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

chapter 7 part 2

louisiana politics of destruction
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by abbye a. gorin and wilbur e. meneray


VIII. Failed Efforts To Nominate The Rivergate To The National Register Of Historic Places
IX. The Role Of The National Register In Washington
X. Failed Last Ditch Effort To Save The Vaulted Roof Structure
XI. Conclusion -- Political Realism
XII. Bibliography

VIII.  Failed Efforts To Nominate The Rivergate To The National Register Of Historic Places


The Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office
In Louisiana, to nominate a property or district to the National Register, one must go through the State Historic Preservation Office and have written consent of the owner of the candidate property.

In 1994, when efforts were made to nominate the Rivergate to the National Register of Historic Places in the United States, the State Historic Preservation Office was under the jurisdiction of then-Lt. Gov. Melinda Schwegmann. Schwegmann did not return Gorin's phone call nor answer her letter.

Friends of Rivergate hoped that national recognition of the building would validate their case for adaptive reuse. If all efforts to save the Rivergate failed, at least the building would not be totally obliterated from our history. In August 1994, Gorin and Moss began the complex documentation process of the Rivergate as required by the National Register. The processes of the State Historic Preservation Office were another link in Louisiana politics of destruction.

It was clear from the beginning that landmarking would not save the building. The rule of fifty -- a structure must be fifty years old to qualify for landmark status -- existed, but there were exceptions on the National Register, 2,035 at the end of 1994 according to Carol D. Shull, Keeper of the National Register.

The nomination process began with a phone call on 5 August 1994 to Jonathan Fricker, Director of the State Historic Preservation Office in Baton Rouge. As Fricker instructed, a letter was written to Jerri Hobdy, Assistant Secretary, Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism requesting assistance in the nomination process.

Gorin and Moss made two trips to the State Office in Baton Rouge for consultations with Director Fricker and his wife, Preservation Officer Donna Fricker. By 22 December 1994, state and national governments, though ostensibly dedicated to honoring significant architecture, had successfully killed the Rivergate nomination.

A Crack In The Political Silence
Gorin's letter (8 August 1994) to Hobdy provoked a memorandum from Hobdy to Director Jonathan Fricker regarding nomination of the Rivergate to the National Register. Hobdy asked for a meeting to discuss "a very sensitive subject."

The documentation process was assisted by Donna Fricker who appeared to be trying sincerely to help save an important building. Historic preservation was her job, and she was paid with public money. The completed documentation was submitted on 19 September 1994 to the State Preservation office in Baton Rouge. It was promptly denied the following day on the grounds that "state policy requires that owners of candidate National Register properties give consent in writing before the State Historic Preservation Officer can initiate the nomination process."

It was impossible to obtain written permission from the owner, the City of New Orleans, which was controlled by the politicians who held the grip on the fate of the Rivergate. Nevertheless, the Frickers advised and assisted Gorin and Moss in proceeding with the application to the National Register.

Origin Of "Owner Consent," State Policy Not Federal
From the time the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (P.L. 89-665) was signed into law until 1977, there was no such Louisiana policy requiring owner consent to nominate property to the National Register. The public policy developed in the following way:

Through open and public efforts by Save Our Cemeteries (a New Orleans preservation organization) the preservationists successfully nominated St. Louis Cemeteries I and II to the National Register -- without the permission of the New Orleans Archdiocese, owner of the historic cemeteries. Dr. William Murtagh, then-Keeper of the Register, not only encouraged the preservation of these eighteenth and nineteenth-century cemeteries (significant for both the interments and tomb designs) but also gave assistance through the nomination process. Help also came from state and federal representatives.

Archdiocese Director of Cemeteries, Monsignor Raymond A. Wegmann, strongly opposed infringement of any outside authority over the cemeteries. With his legal resources, the Director succeeded in forming "state policy" -- the policy of written owner consent to nominate property to the National Register.

An Appeal To The Keeper
On 21 November 1994, in a letter from Keeper Carol D. Shull to Hobdy in the State Office, Shull sustained the appeal on procedural grounds as written consent of the owner is not a federal regulation.
Shull also stated in her letter that if the nomination form appears to be adequately documented and if the property appears to meet the National Register Criteria, then the property should be scheduled for presentation to the earliest possible State Review Board meeting. These two qualifiers left room for subjective interpretation by the State Office.

