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Facing Forward

Project: Williams Research Center, New Orleans, LA

Architect
Jahncke Architects Inc., New Orleans, LA; Davis Jahncke, principal in charge

General Contractor
Woodward Design+Build, New Orleans, LA

By Lynne Lavelle

Before the levees failed to protect New Orleans from the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina, the city was primarily known for its rich culture. Its music, nightlife and annual Mardi Gras festival are renowned the world over, and the city itself is an architecturally unique product of its French, Spanish and Creole heritage. However, it is an "inevitable city on an impossible site" – as Pierce Lewis says in Making of an Urban Landscape – on the Mississippi delta, where swampy terrain meets excessive heat, floods and of course, hurricanes. Katrina exposed that vulnerability on August 29, 2005, when 80 percent of the city was left underwater.

Like many areas of New Orleans that predate the 19th century, the French Quarter sits approximately five feet above sea level. Therefore, it was relatively unaffected by standing water, and officially reopened on September 26, 2005. As the city struggled to rebuild, signs of progress and the resumption of normality within the French Quarter took on a strong symbolism: all was not lost. Among these signs was the new addition to The Historic New Orleans Collection's (HNOC) Williams Research Center on Conti Street. Upon opening in June of 2007, the addition was the first new construction in the Quarter since Katrina, and fittingly, it boosted an organization that is highly regarded as the primary source of local history and for its preservation of all the arts related to the South and New Orleans.

The original 16,666-sq.ft. Williams Research Center opened in 1996, following an extensive renovation by Jahncke Architects. When the collection's 35,000 library items, two miles of documents and more than 300,000 photographs, prints, drawings and paintings began to outgrow the center in 2005, the firm returned to the project, designing a new addition to provide 4,442 sq.ft. of exhibition and programming space, plus 13,326 sq.ft. of archival storage.

The four-story addition is a tribute to the old charm of the French Quarter, based on an old hotel that once stood on the property. Its windows, shutters and cast-iron details are exact 1830s reproductions, complemented by hand-hammered and handmade hardware, false carriageways and chimneys, and fiberglass columns that support the upper balconies. And by replacing a covered parking garage, the new building corrects a "missing tooth" in the street elevation. "[The parking garage] was very out of character with the French Quarter," says Davis Jahncke, principal in charge. "The buildings on both sides are original, so the new exterior really unites the block and returns it to its original appearance."

While no photos of the hotel existed – it was demolished in the 1880s – an archival drawing and a floor plan from City Hall were authentic starting points. "We have a very rich collection of archival drawings here in New Orleans," says Jahncke. "In the 19th century, when a property was for sale, someone would make a very accurate watercolor drawing of it, along with a floor plan and an indication of where it stood on a block. It would then be posted in a real estate sales area. They were made to sell property, but they stand today as wonderful records of buildings as they looked in the early 19th century, which is particularly important today as a lot of these buildings are gone."

The first floor, multi-purpose Boyd Cruise room hosts programs and exhibitions while the three upper floors contain specialized storage systems, including movable shelving and painting racks, humidity and temperature controls, a fire-suppressant system, and a natural-gas generator. As interior drawings or elevations of the hotel were not available, Jahncke looked to existing 19th century building in the Quarter for inspiration; the millwork is in an 1830s styles, with corner blocks and carved flower motifs surrounding the doors and windows.

This effect suggests that the original hotel façade had survived, and a new interior had been built behind it. "It was a balance of their needs on the inside, which were storage on the upper floors and public space for displays and lectures, dinners and receptions on the ground floor, with as accurate a reproduction of the drawing as possible on the exterior," says Jahncke. "The intent is that if you are standing inside and looking toward the outside, the wall is finished as it might have been when first built, but everything behind is clearly new."

The new poured concrete and steel addition occupies its entire narrow site, which posed considerable logistical challenges for contractor Carl E. Woodward throughout construction. "There wasn't ten square feet of space that the contractor could use for storage or equipment," says Jahncke. "Every time they used a crane, they had to close the street and have the police reroute traffic. Plus, it had to be cleaned up regularly just so that the construction could forge ahead."

Construction halted for three months following Katrina, while the city and the industry regrouped. Trades people and subcontractors were needed elsewhere, and a great number had suffered personal devastation. "Everyone in construction was affected by the storm and everyone had to take a lot of time getting themselves back together before they could re-man their crews," says Jahncke. "Things were slow for a while, and it extended our construction from an estimated 15 months to close to two years."

Patrons enter the addition from the original Williams Research Center, a two-story, Beaux-Arts-style brick structure on Chartres Street. Designed by Edgar A. Christy, it was built in 1915 to house the Second City Criminal Court and the Third District Police Station. At the time of its construction, much of the French Quarter was affected by the City Beautiful Movement, which planned to extend the downtown business district in that direction. "The French Quarter had gone way down and was not in very good condition," says Jahncke. "Several buildings were pulled down and this building, and the Louisiana Supreme Court directly across Chartres Street, were the result of that poor planning concept. But thankfully there was a movement towards preservation immediately after their construction."

Prior to its purchase by HNOC in 1993, the court building had been vacant for many years and was in poor condition. However, its subsequent renovation created a public reading room for researchers, as well as offices for curators, library and manuscripts staff, and collection storage and processing areas. It now resembles an English private library, with extensive plasterwork and millwork and second-floor stacks topped with carved ornamentation on both sides. "It is a handsomer, grander space than the addition," says Jahncke. "The details are simply beautifully done. For example, where we had to have metal doors to meet fire regulations, we had an artist reproduce imitation wood doors and they are actually nicer than the real ones." Similarly, steel shelving was painted to imitate wood to blend with the room's mahogany paneling.

The collection is open to the general public from Tuesday to Saturday, and draws visitors from all over the country. "Everything they do is of the highest quality," says Jahncke. "It is very well contributed to and tremendously well used and it is known that if you want something to be preserved, you give it to the HNOC because they have the funds, manpower and knowledge to do it properly." TB

 

 

 
 

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