Renovations are breathing new life into former school buildings, saving these historic structures for future generations

This story appeared in the September 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!

LESSONS LEARNED

In June, New Orleanians driving along Interstate 10 rubbernecked in disbelief as demolition crews tore down the 142-year-old McDonogh No. 11 school building. The structure had sat vacant after being relocated to the site a decade ago. “How could this happen?” many wondered, while watching construction equipment send splintered historic building fragments crashing to the ground.

Following a post-Hurricane Katrina renovation and then three separate building relocations during the demolition of the Lower Mid-City neighborhood to make way for a new hospital complex, McDonogh No. 11 became blighted after LSU assumed control of the property and did not preserve the site.

Although the preservation battle for McDonogh No. 11 was lost, there’s still a bright future ahead for several other historic school buildings as renovations are restoring the structures to their former glory. Some have been renewed as schools, while others have been creatively reused for different purposes.

Turn the page for a closer look at several historic school buildings that have been given a new lease on life. Thanks to the vision of the leaders, developers, designers and builders behind these projects, these historic structures will be enjoyed by future generations — as schools, residences or other new uses.

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Our Lady of Lourdes Apartments
2428 Napoleon Ave.

Built in 1957, the former Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School — most recently used as the Holy Rosary Academy — has sat vacant since the academy closed its doors in 2019. Providence Community Housing plans to transform the mid-century modern-style building into an affordable apartment complex with 62 apartments for low-income seniors. Photo by Liz Jurey, Rendering courtesy of Trapolin-Peer.

A mid-century modern school building constructed at the corner of Freret Street and Napoleon Avenue in 1957, the former Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School ­— most recently used as the Holy Rosary Academy — has sat vacant since the academy closed its doors in 2019.

The site is slated to be transformed into the Our Lady of Lourdes Apartments, an affordable apartment complex with 62 one-bedroom and studio apartments for low-income seniors. All units will be reserved for seniors earning at or below 50 percent of the area median income.

The site is owned by Blessed Trinity Parish and is being developed by Providence Community Housing, a nonprofit real estate development organization that specializes in affordable housing. Providence retains a long-term land lease of the site. The apartments will be operated by Christopher Homes, the senior living ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

“The property is ideally situated along the Freret Street corridor with access to transportation, groceries, health care and other quality-of-life amenities suited to seniors,” said Terri North, president and chief executive officer of Providence Community Housing. “Providence is proud to transform this viable property that has sat dormant for far too long into homes designed for seniors and their unique needs.”

The redevelopment plans do not include the adjacent church building, designed by Diboll and Owen and built in 1923. It is owned by a separate entity.

Providence is working with Trapolin-Peer Architects to design the renovation and adaptive reuse of the school building for 44 apartment units, as well as the construction of a new three-story wing with 18 additional units. The new wing will match the scale and massing of the historic building. Construction is anticipated to begin in early 2022, and the complex should welcome its first residents in 2023.

The school building’s transformation will be made possible with historic rehabilitation tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, a HUD loan and gap funding from local philanthropists.

“With this historic approach that we’re taking, we’re going to keep things like the block glass in the windows and the terrazzo floors,” North said. “Especially for older folks, that feels very comfortable for them. That’s what they are used to and what they grew up in.”

Additional information and project updates can be found at ourladyoflourdesapartments.com.

Photos by Liz Jurey

 

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Young Audiences Charter School
1000 Burmaster Street, Gretna

Built in 1964 as a Coca-Cola bottling plant, this expansive building in Gretna recently underwent a dramatic transformation into a state-of-the-art high school campus for the Young Audiences Charter School. The school welcomed its first students last fall. Images courtesy of Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects.

Now the home of a state-of-the-art campus for the Young Audiences Charter School, this expansive building in Gretna was originally constructed in 1964 as a Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Its recent transformation into the charter school is the latest chapter in the building’s history. After manufacturing Coca-Cola from the 1960s until the 1990s — and being the only facility in the country to produce 10-ounce Coca-Cola cans — the site was home to Pelican Publishing’s book publishing business and other warehouse tenants, until the property was sold to Young Audiences in 2019.