The State Office informed Gorin and Moss of their right to appeal to the Keeper of the National Register. They initiated that option on 13 December 1994.

The Role Of The State Preservation Office
The modus operandi of the state office became clear in Donna Fricker's memorandum, 29 November 1994, to Eddie Martin in the state preservation office who was seeking advice on how to deal with the Rivergate nomination problem.

Donna Fricker's option #2 came in the form of a 6 December 1994 letter to Moss and Gorin from Hobdy. This time the State Office did not use "owner consent" to decline to process the nomination, instead said: "in our professional opinion."

On 13 December 1994, a resubmitted appeal to the Keeper stated that politics was depriving the Rivergate of national recognition. The death blow to the Rivergate's national recognition was written by the Keeper on 22 December 1994. Keeper Shull, unlike her predecessor -- Dr. William Murtagh who "helped" Save Our Cemeteries place St. Louis Cemeteries I and II on the National Register over a different but difficult set of politics -- made no effort to help.

State Preservation Office Bypassed Their Advisory Board On The Rivergate Issue
The advisory board of the State Historic Preservation Office, the National Register Review Board, hears cases that have applied for nomination to the National Register listing and recommends to the State Historic Preservation Officer whether a property is to be nominated. This Board was not consulted concerning the Rivergate nomination. The reasoning given by Director Jonathan Fricker was that the nomination did not have owner consent.

When so much was at stake -- a $300 million, one-of-a-kind, avant-garde building -- one must question the validity of such reasoning. Bypassing the Board avoided any confrontation with board members who might have been advocates of preserving the Rivergate.

 IX.  The Role Of The National Register In Washington

The Keeper Of The National Trust
Pursuant to the Freedom Of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. 552, a request was made for all records exchanged between the National Register and the State Historic Preservation Office pertaining to the failed nomination which included but was not limited to mail, electronic mail, telephone conversations and messages, drafts, reports, memoranda, and agreements.

In an audio-taped interview, Director Jonathan Fricker of the State office said, "Recommendation was made in general discussion between the members of the National Register staff and me" (Fricker audio tape 1997). The Keeper sent no evidence of verbal, electronic, or written memos of "general discussion" between the two offices.

At the time of the examination of the Rivergate file in the State Office, Director Fricker was asked why there was no record of conversation with the national office? His reply, "It saves time and paper work" (Fricker personal communication 1997).

Included in the documentation obtained from the Keeper was a seven-point unsigned and undated summary of the appeal of the Friends of Rivergate. The seventh item stated: "This appeal is very controversial. This is the building that is to be torn [sic], to be replaced by a very large gambling casino on the waterfront in New Orleans near the Vieux Carré."

The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places is under the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. The Secretary of the Interior is Bruce Babbitt.

Keeper Carol D. Shull, Moderator At Preserving the Recent Past Conference, Chicago, 30 March - 1 April 1995
Three months after Keeper Shull killed the Rivergate nomination to the National Register, she moderated the session on The Significance of the Recent Past at the national conference Preserving the Recent Past. The National Park Service headed the list of conference sponsors. Keeper Shull along with Beth Savage, architectural historian with the National Register of Historic Places, spoke on "The Present State of the Recent Past." They co-authored "Trends in Recognizing Places for Significance in the Recent Past" in Preserving the Recent Past!, a collection of papers given at the national conference in 1995 and published that same year.

Contrary to the reasons the Keeper gave in her 22 December 1994 letter for killing the Rivergate nomination, she and Savage said:

The tests for proving exceptional importance, like the National Register criteria, are relatively broad and can be flexibly applied... (Shull and Savage 1995, II-12).

...Sometimes a threat to a property will force a community to assess its value far sooner than it would otherwise (Shull and Savage 1995, II-9).

Shull and Savage stated:

Even though the National Register Criteria for Evaluation require a property achieving significance within the past fifty years to be of exceptional importance quality-wise, as of the end of 1994, 2,035 such properties are listed. Of these, 464 properties are listed that reflected some aspect of our history since 1950, and 77 of these places exclusively reflect some aspect of our history since 1974. ...many of these properties are recognized for their extraordinary role in our nation's history; however, one-third are listed for their exceptional importance in community history (Shull and Savage 1995, II-3).

