Dr. Jennifer Avegno discusses preservation and city’s pandemic response

This story appeared in the October issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

I’m a Preservationist
Dr. Jennifer Avegno – Director, New Orleans Department of Health

 

As the director of the New Orleans Department of Health, you’ve been leading the city’s efforts to fight the COVID 19 pandemic. As of press time for this magazine, the number of confirmed cases in the city has steadily decreased. Can we be hopeful that this decrease can be sustained?

We can always be hopeful. Because New Orleans was hit so hard early on, I think our residents really understood how serious and deadly this epidemic is, and for the most part have taken it seriously. We have always had strong adherence to mask wearing and distancing restrictions, and that’s what helped us “crush the curve” initially. It comes at a great cost, both economically and culturally, and I know that weighs heavily on most New Orleanians — so I do see some fatigue setting in. We can’t get complacent, though; the more we keep doing all the things that make us safe now, the less our friends and neighbors suffer, and the faster we’ll get back to our joyful, boisterous, celebrating way of life!

 

While the pandemic has brought so much suffering to the city, it also has helped residents reconnect (in a socially distant way) with their neighbors and their neighborhoods. Are there any other positives that you see coming from this tough time?

Definitely. Porch sitting is back, and really, why did it ever go away? We’re so lucky in New Orleans to have historic homes built for socializing outside and neighborhoods that are still real and full of interesting people. There’s also a lot of us walking outside for recreation, alone or with families and dogs. It’s been a wonderful way to safely connect with and meet folks you might not have otherwise realized lived right down the street. I walk the same route every morning and never get tired of spotting something I’d missed before on a building, a tiny detail on an old house, the smell of crepe myrtles on the neutral ground. We are fortunate to live in a place that is so visually interesting at a time when other entertainment is limited.

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Your father, Ashton Avegno, is an engineer who has done so much work to save historic New Orleans buildings and has worked closely with the Preservation Resource Center on projects over the years. How has your father’s work affected your thoughts about the preservation of this city’s historic architecture?

Growing up, I thought my dad worked on every old building in New Orleans (and after a nearly 50-year career, I think that might be true). As a child, I would walk from school to his office, which meant I got to do my homework surrounded by historic drawings, plans and the work of creating or restoring all kinds of structures. He would often bring me on job sites, so I got a “behind the scenes” tour of some really interesting properties. (I can’t imagine what the construction crew thought about the nerdy girl in a uniform wearing a hard hat and trailing behind the engineer.) One of his proudest achievements, I think, was his work restoring the Cabildo after its 1989 fire. (He has part of an original beam salvaged from that job that is proudly displayed.) Our family has been here for generations, and being able to work on historic buildings always felt like a tangible connection to the past. Because of that and what I learned by watching my father, I always knew I wanted to live in a “real” (i.e. old) New Orleans home.

 

You grew up in River Ridge, but now live in a renovated shotgun Uptown. What attracted you to a historic neighborhood?

For many residents, the crazy idea to renovate an old New Orleans home is a rite of passage, like going to Tipitina’s or getting your first Zulu coconut. My family moved out to the suburbs in the early 1980s to accommodate a growing family that would eventually include eight children. It was hard to find the sheer space (both inside and outside) they needed in the city proper at that time. But I always felt connected to urban neighborhoods and houses that were slightly quirky but completely expressed a family’s personality. In fact, I’d always wanted a camelback because it is such a uniquely New Orleans style of house. You really don’t see it many other places and most non-locals don’t exactly know what you’re talking about when you describe it! When we bought our home, it was an 1880s-era shotgun that had seen better days. You had to really squint to see the potential, but we knew it would be a labor of love. (I think my husband would emphasize the labor part over the love.) We feel very fortunate that the renovation allowed us to preserve so much of the original materials and classic feel, with modern conveniences like windows that don’t rattle when the wind blows.

 

What are your hopes for the future of the Charity Hospital building, where you worked for many years?

Anyone who has been to my house knows the influence that Charity Hospital — the building and what took place within it — has had on me. I can’t think of another building in the 20th century — outside of the Superdome, maybe — that loomed larger in the lives of so many New Orleanians. Having done my medical training there completely spoiled me for hospital architecture; I had no idea that bathrooms were not supposed to have marble in them, and that operating rooms did not routinely have a wall of windows overlooking the Mississippi River. I had the good fortune to go through the building a few years ago, and the historic features are by and large in surprisingly good condition — the original, huge wooden (!) pharmacy refrigerator door still gleams. Whatever is done with the building, I hope it is reverential not just towards the design and structure, but to the thousands of people who suffered, died, but also found hope and healing within those walls. Charity was a complex mix of world-class care within a profoundly and structurally racist health system, populated by honest, ordinary individuals trying to do their best with almost no resources ­— in short, the essence of New Orleans. And, if they make condos out of the first floor — I’m calling dibs on the one that used to be the Trauma Bay.

 

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