Saturday, November 11, 2006
The Cathedral of the Lakefront
"A striking modern structure, the church . . . was called the "Cathedral of
the Lakefront" when it was dedicated by Archbishop John P. Cody [in 1963]. In
blessing the church, he told the congregation that many times he knelt in St.
Peter's in Rome during the Second Vatican Council his mind wandered across the
sea and wonder how the church would look when complete."
-- Father Paul Desroseirs
Pastor, St. Frances X. Cabrini Church
From the parish's 50th anniversary program
A landmark piece of modern architecture in a city that usually celebrates its historic roots, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church in the Gentilly section of New Orleans is facing imminent demolition under circumstances Tulane University architecture professor Steve Verdeber and some parishioners suggest are suspicious.
At a meeting in Cabrini's windswept parking lot on Nov. 11, just outside the red ribbons that marked a keep out zone where workers removed asbestos from the building in preparation for demolition, the architect and others questioned the manner in which the Archdiocese of New Orleans and Holy Cross School obtained the rights to demolish the property. Holy Cross plans to build a new campus at the Gentilly site to replace their flood damaged Ninth Ward home.
According to parishioners, a meeting held earlier this year to discuss the churches fate had no agenda listing potential transfer of the church, which is owned building and property by the parish, to the archdiocese for demolition. Several people who attended the parish meeting left before the issue was raised and a vote was taken, unaware that the question was even scheduled. They said the meeting did not represent the wishes of the majority of parishioners.
Verdeber and active parishioner David Villarrubia spent part of last week at City Hall researching how a demolition permit was issued in the name of the demolition company. There was no indication on the paperwork who was the client that requested demolition. The permit fee was paid by the demolition company. Verdeber and Villarrubia are working with an attorney to try to stay the questionable demolition, starting from the fact that it is not clear that either the archdiocese or Holy Cross School has any legal authority to demolish the parish's property.
Both indicated there was no desire to prevent Holy Cross School from coming. Only to have a dialogue about the future of the architecturally significant church building on the two-city-block square property. In an earlier Times-Picayune article, a spokesman for Holy Cross suggested it was too large to be of any use to the school, but parishioners on Saturday pointed out that Holy Cross routinely used it for ring masses and other ceremonies, and that virtually all of the Catholic high schools in the city used either Cabrini or St. Dominic for such events because they were the only churches large enough to accommodate them.
Some parishioners complained of the treatment of the valuable contents of the church. The altar, a large single-piece of marble imported from Italy, was dropped during its removal from the church and broken. Mosaics that decorated the church were seen broken and in pieces, and the church vestments were found tossed into a trash pile where they were rescued by a parishioner.
Villarrubia said they were unable to determine the disposition of other removed contents of the church, including the striking wooden carving of Jesus that graced the alter. The archdiocese had promised all of those contents would be returned to the parish, which to me would indicate they recognize the archdiocese tenuous claims on the property.
The church was apparently the only one in the archdiocese to carry flood insurance, and it was suggested that the money might be diverted by the archdiocese if the church was demolished. Verdeber and Villarrubia suggested that the insurance proceeds were sufficient to pay for a full restoration of the church.
The meeting broke up after one parishioner read from St. Francis Xavier Cabrini's life story from a book of saints while another distributed cards bearing a likeness of the saint on one side and a prayer to her on the other. Another parishioner led the group in the prayer for intercession from the card, with an elderly resident in loudly offering "save our church" when the prayer reached the "intercede for us that the favor we now ask may be granted".
[Below is the original post of Nov. 11, 2006:]
I have written before about Cabrini Church, a signature example of modern architecture in New Orleans by the same architects and engineers that built the Rivergate. Among those architects was my father, who was project architect for both buildings.
My attachment is certainly in part sentimental. The building is not a classic piece of New Orleans architecture and is less than fifty years old. Still, I wonder what perservationists fifty or one hundred years from now will think of us for demolishing such architectural landmarks of the 20th Century as this church and the Rivergate. The building was given an award by the Church Architectural Guild of America in 1962. Even the school plant, also by Curtis and Davis Architects, was given an Award of Merit by the American Institute of Architects in 1952. The same architect and engineer who crafted the flowing roof of the Rivergate designed and built the striking roof and interior buttresses of Cabrini. While not yet historic, it is clearly architecturally significant.
