Section drawing of the Rivergate as a casino, by Nathaniel Curtis, 1994.
Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.

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At the important Friends of Rivergate meeting on 30 March 1994 with Mayor-elect Morial, Curtis promised the newly elected mayor drawings of his personal vision of the 1960s exhibition building in a new role as a casino.

Curtis' drawings show the exterior of the Rivergate cleaned and the existing concrete walls covered with a bright colored mosaic tile. Small pedestrian scale pavilions, mostly glass with indoor planting, would be placed around the perimeters of the existing walls, particularly along the South Peters Street side. Curtis envisioned the whole exterior of the Rivergate glowing from hidden light sources. The lighting would enhance and express the architecture; the glitter would come from within the glass pavilions.

Cost Of Adaptive Reuse Compared To Harrah's $825 Million Bankrupt Unfinished Project
Friends of Rivergate estimated that its concept for adaptive reuse of the structure would cost $70 million excluding garages, furnishings, fixtures, special effects, and professional fees, but including a 20 percent contingency as recommended by J.P. Means, the recognized authority on building costs estimation. Friends of Rivergate -- in writing and in drawings -- accounted for the cost of modifying, redeveloping, adding to and adaptively reusing the building using a cost index of $125.00 per square foot. This square foot cost index was taken from the actual cost of the restoration of the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (1991-1994) by architect E. Eean McNaughton, a member of the Friends of Rivergate team. Since the Old State Capitol was a complex restoration project, it was felt that the $125.00 per square foot figure was conservative, and it was improbable that renovation of the Rivergate would exceed the complexity of the Old Capitol building.

There were huge estimated cost discrepancies between Friends of Rivergate's proposal and other schemes proposed. No doubt, Harrah's $825 million expenditure for demolition and new buildings was a major contributing factor to its bankruptcy, as the New Orleans gambling market fell far below marketing studies by proponents of the project. While the large expenditure was preferred by the politicos, one can view the project then and now as private waste mandated by government at the expense of the public weal.

Friends of Rivergate even showed elected city officials how reuse of the Rivergate could be turned into an economic advantage to the City. Compromise with Harrah's -- reuse the Rivergate, pass on some of the savings to Harrah's, and use some of the savings to build and staff much needed low cost housing, neighborhood redevelopment, and juvenile treatment facilities, all vital to a city riddled with crime.

Largest Casino In The World And Public Safety
When S. Stewart Farnet changed from Jazzville's adaptive reuse architect to Harrah's Jazz Company's new casino designer, he described what he alleged to be "difficulties" with providing required "exits" from the Rivergate. Openings would have to be cut into the concrete walls to create emergency exits for the masses of high-rollers (Scott 1994, 46).

The Rivergate had five pedestrian exits. No. 1, from North Hall to Canal Street, was elevated to serve the falling grade of the sidewalk. A portion of the wide stairway could easily have been ramped for handicapped access. Nos. 2,3,4, and 5 were all at grade. The South Peters Street side, the service side, had many exits which were used by personnel, trucks, and autos. This facade of the building could have easily been modified to make additional required exits. The long, unbroken Poydras Street elevation could have been punctured to comply with applicable codes. Modest additions proposed by Friends of Rivergate do not appear to have complicated exit considerations.

However, the new casino building with its greatly increased footprint, appears to have posed a new set of exit considerations. On 13 November 1997, Jerry W. Jones, Deputy Fire Marshall and Chief Architect of the Office of the Louisiana State Fire Marshall, addressed the Consulting Engineers Council of Louisiana Incorporated and concerned architects on "Codes, What The Future Holds." Since the distances within the new casino were so great, Jones explained new ways to consider required exits. Performance codes would now be based upon distances, predictable human performance and endurance, building materials, etc. This required the creation of areas of refuge and similar devices to accommodate requirements of safety for casino patrons and personnel including the handicapped. These standards could have been applied to the Rivergate.

