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

chapter 11

summing up
preservation of the recent past

chapter1
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by arthur q. davis

Arthur Q. Davis is the Davis of the Curtis and Davis partnership, 1946-1978. He was the design architect of the Teaching Hospital for the Free University of Berlin, the largest teaching hospital in Europe (1968) and the largest project produced by the Curtis and Davis firm. During Maurice "Moon" Landrieu's administration, 1970-1978, Davis was chairman of the Mayor's Design Review Committee. He served on the board of Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, 1990-1996. Presently, Davis is a member of the President's Advisory Council On Historic Preservation.

Abbye A. Gorin

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"Destruction of the Rivergate, No. 3."
Watercolor by Errol Barron, 1995.

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guide

I. A Big Political Mistake
II. Destroyed And Still In Use
III. Mayor Morrison's Politics Of The Color Gold
IV. Some Final Thoughts On The Destruction Of The Rivergate
V. Bibliography

I. A Big Political Mistake

Tearing the Rivergate down was obviously a big mistake, a big political mistake! The way our government works, the politician has the final say. If you have a good politician, you have good results. If you have a bad politician, you have bad results. Worst of all is the politician who doesn't even care. We've had a few of all of those.

There is no question about the fact that the Rivergate was a significant monument in the City of New Orleans. It would have been a significant building in any city in the world. It was an expression of the sixties. Intended to be an exhibition hall, the Rivergate was a graceful and romantic structure using reinforced concrete in a way that was light and delicate. We spanned 253 feet with slabs that were only 5-1/2" thick! Although the walls of the building itself were hammered reinforced concrete, the contrast between the enclosure and the floating roof was unique. That great swooping roof was not only beautiful, but it also allowed for a major porte-cochere and canopy for people arriving and departing the exhibitions that were held in the Rivergate during its heyday. The great open interior spaces could have been divided in almost any way. The Rivergate would have been a flowing, exciting casino building.

There is no question about the fact that the building should have been preserved and recognized. In 1969, the year after it was completed, it won the Honor Award from the Louisiana Architects Association, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects. It was written about in major national and international architectural and construction publications. Architectural friends of mine came to New Orleans from other cities just to see this building. The American Institute of Architects New Orleans gave the Rivergate a Special Honor Award in 1994.

The reasoning of the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office not to process the nomination of the Rivergate to the National Register stated that there was "no consent in writing by the owner [City of New Orleans]" and in their "professional opinion the building did not appear to meet National Register criteria." Then, the Keeper of the National Register concurred with the decision of the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office "that the Rivergate does not meet the requirement of the National Register Criteria for Evaluation that a property achieving significance within the last fifty years be of exceptional importance. Therefore, the building is not eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places." These reasons for not recognizing the Rivergate are irresponsible and unsound!

Plus, the Keeper denied the Rivergate admission to the National Register because Curtis and Davis "are still actively practicing architecture as individuals; it cannot be assumed that their body of work is complete." Does the Keeper, Carol D. Shull, mean that we have to be dead before our work can be recognized and put on the National Register?

Three months after denying the Rivergate national recognition, the Keeper Shull with Beth L. Savage, in "Trends in Recognizing Places for Significance in the Recent Past" stated:

...as of the end of 1994, 2,035 properties under fifty years old were listed on the Register. Of these, 464 properties reflect some aspect of our history since 1950, and 77 of these places reflected some aspect of our history since 1974...approximately one-third were listed for their exceptional importance in community history (Shull and Savage 1995, II-3).

Connoisseurship is not based on an arbitrary age number. Whether a building is thirty years old or a hundred and thirty years old, should have no significance at all whether the building should be recognized as important. If a building is important, it should be recognized and protected. It is as simple as that! There is absolutely no connection between the fact that Curtis and Davis are still practicing and a building which we completed years ago.


II. Destroyed And Still In Use

I am concerned right now with some of our best and most significant buildings that are being destroyed through neglect, horrible lack of maintenance, and mutilation. Here are some examples:

Thomy Lafon Elementary School, New Orleans (1952)

Thomy Lafon Elementary School (1952).
Photo by Frank Lotz Miller, Nathaniel Cortland Curtis Jr. Collection of Frank Lotz Miller Negatives, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.
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The Thomy Lafon Elementary School was given First Honor Award, Gulf States Region of the American Institute of Architects in 1952, and the First Honor Award by the AIA, National Honor Awards Program in 1954 as one of the innovative schools in the country. This elementary school was constructed on pilotis (French term for pillars or stilts that carry a building). All of the classrooms were above grade. The building had no corridors but had cross ventilation in every classroom. The space under the classrooms was used for recreation. In the damp, humid south Louisiana climate, our ancestors built the same way. Their premier étage, the important floor, was up one level and the ground floor was either left open or used for services.

Unfortunately, the School Board, without consulting the design architects in any way, commissioned a third party architect to build a brick box for classrooms next to our building. This was completely foreign to the concept of the light and airiness of the original design. On top of this, shutters were added to the Curtis and Davis building and canopies over the windows. For all interests and purposes, the building has been destroyed but is still in use.