Shull and Savage cited a number of examples of under fifty-year old buildings in the National Register. Two properties that they discussed central to this thesis are the Stuart Company Plant and Office Building in Pasadena, California; and an "unnamed, unlocated" building, which appears to be the Rivergate, that they described in detail:

...the case for significance was unsubstantiated in an appeal by several citizens of the State Historic Preservation Officer's decision not to nominate a 1960s convention center to the National Register, because in her judgment it does not meet the National Register criteria. The city in which the building is located, a Certified Local Government, concurred with the State that the building is not eligible. The nomination documentation makes the claim that the building, completed in 1968, is a distinguished design in the Expressionist architectural style; is significant for engineering as an example of long-span post-tensioned concrete construction techniques; and is the work of an important local architectural firm and essentially the only architects in the city specializing in modern architecture. The Keeper of the National Register denied the appeal because the nomination did not demonstrate the perspective necessary to establish exceptional importance within any of these contexts... (Shull and Savage 1995, II-10).

In the case of the Stuart building, the private owner, "supported by some public officials," objected to its listing in the National Register, but the State of California agreed and submitted the nomination for a determination of eligibility. The stand was quite different from the one that the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office took with the Rivergate.

These two examples demonstrate how politics of the moment not only influences but controls the decision-making process of the Keeper.

But in their description, one questions why Shull and Savage did not name the Rivergate, the City of New Orleans, and explain that this building was in stress caused by politics. To kill the nomination of the Rivergate and then write,

The historic preservation movement plays a singularly important role in the documentation effort and in raising public consciousness, especially when rare and threatened places are at stake (Shull and Savage 1995, II-11).

raises serious questions that concern the relationship between the Keeper and the State Office.

The National Park Service has published National Register Bulletin 22, which according to Schull and Savage, was to encourage the nomination of recently significant properties, if they are of exceptional importance to a community, a state, or the nation. The writers clearly state:

Americans themselves must determine which places are historic and document and nominate them to the National Register when they are comfortable that they are truly worthy (Shull and Savage 1995, II-3).

When the Keeper's office returned Friends of Rivergate's original nomination documentation, included was a kind, hand-written note from Marilyn Harper, an architectural historian. The note said: "I am really sorry we could not give you the answer you wanted on this."

Friends of Rivergate file contains appeal-for-help letters to Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior; Lindy Boggs, Congresswoman Emeritus; and Bob Livingston, Representative, First Congressional District.

X.  Failed Last Ditch Effort To Save The Vaulted Roof Structure

The politicians unleashed the wrecker's ball on the Rivergate 13 January 1995. On 16 February, Moss and preservation leader Mary Lou Christovich made an appeal to representatives of the local Jazzville group, part owner in the casino operator license and lease to the Rivergate site. Since the local investors had always publicly expressed a desire to reuse the Rivergate, Christovich and Moss proposed to them to leave standing and intact that portion of the Rivergate which was roofed by the large vaulted post-tensioned concrete shells.

The local investors said that, even after the merger with Harrah's and Hemmeter, they believed reuse of the building was the best foundation for the casino's operation. When the 1994 city election was over and Marc Morial and the new City Council were sworn into office, the Jazzville group attempted to pick up two more votes on the new Council. They already had two members, Peggy Wilson and Susan H. Terrell, who favored adaptive reuse. With two more votes they would have a majority on the City Council and could stop the demolition. According to Gauthier, trying to get those two council votes was stymied by Jim Singleton, Councilman-at-large, (Gauthier audio tape 1997) and was only one of a jackpot of difficulties that the "winner" of the license to operate the land-based casino had won!

More Cracks In The Political Silence
Gauthier related other events that wrecked the sensible approach to the land-based casino proposal that won the licensing competition:

Wendell Gautier

Wendell Gautier.
Photo by Ellis Lucia, Times-Picayune

Listen to Audio of Wendell Gautier

Click on link under image to activate audio of following text.
When we merged with Hemmeter, the arrangement called for Chris Hemmeter to approach the City and get the City's permission for us to continue with the project that won [adaptive reuse of the Rivergate]. In fact, that was a condition of him coming in -- that he would go to the Mayor and get permission to continue with our project. He was not able to accomplish his part of the bargain. We probably could have thrown him out at that point. But then the announcement came that they were going to call a special session and scuttle the whole thing.