The church was inundated like all of Gentilly in the Federal Flood, then left unremediated by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in what can only be an act of deliberate demolition by neglect. Earlier this year, the badly flooded Holy Cross High School in the Ninth Ward announced it would locate out of that neighborhood, and narrowed its choices for a new site to that of Cabrini church and school, and a parcel of land in suburban Kenner, La.
I think everyone committed to New Orleans was pleased to learn that they elected to remain in the city, choosing the Cabrini site on Paris Avenue near the lakefront. However, as part of the arrangement, the entire campus is to be demolished to make way for a "new, state-of-the-art school," according to Bill Chauvin, chairman of Holy Cross' governing board.
Three members of the Historic District Landmark Commission voted this week for a study of the value of the church as historic landmark, a largely symbolic move as a permit for demolition has already been issued. People who have visited the site report that crews are now removing asbestos, and that once their works is completed demolition will begin, sometime the week of Nov. 13th.
"We had two choices,"Chauvin said, referring to a site offered Holy Cross in Kenner. "Had we known of this concern, it may have impacted the board's decision." Chauvin said the Holy Cross governing board looked at the feasibility of retaining the church "but it just didn't work."
An architect at Tulane University disagrees, Steven Verdeber, and is looking into stopping the demolition. He suggests that a building of this size could easily be incorporated into a site the size of Cabrini, which covers four city blocks.
Chauvin suggests its inappropriate to raise this issue at this time, after what he termed "an open and transparent process." But an earlier report I had (I am searching right now for the original email if it was in fact an email and not a blog comment) suggests that the decision to abandon the church was the opposite. In the early days after Katrina, a poorly noticed and attended meeting of a handful of parishioners met at St. Pius the X Church in nearby Lake Vista and agreed to the Archdiocese decision to abandon the site.
Verdeber is searching for an attorney to block the demolition, but I don't know that he has enough time. Cabrini will join the scores of landmark buildings great and small being demolished helter-skelter in the post-Flood city.
parishioners and friends of Cabrini will gather on Saturday at the church at 1 pm this Saturday, Nov. 11, to celebrate the feast day of St. Frances X. Cabrini and to say goodbye to the church. (The actual feast day is Monday, Nov. 13). A few days later, another signature building from New Orleans' pre-flood profile will be gone.
Some photos of the church in its pre-Flood glory can be found here on Flickr.com under the tag Gentilly and Cabrini. My original post on the church, In The Brown Zone with Mother Cabrini, can be found here, and a reading of the post for the WTUL-FM program Community Gumbo can be found here.
Katrina NOLA New Orleans Hurricane Katrina Think New Orleans Louisiana FEMA levees flooding Corps of Engineers We Are Not OK wetlands news rebirth Debrisville Federal Flood 8-29 Rising Tide Remember Gentilly Cabrini Church St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
And the Archdiocese should be a partner in this Community.
It is sad that the beauty and vision of Cabrini will be gone.
We have build very little worthwhile modern architecture in New Orleans and its a shame to see the best of it being demolished first.
The Archdiocese is the bad egg in this equation in that they let the cathedral decay post-Deluge and they cut the deal for Holy Cross to move in. Holy Cross dealt in good faith and never hid their plans for a new complex there.
Sadly, the city will see the loss of many distinctive structures during the rebuilding of the city. Many landholders here do not care for the properties they hold, and without early intervention by us locals, the fate of the Cathedral of the Lakefront will be an oft repeated scenario here.
There's been a lot of talk, mainly in the last few weeks, that HC should incorporate the church building into their plans in order to save it. I can say that, looking at how large the actual footprint of the building itself is, I can imagine it being difficult to accomodate and still squeeze in all of the other features the school has on the drawing board which it feels it needs to be competitive in the private school "market" in the new New Orleans. Not to mention the costs to retrofit the building for an alternative purpose as compared to the costs for new construction to serve the same purpose.