Issue Of Lighting
Farnet assumed that the casino's requirement for super bright lighting, necessary for surveillance cameras to function as designed, mandated that the Rivergate's ceiling beneath the soaring vaults be lowered thus making the original ceiling invisible (Scott, 1994, 46).

One of the magical qualities of the Rivergate was the lighting design. A more than adequate level of illumination was achieved by almost invisible means. Curtis suggested the addition of large chandeliers as lighting accents -- never a suspended ceiling.

The solution to lighting the Rivergate was to be found in creative technology not disfigurement.

Satellite Parking Garages
Friends of Rivergate was opposed to the construction of enormous parking garages at the corner of Poydras Street and Convention Center Boulevard. These prime pieces of real estate would have been more appropriately developed for commercial use, such as hotels. As an alternative parking solution, Friends of Rivergate proposed satellite garages on available sites around the Central Business District with a continuously operating shuttle system linking the parking facilities to the casino. Satellite garages would have revitalized downtown areas, i.e. available sites at Poydras-Clara-Claiborne Streets and Canal-Robertson-Villere Streets. A shuttle bus system would have created jobs as well as showcased downtown New Orleans. The parking garage-tunnel-casino arrival and departure sequence envelopes the visitor in a cocoon, the enemy of economic development.

IV. Conclusion

Friends of Rivergate never had more than two friends on the City Council at any time -- Jacquelyn B. Clarkson and Peggy H. Wilson during the Barthelemy administration and Wilson and Suzanne H. Terrell during the Morial administration.

Clarkson voiced misgivings about lease provisions, such as the absence of a performance bond and reimbursement to the City for casino-related expenses. But she voted to award Hemmeter the lease.

Wilson's opposition was consistent and comprehensive. She was against budgeting gambling revenues before they were realized, leasing to Hemmeter without obtaining his financial statement, and leasing arrangements that did not include a completion bond. Terrell, also a consistent foe of demolition, offered an amendment that no demolition begin before all financing was in place. It passed unanimously.

On 7 July 1994, Wilson made a final attempt to bring logic to the City Council.

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Peggy Wilson
(on left, Councilman
Troy Carter)

Listen to Audio of Councilwoman
Peggy Wilson

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I would like to echo the comments made by the distinguished visitors to the City Council here who have been extremely dedicated and who have provided something for us which nobody else provided. I would like to thank them for the work that they did and for the appreciation that they have for the Rivergate which they have so well presented in front of the people of our city.

For the life of me I cannot imagine why we would want to tear down the Rivergate. If we keep the Rivergate, it would mean we would be on line with gambling by two years sooner. We would make enormous amounts of money in addition to the money that would be saved by not demolishing the Rivergate. There would be tremendous income during those years that would accrue to the benefit of the City and the State if the casino came on line so much earlier.

The Rivergate building is a fine building. Members of this Council spoke about wanting to have a signature building that was comparable to the Sydney Opera House when we first started this discussion. And this indeed is a building that is comparable to the Sydney Opera House and could be greatly enhanced and made to be perhaps the most outstanding building that houses a casino in the world.

I do hear rumblings that there is some sort of agreement between the Governor [Edwards] and the labor unions who want to participate in the construction of a new casino. But I dare say that the jobs that would be created by the renovation of the casino would be considerable and that any loss of jobs would be greatly offset by our coming on line so much sooner. Now in a way it would seem like I am speaking against myself because I would be happy if it didn't come on line sooner. But for those who are in favor of the casino's existence in the first place, it would seem to me it would be very logical to keep the Rivergate (City Council meeting, video, 7 July 1994).  end audio clip

The voices of Friends of Rivergate and Councilwoman-At-Large Wilson were silenced by City Hall!

V. Bibliography

 Alline, Michael J., M.D.
1996 "The asbestos boondoggle." Times-Picayune, 3 November, B-6.
Scott, Liz
1994 "When the Rivergate was the hope for the future." New Orleans 29(2), 43-46.
7 July 1994 New Orleans City Council Meeting. bottom_line.GIF

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