Conserving the Caribe

The Caribe Building, an iconic Canal Street structure designed by renowned architecture firm Curtis and Davis in 1958, became the Preservation Resource Center’s 123rd preservation easement in late 2016 — and the first Mid-Century Modern-style structure in PRC’s easement portfolio.

A preservation easement is one of the best ways to guarantee a building will be preserved in optimal condition in perpetuity; an easement works as a covenant whereby the owner agrees to maintain the historic building to a high standard. An easement attaches to the title of a property, meaning all future owners must abide by that same covenant. If violations are found, the holder of an easement is legally permitted to hold the property owner responsible, and see that they get their building back into top shape.

PRC is one of only a few entities in Louisiana that holds property easements. When donating an easement on their property to PRC, owners are ensured that the organization will monitor the building’s historic façade forever. Owners also are often eligible for a tax deduction in exchange for the donation.

The preservation easement for the Caribe Building was donated to PRC by a subsidiary of the company global X. Founded in 2001, global X provides much needed capital to projects with desirable social and economic outcomes around the country, and is a market leader in transferable tax assets. global X has helped redevelop and preserve dozens of buildings around the country. The Caribe Building is the second historic preservation easement project involving global X that has been donated to PRC — the first was New Orleans’ Catahoula Hotel, donated in 2014.

The Catahoula was a more “traditional New Orleans” project architecturally, with the buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Caribe Building’s look, with a brown terra cotta screen covering the majority of the façade, may befuddle traditionalists.

But the 1958 building is indeed historic, and is a contributing structure to the Mid-City National Register Historic District. It is located at 2475 Canal St., and is also known today as the “Financial Planning Center.” The Caribe Building was designed by Curtis and Davis Architects and Engineers, a New Orleans-based firm whose modern style forever changed the city’s architectural landscape. The firm designed over 400 buildings on four continents during its three decades in business; in New Orleans, its best known projects include the Superdome, the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library on Loyola Avenue, and the Automotive Life Insurance Company building, also located on Canal Street, which today is home to Mid-City’s library branch.

The Caribe Building is defined by Moorish-style terra cotta tiles that adjoin to create a screen that sits in front of the building’s wide expanse of windows. Architects Arthur Davis and Nathaniel Curtis designed the building, in part, as the new home of their own office. According to Davis, as remembered in his book It Happened By Design: The Life and Work of Arthur Q. Davis, the screen was developed to allow the firm to use wide expanses of windows for the building’s façade, but without overwhelming workers inside with the glare and heat of the sun. “We were so convinced that a clay tile screen was a sound approach to sun control that we used this approach in all four elevations of our own office building,” he said. It was innovative, a concept ahead of its time: “The concept of an exterior sun control was conceived well before the need for [public] concern with energy conservation,” he said in New Orleans Architecture Volume VI: Faubourg Tremé and the Bayou Road.

Jasper Vincent Phillips, former president of the Brookhaven Pressed Brick Company, which created the clay tiles used on the Caribe Building, was interviewed for the Lincoln-Lawrence-Franklin Regional Library Oral History Project in 1977, and spoke directly to the impact that the Caribe’s screen had on energy savings. “They [Curtis and Davis] designed the air conditioning load to carry what would be expected from a five-story building with that much glass — and found that the clay screen tile saved a third of their cooling costs in the summertime, which was an interesting development.”

The aesthetic effect is also pleasing. The shapes in the screen create a fanciful visual effect, inside the building and out. “Especially in the evening,” Davis said, “with the lights shining through the masonry elements, the screen takes on a lacy appearance.”

The Caribe building won an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects in 1958, the year of its construction.

“It was our intention to build a simple, straightforward, rectilinear structure which would be attractive and at the same time inexpensive,” Davis is quoted as saying in New Orleans Architecture Volume VI. “The decorative screen permits us to have an exterior wall of a much simpler construction, recessed approximately three feet behind the sun screen. We actually used industrial windows and an economical concrete-block wall which is not visible from the street.”

The structure and its building materials have aged well, said Antonin Robert, Chief Production and Compliance Officer of global X. “The building could use a little TLC, but [previous management] have done a great job maintaining it.”

There are design challenges for the modern age that come with a mid-century building like the Caribe. For example, “the bathrooms are in the midlevel of the stairwells,” Robert explained. “When they designed this building the bathrooms were placed every other floor — on half floors. As a result, it’s impossible to reach the bathroom level via elevator.” Such challenges will have to be tackled in an eventual rehabilitation.

Robert is confident that the building’s quirks can be mitigated, and said that other major parts of the structure, such as its roof and mechanical systems, are in great shape. While he likes the look of the building — “it has grown on me,” he said — and what it offers, its location was the number one reason it attracted global X. “As a firm, we’re not married to one architectural style,” he said. “We’re always looking for good opportunities for historic building rehabilitation and adaptive reuse in areas that can benefit from the economic impact.” Location is also critical when it comes to utilizing tax incentives — as a contributing element of the Mid-City National Register Historic District, the Caribe building could eventually garner state and federal historic rehab tax credits for restoration work done to the structure. “We’ve had an affinity for New Orleans and the opportunities that New Orleans offers with great architecture and redevelopment need,” he said. “We felt that the area surrounding the new medical center could use the types of tools we use if we could find the right project. Protecting historic assets in an area that is likely to continue evolving quickly while contributing to the economic impact is important to us.”

The firm began looking for properties on Tulane Avenue before finding the Caribe on Canal. “2475 Canal St. used to have the whole city block, but they later sold the corner of Canal and Tonti — 25 percent of the lot — to build a branch of Iberia Bank. It caught our attention and it was important that the historic building would be preserved.”

Though global X’s long-term plans for the building aren’t clear, the integrity of its innovative mid-century design will be protected forever thanks to their generous easement donation to the PRC.