And I have to wonder what the difference was between heating and cooling a space like Cabrini's compared to similar designs and sizes. Both Pius and the tall, glass Methodist church in Lake Vista come to mind, as does the cavernour space of St. Dominic.
I would think that just about any church not built like a hotel banquet room would suffer from the same heating and cooling requirments.
I think its not fair to suggest that Holy Cross couldn't fit into two square city blocks and still accomodate the church. I think in particular the rumour of Saturday that the intent to build a football stadium on the site might impact the neighborhoods opinion about the future of the church site.
Just for comparisons sake, Brother Martin, Rummel, and St. Aug all appear to sit on about four city blocks worth of land...without a Cabrini sized "church" on the property.
But De la Salle and Jesuit both have campuses about the size of Cabrini and that doesn't seem to impede their ability to complete (although De la Salle is trying to demolish an historic building on their site, Peck Hall)
I am conflicted about the trade off between keeping Holy Cross in town and saving the Parish. But if Holy Cross feels like they don't have to talk to us, then we should reply in kind.
Jesuit has to bus it's football team to City Park (at least they used City Park Pre-K) in order to hold some of their practices because of a lack of open playing fields...and their campus covers over two city blocks. I'm sure if they'd known back in 1926 when they moved from the CBD to Carrollton and Banks (in order to secure a larger footprint for their school) that even larger campuses with room for expansion and larger athletic facilities would become the norm for schools of their type that they would have bought and razed another block's worth of New Orleans shotguns. And as a long-time New Orleanian probably familiar with the history of education (not to mention politics and business) in the city, particularly one who attended Christian Brothers, I'm sure you know that Jesuit is a poor example to use when talking about the ability to "compete" for students.
In the case of De La Salle (which of course you would be even more familiar with than I) you have a school which opened around 1950 and as of the time when you were there had an enrollment large enough to be competing in athletics in the state's highest classification. You're undoubtedly more versed in what the reasons were for the school's declining enrollment than I, and it would only be speculation on my part that an inability to expand to add some of the amenities that the other schools it was competing for students with were beginning to offer. I do remember that the enrollment had declined so far by the early '90s that De La Salle then went co-ed in an effort to boost it.
Holy Cross was always blessed with having a large enough campus in the Ninth Ward such that it had room to accomodate whatever uses it determined necessary at the time. When I first went there (I was class of '77) the school still had a small number of boarders, mostly from Latin America, so it was still using part of the large student dormitory it had built for that purpose...but the school was already beginning to have enrollment problems of it's own such that it added 5th and 6th grades then. But even then the school had a major problem--a large percentage of parents from the metro area just wouldn't send their sons to the Lower Ninth Ward to be educated. Although starting in the '70s while I was there HC had explored buying property elsewhere in order to move (at that time it was land along Bullard in NO East), the pull of it's traditional campus was such that at the time of Katrina the school had plans for a large building expansion in hopes that it would help reverse a slowly declining enrollment. And you know, as De La Salle found in the '80s, if a private school for whatever reason begins to have problems getting it's "share" of a desired student population and begins losing those students to it's competing schools, it doesn't always immediately show up as a drop in enrollment; often the school will "expand" the population of students it accepts in one way or another. It may have to lower it's admission standards to stay at the same enrollment...which eventually turns into a self-perpetuating situation whereby the lower academic standards make the school even less attractive.
HC had found itself in just such a spot Pre-K; it's location was becoming an increasingly heavy albatross around it's neck as it tried to recruit families who were more and more choosing Brother Martin (if they wanted a school in Orleans) or Rummel (if they lived in and wanted to stay in Jefferson). Now, with a boost from Katrina, a move from the Ninth is with great sadness finally happening. Lucky enough to find a site in Orleans large enough to build the campus they feel they need to compete for students (with Brother Martin and Rummel, for that's the two other schools that the student population Holy Cross targets generally selects between) with an owner (the Archdiocese) willing to bend over backwards to accomodate them, the school now is being criticized by some for not modifying it's plans to accomodate an expensive-to-maintain 40-year-old building that is of a design that is about as far from anything that could be considered "classic New Orleans styling" as can be
because some feel it is an "integral historic part of the architectural fabric" of the city. I guess I'm missing something, because although I can easily sympathize with Cabrini parishioners over the loss of their beloved church building, I'm just not understanding the outcry from those outside the parish whose "interest" is historic preservation.