The building’s adaptive reuse was designed by Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects and built by Landis Construction. The project utilized historic rehabilitation tax credits to make its transformation possible, and Williams Architects assisted with the project’s tax credit application process. During the process, the boundary of the Gretna Cultural District was expanded to include the former bottling plant, which helped to make the site eligible for the state tax credit.

Originally nine buildings totaling 170,000 square feet, the site was far from a blank slate. Architects joined five of the nine interconnected buildings — each with different roof heights and materials — together to create a cohesive school campus.

To qualify for historic rehabilitation tax credits, the design team had to devise a way to subdivide the building’s large, open space for classrooms while still maintaining an open feeling in the building’s public spaces. “We exposed the existing 19-foot-to-26-foot-high roof structure in public areas; we provided a new play area covered by the existing roof; and we incorporated a number of the interior historic walls into programmed areas of the school,” said Susan Gohd, the project manager with Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects.

Other unique mid-century building elements that were preserved include a decorative tile mosaic along the building’s original main entrance and geometric “breezeblocks” — or decorative concrete blocks — enclosing a courtyard. Original skylights, dormitories and administrative areas also were preserved inside the original building envelope. Newly constructed academic corridors contain angled, strategically placed walls to capture natural light from the building’s original skylights.

“Sometimes developers are hesitant to apply for Historic Tax Credits when they are rehabilitating large warehouse facilities like the Coca-Cola Bottling Facility in Gretna because their large open interior spaces are such an important character-defining feature,” said Adrienne Dickerson, tax credit reviewer with the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation. “This project is a great example of a design team working with the building’s historic character instead of viewing it as an obstacle.”

The project broke ground in 2019, and the school opened its doors to its first students during the 2020-2021 academic year despite the challenges of the pandemic. The new school — which is the only arts-integrated charter school in Jefferson Parish — will have its first graduating class in the spring of 2023.

Images courtesy of Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects.

 

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The Rendon Apartments
800 N. Rendon St.

Photos courtesy of Ryan Gootee General Contractors.

Built in 1906 as the McDonogh No. 31 School, this stately brick building on N. Rendon Street was designed by Andry and Bendernagel architects in the Beaux Arts style, with two twin entrances — separate for boys and girls — surrounded by ornamental trim. Wide overhanging eaves also add a touch of Craftsman-style flair to the top of the ornate building.

Students passed through the halls of the public school for several generations, and the site was renamed in 1995 to the Morris F.X. Jeff Elementary School in honor of the revered educator and civic leader. The school building closed its doors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and sat vacant for years following the storm.

The structure was purchased in 2017 and redeveloped by The Rendon Partners LLC, a partnership among Ryan Gootee, Jason Hemel and Richard Roth III. The developers turned to experts at Trapolin-Peer Architects to design a new residential use for the historic building, and Ryan Gootee General Contractors handled the construction. The team tapped Gabrielle Begue of Macrostie Historic Advisors to utilize historic rehabilitation tax credits to make the project possible.

During the building’s renovation, the schoolhouse’s turn-of-the-20th-century details were all preserved. The original floor plan, wide interior hallways, and the walls between classrooms were all maintained when creating the apartment units.

The renovation preserved interior doors with transoms, restored historic wood windows and trim, salvaged historic handrails and refinished original hardwood and mosaic-tile floors. A previously unfinished attic also was transformed into lofted apartment units. Original structural beams frame the apartments’ interiors, and skylights and dormer windows provide natural light.

The 115-year-old schoolhouse now contains 26 apartments, ranging from studios to two-bedroom units that contain all the amenities of modern-day living. The apartment building opened its doors to its first residents in 2019. In 2020, the project earned an Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation in the Institutional Restoration/Rehabilitation category from the Louisiana Landmarks Society.

The circa-1906 former McDonogh 31 School had sat vacant since Hurricane Katrina, but the ornate schoolhouse was recently restored and currently contains 26 apartment units with all of the amenities of modern-day living. Photos courtesy of Ryan Gootee General Contractors.

