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A reverent renovation Historic convent now holds classrooms and a new chapel for St. Michael Special School BY Sue Strachan IN THE LOWER GARDEN DISTRICT, the recent renovation of the two-story Greek Revival-style building on the corner of Chip- pewa and Race streets is the answer to some powerful prayers. Once a convent where the Sisters of Mercy lived from 1880 to 1963, the building is part of the St. Michael Special School cam- pus, where students, ages 6 to adulthood, receive a Catholic and special-needs education. The two-year, $5 million renovation transformed what was, in recent history, a drab structure back to its mid-19th century glory. The convent now holds classrooms, a music room, a technology lab and a newly constructed chapel. A bedroom where St. Teresa of Calcutta (better known as Mother Teresa) stayed while visiting New Orleans in 1976 has been restored on the second floor, now named the Gayle and Tom Benson Floor-Exploration Academy. Also part of the renovation was a new entrance to the one-story, 1960s-era brick school build- ing next door. “We now have a beautiful building,” principal Romaine McCarthy said about the convent. Called in to design the renovation was Holly & Smith Archi- tects, with Jeffrey Smith as design director, Robert Boyd as project 40 PRESERVATION IN PRINT • PRCNO.org manager and Patrick Kraft as project architect. The general con- tractor was Voelkel McWilliams Construction. Facing Annunciation Square, the convent was constructed sometime in the 1850s as a pair of residential, American side-hall townhouses joined by a double gallery in the front. The building went through a tumultuous period of ownership in the 1870s, when divorce and a sheriff ’s sale ultimately led it to being pur- chased by St. Alphonsus Convent of Mercy in 1883. At some point in its history, aluminum siding was added, hiding the front first-floor windows, and some windows were retro-fitted and made smaller. The central service wing in the rear of the con- vent was torn down in the mid-1960s to build a smaller, two-level wing that included a student chapel and offices. Many of the interi- or rooms had dropped ceilings and faux wooden paneling. “One of our tasks was to save any historical elements, but there wasn’t much left,” Boyd said. The architects turned to a pair of his- toric images from the late 19th century and Sanborn insurance maps of the period to help guide the exterior renovation. The his- toric images showed the convent, as well as St. Michael School and St. Michael Church, which were on the same block. Built between 1864 and 1869, the church was damaged in Hur- DECEMBER 2019