George Washington Carver Junior and Senior High Schools, New Orleans (1957)

George Washington Carver Junior and Senior High Schools (1957).
Photo by Frank Lotz Miller, Nathaniel Cortland Curtis Jr. Collection of Frank Lotz Miller Negatives, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane Library.
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Originally we were commissioned to design the Carver High School; someone else was going to design the Junior High School. We felt by combining the schools, allowing community use of the public areas such as the cafeteria and gymnasium, we would have an opportunity to save a lot of money and to create a more efficient building.

The School Board bought our concept and allowed us to design this complex. We created a campus environment which had never been done before in New Orleans. It was nationally recognized by awards and on the cover of Progressive Architecture [January 1957]. Now it has been completely mutilated. The auditorium which is under a vaulted roof has been ringed in barbed wire; and the ribs that support the roof are fenced off with chain link fencing. It looks similar to a prison. Everything about the building is security and there's practically nothing left of the original concept of the building. That's destruction by insensitive intrusions!


Pontchartrain Hotel, Detroit, Michigan (c. 1958)

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Ponchartrain Hotel, Detroit, Michigan (c.1958).
Photo in Curtis and Davis brochure, c.1966.
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In Detroit, we built an hotel called The Pontchartrain. The hotel was a tower overlooking the city. Originally designed to accommodate two towers, only one was built at that time. The second tower was to be built at a later date. At a later date, a third different owner, decided to build the tower, but they used different architects, different materials, and completely destroyed the original concept of the design. It is now a two-tower building with the towers having no relationship to each other. I'd just as soon that they had torn it down rather than mutilate our design the way they did.


III. Mayor Morrison's Politics Of The Color Gold

New Orleans Public Library (1957).
Photo in Curtis and Davis brochure, c.1966.
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We designed the New Orleans Public Library (1957) for "Chep" Morrison [delesseps Story Morrison, mayor of New Orleans, 1946-1961]. We designed the building with an exterior aluminum screen originally planned to use anodized gold color. It would glisten in the sunlight and would have been beautiful. The function of the screen was to protect the plate glass exterior walls from the sun, but at the same time, to create an illusion of having an open building. This idea was contrary to the old library concept of closing oneself in and insulating oneself from the outer world.

We had a problem with the Mayor. He said, "I'm not going to have any buildings that are going to have gold all over the outside because I'll be condemned for spending too much money on my buildings if they have gold on them."

Even though the anodized screen didn't cost any more than the plain aluminum screen, from a political point of view, Mayor Morrison didn't want to have a building with a gold facade. And we couldn't save our original concept.



IV. Some Final Thoughts On The Destruction Of The Rivergate

Do New Orleanians care about their fine buildings of the recent past? I don't think they care one snip! Obviously not enough citizens cared enough to help save the Rivergate, if the building could have been saved at all.

We always tried to design a building that had lasting qualities using materials that have permanency like the Rivergate. Today many buildings being built have a life expectancy of twenty to thirty years. Our throw-away society has come to expect that in that space of time a building will have outgrown its usefulness and should be torn down. A lot of that has to do with the way buildings in the private sector are financed. Once the mortgage has been paid off, there's an incentive to tear the building down and start over again with another structure. That's a mind-set that I think is dangerous. It's the kind of thing that causes people to consider important buildings as temporary. It permits buildings to be torn down without so much as a thought as to the significance in terms of the long history of the architecture community.

The Rivergate could easily have been converted to a casino and would have been in operation for five years by now (1997). It would have certainly been a more realistic way to solve a problem which would have been simple. The savings would have been perhaps as much as $200 million! But the politicians made the decision to squander the building and squander the money to tear it down. There was great opportunity for New Orleans to have a dramatic, one-of-a-kind casino in the world. The opportunity has been lost forever.

I have heard that Gov. Edwards made a commitment to the labor unions -- there would be more jobs, more profitable for them if they tore the building down and built a whole new building. Mayor Barthelemy was completely enamored of the promoter, Chris Hemmeter, who wanted to build a monument to himself. And Mayor Barthelemy's successor, Mayor Marc Morial, who came to office in May 1994, several months before the Rivergate was destroyed [in January 1995], told me the whole thing had gone too far, and he wasn't going to interfere.

Barthelemy has since gone to greener pastures. Hemmeter has gone bankrupt somewhere in California. Mayor Morial has on his record an empty, half-finished, lack-luster building in bankruptcy sitting on one of the best pieces of real estate in town. And the citizens, the tax payers, are stuck with a monster at the foot of Canal Street.

All of the people responsible for the destruction of the Rivergate, I think, should be held responsible for what has happened. It's as simple as that!


V. Bibliography

Shull, Carol D. and Beth L. Savage
1995 "Trends in recognizing places for significance in the recent past." Preserving the recent past! Washington, D.C.: Historic Preservation Education Foundation. bottom_line.GIF

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