 

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Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans
1619 Leonidas St.

The former Alfred C. Priestley Junior High School building had previously suffered from decades of vacancy and neglect after the school’s closure, but Lycée Français — a tuition-free French immersion public charter school — purchased the site and is restoring the building to house its 9-12 grade campus. Photo by Liz Jurey, rendering courtesy of EskewDumezRipple

The former Alfred C. Priestley Junior High School building hasn’t seen students since the 1980s, but after sitting vacant and neglected for decades, the historic structure is under renovation by another school — Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans — to welcome students once again as Lycée’s future high school campus.

Designed by architect E.A. Christy, who designed many New Orleans school buildings in the early 20th century, the brick building was constructed in 1938 and originally served as the Walter C. Flower Elementary School. The school is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and its nomination states that it “embodies the historic significance of an important and turbulent era in the history of African American education in New Orleans.”

The Walter C. Flower Elementary was a segregated school for white children. In 1953, despite protests from white neighbors, the school was converted to a junior high school for African American children as part of the school board’s “conversion and consolidation” program and renamed for Alfred C. Priestley, a noteworthy Black educator and longtime principal of nearby McDonogh No. 24. The building was renovated and expanded shortly after its conversion, and New Orleans public schools were integrated in 1960. Priestley remained open until the 1980s and was used as office space and storage before being shuttered in 1993.

When sold as surplus property by the Orleans Parish School Board in 2014, the Alfred C. Priestley building had extensive water and termite damage after decades of vacancy. Lyceé Francais’ leadership could see the site’s potential beyond the disrepair and purchased the building in 2015 to become its permanent home for the high school.

Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans is a tuition-free French immersion public charter school. Founded in 2011 and adding a new grade level each year, the school will serve pre-kindergarten 4 through 12th grade starting in the fall of 2022. The school has previously leased its educational spaces from community organizations and the Orleans Parish School Board, but frequent facility changes led to the need for a more permanent school building.

After years of planning and fundraising, the building’s renovation began last year. The project is anticipated to wrap up at the end of this year.

Construction is underway to restore the 32,000-square-foot historic schoolhouse and build a 7,700-square-foot addition. The project is anticipated to wrap up at the end of this year. Photo by Liz Jurey.

The ongoing project will restore the existing three-story, 32,000-square-foot school building and construct a new 7,700-square-foot addition. The addition will house ADA-compliant elevators, staircases, libraries and administrative offices. Built with a similar massing in a matching brick finish, the new wing will employ a subtly more modernist appearance to distinguish it from the historic portion of the building.

The floor plan will remain largely unchanged in the historic building, with classrooms and the cafeteria being restored to their original purposes. Historic wood trim, staircases, built-in furniture, transoms, structural beams and some of the historic wood windows will all be restored, while modern building systems are introduced into the historic spaces.

“We’re using the concept of a cloud ceiling in the classrooms so that you can actually see some of the old structure of the building, so it’s not all being hidden behind drop ceilings,” said John Vollman, a member of Lycée Français’ Construction Management Task Force overseeing the project. The finished classroom ceilings have a 24-inch reveal around the perimeter of each room, providing a peek at the full height of the historic windows and structural beams.

A gymnasium built in 1956, shortly after the school’s conversion, also will be rehabilitated after several community members voiced their support for preserving the space. “We’re maintaining the historic integrity of it because we found through various community meetings that a lot of local families were born from that gymnasium, because it hosted various school dances back in the day,” Vollman said. “It was generally felt as being culturally significant to the neighborhood. It’s going to get a new standing seam metal roof, new windows, air conditioning systems and all of that, but the shape and overall look will remain the same.”

A gymnasium built in 1956 also will be rehabilitated after several community members voiced their support for preserving the space. Renderings courtesy of EskewDumezRipple.

When the site’s transformation is complete, the gymnasium and conference rooms also could be utilized as community spaces outside of regular school hours, thanks to a special security system that will facilitate after-hours access, Vollman said.