The information that I got from various legislators, the thing had been such a close vote to begin with, authorizing the project, if they went back in, if they would call a special session, it was their considered opinion after talking to many legislators that Louisiana would just simply outlaw any form of gaming. There would not be a casino in downtown New Orleans.

The Mayor [Barthelemy] told us in no uncertain terms, when we were bidding with the City, we had a special breakfast that we sat with him, and we asked him, Mayor if we win, you won't hold it against us cause we're not building a new building. You let us renovate the Rivergate? And his response was "yes." If he had said "no" at that point, candidly, we would have not bid. We weren't interested in building a new building. We were interested in a renovation program only.

When Marc [Morial] was in the run-off even, Marc indicated to us that he would preserve the Rivergate. And that was like music to our ears. We ran back to Harrah's and the people selling the bonds, and we said, "Guess What?" And they said, "Guess what to you?" You've already solicited prospective investments; you've released the prospectus. It's illegal for you to do anything but what you've said you would do in these sworn documents. If you want to chance going to jail, go ahead, but you're committed to this project, like it or not. There was no turning point anymore.

Gov. Edwards told me one day that if you put gaming in a barn, they will come. Gov. Edwards did not think it was necessary for a new building. Then when it came that we couldn't get it renovated, this is the one time Edwin got involved. He said, "If a new building is gonna be built, it's gonna be built with union people. I want a commitment on that or I'm not getting involved any further."

Then they put the second demand on us which was the first time it surfaced with that impact. We had heard rumors before that we were going to be asked to go to the Municipal Auditorium. But they said you need to go to the Municipal Auditorium. As you know, we own the land right across the street from the Rivergate. I can reveal this now; Chris [Hemmeter] had now come to believe that maybe renovation was the best way. So Chris' idea was why don't we build one [temporary casino] right across the street in that little square and defer this Rivergate question for a little while. I thought it was a brilliant plan. That's the first time someone said, "There'll never be a temporary there. The temporary is going to be at the Municipal Auditorium" (Gauthier audio tape 1997).   end audio clip


Conclusion -- Political Realism

The political gambling leadership, the business leaders of New Orleans, and a strong labor union called for demolition. This was an overwhelming force for Friends of Rivergate's rational approach to save this twentieth-century masterpiece.

The two-term ex-mayor Sidney Barthelemy and his City Council made the decision to demolish the Rivergate. The next mayor Marc Morial and his City Council ratified that decision.

Councilman Oliver Thomas, representing District B where the Rivergate was located, voted to destroy the Rivergate, but voted to save a cluster of five properties on Common and South Rampart Streets in the Central Business District. According to Thomas, the pair of two-story corner buildings have architectural significance and are important remnants of a once-flourishing business district where black jazz musicians performed (Warner 1994b).

The State Historic Preservation Office uses Preservation In Print as a platform to report their many landmarking accomplishments. From the August 1997 issue: "When the district [in Shreveport] was listed on the Register in 1982, most Modernistic buildings in the downtown were not fifty years old. The 'new and improved' nomination form recognizes that downtown Shreveport has an impressive, wide-ranging collection of Modernistic buildings." The Keeper of the National Register killed the nomination of the Rivergate by Friends of Rivergate, but the National Trust For Historic Preservation Home page ( has requested their electronic readers to fill in a form about "a building constructed in your lifetime worth preserving as a landmark of tomorrow." In the September 1998 edition of the web page, the Trusty's Kids Corner asks kids to "Tell us about a building constructed in your lifetime worth preserving as a landmark of tomorrow." Each month a random drawing will be held to award a Trusty t-shirt to one participant.

Jeanne d'Arc urban park in front of the Rivergate.
Drawing by Nathaniel Curtis, 1993.

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Mayor Barthelemy and the City Council authorized the destruction of city patrimony to create jobs. An innocent bystander piece of property caught in the rush to destroy was the Jeanne d'Arc urban park in front of the Rivergate. This urban park was built in part with federal funds. The people responsible for destruction did not bother to obtain federal permission to demolish, a requirement of the Department of Interior when federal money is involved. The normal city permitting process was by-passed, too. The tearing up of this urban space was stopped by court order through the efforts of Louisiana Landmarks Society and Friends of Rivergate. The tearing up of this space (the gilded historic monument of Jeanne d'Arc survived) created perhaps an hour's work for some back-hoe operator.