And we wouldn't be having this discussion at this length if the archdiocense hadn't been underhanded in attempting to acquire control of a property that belongs to the parish (building and property *and* insurance proceeds, including flood insurance.)
It is not at all clear that the archiocese has a clear title to the property to transfer it, given the vagueries of the meeting at which the "transfer" was affected.
If this falls apart, Holy Cross and the Archdiocese will have only themselves to blame. To avoid this coming to chasing Holy Cross out of Orleans Parish, they should be prepared to sit down and discuss the future of the church.
The alternative is we all learn that the archdiocese didn't have a clear title to transfer, or any real authority for the demolition. Then the lawyers will begin to feed. If the church has been demolished, I will cheer them every step of the way.
I would rather everyone treat this as an economic development opportunity. If they really need more than two city blocks (and if they do, why did they settle on this site), then we need to make it easy on them to acquire the necessary property. I think they'd find a lot of willing sellors in the immediate neighborhood.
As for the Archdiocese and Holy Cross "only having themselves to blame"...this process has been playing out in the public eye over the course of close to a year now. There was no subterfuge, no hidden intentions. It's been known all along that Holy Cross was trying to acquire either the Cabrini/Redeemer-Seton site or the Kenner site, and that if the Cabrini site were chosen that the intention was to demolish all structures on the parcel. There was no attempt to deceive either the Cabrini parishioners or the general public by leading them to believe that the school intended to refurbish and use the church building. And yet it's not until months after the Cabrini parishioners voted to accept the HC offer (with full knowledge that the buildings would be demolished) and more than a month after HC announced it's choice to stay in Orleans parish and a demolition permit has been approved that the "preservation" interests are heard from. I think Jarvis DeBerry said it well in his column the other day--where were those who are now protesting as this whole open process was playing out?
I'm not saying you're right and they're wrong. My reporters instincts tell me there is something here that bears investigating. (The same instincts tell me that it as likely as not that nothing underhanded happened, but there's enough he-said, she-said disparity at this point that I'm getting back with the parishoners to have them flesh out their account of the evening.
Please keep in mind that I think its important that Holy Cross remain in town. I also think its important that we save architecturally important buildings, both modern and historic.
And the attitude expressed by some in the paper (not you) is not contributing to anything like a reasonable dialogue. The high-handedness of the archdiocese is probably at root. They believe they are answerable to no one outside the church, an attitude that has left me to largley abandon the church, even if I could never likely lose my Catholic "identify" (think of the term "secular Jew" and apply it to people like me).
My family is not churched since moving to NOLA, and my own ambivalence (which is catching on my with 14 year old daughter) is a large part of that. People like Maestri are the primary cause of that. I hope someday to have chance to meet him and tell him in person how the attitude of Church fathers like himself drives people away.
I'm not sure Cabrini can be saved at this point, but I'd hope we could make enough noise that the next architecturally significant structure modern nthat faces demolition in the name of progress and recovery is carefully considered.
As for the physical condition of the church building (Pre-K), see this post on the topic by a former Cabrini school board member: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/gentilly_after_katrina/message/5302
If Professor Verderber has intimated to you that no one knew beforehand that the issue of a transfer of the property would be discussed at the July meeting, then he has been given incorrect information; the possibility of a transfer of the property to HC was the sole announced reason for the meeting to be held in the first place. As to his statement that people left the meeting before the issue was raised...I don't know what to say to that without becoming accusatory. Practically the first words out of meeting facilitator Father Michael Jacques' mouth as he called everyone to order was a statement that the purpose of the meeting was to hear a presentation from the Holy Cross board of their proposal to purchase the land, and for the parishioners to come to some consensus as to whether to accept or refuse the offer on the table.
We all want our pre-Katrina lives back; I want my pre-Katrina church and parish back as do the SFC parishioners, but I've pretty much accepted that I'm not going to get that. We're all just trying to make lemonade out of the lemons we've been handed at this point.
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