The project is designed by architecture firm EskewDumezRipple and constructed by general contractor DonahueFavret Contractors. The team also includes Leaaf Environmental, which provided environmental consulting and remediation; Rick Fifield, the project’s historic consultant; AOS Interior Environments, which is providing the furniture for the facility; and others.

The school’s rebirth is being financed with the help of historic rehabilitation tax credits and the “Room to Grow”’ capital campaign, launched by Lycée’s supporting foundation Amis du Lycée Français.

As the school continues to grow, there will be available room on the site — which occupies an entire city block — for the possible future construction of an additional wing for middle school classrooms.

 

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St. Ann Square Apartments
2123 Ursulines Ave.

Another project by nonprofit developer Providence Community Housing, St. Ann Square is a historic schoolhouse-turned-apartments that recently reopened its doors to low-income seniors in the fall of 2020 after a full renovation.

Built in 1924, the red brick building on Ursulines Street originally served as the St. Ann School and Auditorium as well as a temporary church for St. Ann Parish. Located steps away from the historic Shrine of St. Ann, the former school building still retains many of its original features. Arched windows and doors, ornate pilaster capitals and a cartouche adorn the front façade, and a cross sits atop the front gable. “These buildings are just amazing. They don’t build them like this anymore,” said Terri North, president and chief executive officer of Providence Community Housing.

The school closed in the 1970s when St. Ann Parish relocated to Metairie, and the original building was eventually turned over to the nearby St. Peter Claver Parish. In 2000, the school building and an adjacent double gallery house were initially redeveloped into affordable senior housing by St. Peter Claver Parish and Ujamaa CDC, a neighborhood community action group. After sustaining damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Providence Community Housing got involved with the project to make repairs and bring residents back to the site.

In 2017, Providence acquired the property and launched a redevelopment plan to expand the footprint of the affordable housing development by acquiring and renovating four additional historic homes, which had sat vacant on the block since Hurricane Katrina, transforming them into apartments. Providence also constructed a new wing on the back of the school building and made additional renovations and upgrades to the existing apartments in the schoolhouse.

During the recent renovation, with work by architect Kimberly Finney and general contractor Milton J. Womack, the school building received a new roof and additional maintenance, and its apartments were fitted with new flooring and interior finishes as well as energy-efficient appliances, water heaters and HVAC systems.

The St. Ann Square Apartments occupy almost an entire city block in Tremé and include several restored historic buildings as well as new construction. The affordable senior living facility’s crowning jewel is the circa-1924 former St. Ann School and Auditorium, which contains 42 units and restored historic elements – including the former chapel. Photos by Neil Alexander.

At the adjacent houses-turned-affordable-apartments, the structures were given new insulation, and historic windows and millwork were repaired to return the buildings to their former glory. The project also is certified as an Enterprise Green Community, a sustainability certification program for affordable housing. “Now it is a much more energy-efficient building even though it is a historic building,” North said.

Although the pandemic created complications and slowed the project’s initial completion, the new affordable housing development opened its doors in the fall of 2020, expanding its footprint to nearly the entire city block in Tremé surrounding the St. Ann Shrine.

With the newly constructed additions and the renovation of adjacent shotgun houses, the site now contains 59 units of affordable housing, of which 42 are in the former schoolhouse. The apartments are operated by Christopher Homes, the senior living ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Providence’s investor and partner for the project was Enterprise Investments, and the funding that made the transformation possible included historic rehabilitation tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, community development block grant funds from the City of New Orleans and a HUD mortgage.

“In this community, seniors have been getting displaced because pricing is going up,” North said. “It’s a win-win when we can get a beautiful campus like this and be able to provide housing for people who have been in this community for a long time.”

Davis Allen is PRC’s Communications Associate and a staff writer for Preservation in Print.

 

Read more about historic school buildings from our September issue of Preservation in Print: Stalled renovation plans, property swaps & hopeful revitalization efforts underway for several historic school buildings in New Orleans

 

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