The true benefactors of this great work relief program of the 1990s were the attorneys, architects, and accountants.

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Harrah's unfinished land-based casino.
Photo by Abbye A. Gorin, 1998.

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Every Legitimate, Positive Effort Turned Into A Negative

A keen disappointment to Friends of Rivergate was the failed effort to solicit the help of John Skilling of Seattle, Washington, the brilliant structural engineer of the Rivergate as Nathaniel Curtis described him. With his intimate knowledge of the complex concrete structure, it was thought that Skilling could reach the Mayor and his Council. Skilling had worked with Curtis on other projects, but he would not answer his letter. Skilling would not return Friends of Rivergate's phone calls either.

XII. Bibliography

Bridges, Tyler
1992 "N.O. casino group playing to win Rivergate contract." Times-Picayune, 29 July, A-1.
Bridges, Tyler and Frank Donze
1993 "City pressure won auditorium." Times-Picayune, 14 October, A-6.
Eggler, Bruce
1993 "Casino board hears plea for environment." Times-Picayune, 30 June, B-4.
1994 "Harrah's gets lease to build its N.O. casino, Rivergate contract is for 30 years." Times-Picayune, 4 March, A-1.
Elkind, Peter
1997 "Casino fiasco, the big easy's bad bet." Fortune 136(11), 162-176.
Merritt, Elizabeth S.
1996 "Challenges facing the national preservation movement." Paper presented at the annual Louisiana Landmarks Society Martha Robinson Memorial Lecture, New Orleans, 7 May. Unpublished.
Nicholas, Peter
1992 "Analysts unimpressed with casino panel choices." Times-Picayune, 6 December, A-1.
Shull, Carol D. and Beth L. Savage
1995 "Trends in recognizing places for significance in the recent past." Preserving the recent past! Washington, DC: Historic Preservation Education Foundation.
Varney, James
1998 "Harrah's settles land squabble." Times-Picayune, 30 October, C-5.
Voelker, Bill
1997 "Lawsuit over land under casino reopens legality of lease is challenged." Times-Picayune , 10 February, B-1.
Wardlaw, Jack and Ed Anderson
1992 "Casino nominees approved: board's first meeting set for Friday in N.O." Times-Picayune, 17 December, A-1.
Warner, Coleman
1994a "Jazz history wrecks plans for parking lot." Times-Picayune, 11 May, B-3.
1994b "Plan for CBD lot withdrawn." Times-Picayune, 9 July, B-3.
1995 "Five buildings in CBD get reprieve." Times-Picayune, 18 August, A-19.
1996 "Black history may rescue Canal complex." Times-Picayune, 2 May, B-4.
"Save Our Cemeteries celebrates a decade of achievements."

Letters, Memoranda, Personal Communication, Transcription
16 July 1992 Letter, Senator Marc Morial to Abbye A. Gorin.
29 June 1993 Transcription, Louisiana Economic Development and Gaming Corporation Public Hearing.
8 August 1994 Letter, Abbye A. Gorin to Gerri Hobdy.
16 August 1994 Memorandum, Gerri Hobdy to Jonathan Fricker.
20 September 1994 Letter, Gerri Hobdy to Abbye A. Gorin and Betty L. Moss.
21 November 1994 Letter, Carol D. Shull to Gerri Hobdy.
29 November 1994 Memorandum, Donna Fricker to Eddie Martin.
6 December 1994 Letter, Gerri Hobdy to Abbye A. Gorin and Betty L. Moss.
13 December 1994 Letter, Betty L. Moss and Abbye A. Gorin to Carol D. Shull.
22 December 1994 Letter, Carol D. Shull to Betty L. Moss and Abbye A. Gorin.
30 September 1997 Personal communication, Jonathan Fricker to Abbye A. Gorin.
n.n.a./n.d. Memorandum, from the Keeper's office.

Audio Taped Interviews
22 January 1997 Jonathan Fricker by Abbye A. Gorin and Wilbur E. Meneray.
24 September 1997 Wendell Gauthier by Abbye A. Gorin and Wilbur E. Meneray.

7 July 1994 New Orleans City Council Meeting. bottom_line.GIF

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