Historic Preservation
9:30 am
Sat June 30, 2012

Nonprofit requests demolition for house that city spent $35,000 to save and move

In a blow to housing preservation efforts, the nonprofit owners of a home that was moved from the new Veteran’s Affairs Hospital site to Tremé recently asked for permission to demolish the historic house.

The city spent $35,000 to move the house and donated it to Providence Community Housing.

After The Lens and our reporting partners at FOX8 began asking questions about the demolition request, Providence officials backtracked and said they now are working to form a new partnership to save the house.

Meanwhile, the city two weeks ago pulled nearly $2 million in funding from Builders of Hope, the organization that moved the houses. The money was meant to renovate 20 houses moved from the hospital site, as well as 15 others. That came as news to Builders of Hope, however.

The house now owned by Providence initially stood in the 2400 block of Cleveland Street Lower Mid-City, and it was set to be razed after the city and state bought out the entire neighborhood to clear the site for the new hospital.

After preservationists howled about the loss of the historic housing stock, Mayor Mitch Landrieu in June 2010 announced that the city would provide $3.2 million to move about 100 historically significant houses, including this one. Ultimately, fewer than 80 were moved, and the effort was not without its pitfalls.

The house at issue now was the last one moved from the hospital site, landing in March 2011 at 1601 Dumaine St., a corner lot at North Robertson Street just blocks from Louis Armstrong Park. As with most of the buildings that were moved, its camelback and roof were removed so it would fit under power lines.

It has sat virtually untouched since. Its deteriorating condition led the Historic District Landmarks Commission this month to consider citing the property for “demolition by neglect.” Such a designation puts the owners on notice to either improve the property or face fines.

Providence Vice President Brenda Richards-Montgomery appeared before the commissioners at the June 14 meeting asking that the property not be cited but placed on next month’s agenda to be considered for demolition. Because of her request, which is scheduled to be considered at the commission’s July meeting, the commission did not cite the property.

Richards-Montgomery told the commission that the house is too far gone for renovation because its roof was never replaced, leaving the structure open to the elements. In an interview this week, though, Andreanecia Morris, another Providence vice president, conceded that her organization did not consult a building engineer or other professional to reach that conclusion.

In an email exchange today, Morris told The Lens that Providence is working with an organization called Treme 4 Treme Community Development Corporation to save the house. She said Providence might consider selling the property to Treme 4 Treme.

Efforts to reach officials with Treme 4 Treme today were unsuccessful. The organization is not listed on the Secretary of State’s database.

The situation is heartbreaking for the former owner of the house, Deborah Brown Cassine. Though she was bought out and has moved on, she still has a visceral connection to her former home.

“Just the though of it being exposed for nearly 18 months saddens me when the purpose of moving the home was to restore it,” she said. “I do feel like it was a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Sandra Stokes Director at Large for the Foundation for Historical Louisiana calls the city’s efforts to move these historical houses “commendable,” but poorly executed.

“This is probably the largest house-moving project in the nation, and it should have been a model for the rest of the nation and it is fraught with failures,” she said. “And this is one of them.”

Aside from the condition of the house, she said it was aesthetically and historically inappropriate to take a narrow home originally built on an interior lot and place it on a corner lot. Further, she said it appears that the house was placed on piers adjacent to the sidewalk – leaving no place for steps. Meanwhile, piers behind the house are empty, leading her to wonder whether the house was put in the wrong place.

Finger Pointing

Providence officials have said Builders of Hope should have secured the house against the elements, a process known as “dry-in.” But Builders of Hope said the city hasn’t paid the group. The city disputes that contention.

Lauren Eney, director of marketing for Builders of Hope, said in a written statement that her organization couldn’t complete the work until “we have been paid by the City of New Orleans for all previous work performed under our dry-in contract with the city.”

Builders of Hope founder Nancy Welsh said in phone interview that her organization had completed its end of the deal and that it is “waiting like everyone else” for the second phase of the project, which would provide money to renovate the properties.

Landrieu spokesman Ryan Berni said the city owes Builders of Hope nothing.

“Approximately $35,000 was spent to move this particular building,” he said. “We are not satisfied with BOH’s performance at this point.”

Berni said that the city has monitored Builders of Hope and determined that it was not paying its subcontractors.

The Landrieu administration this month pulled nearly $2 million in federal money from Builders of Hope, saying the organization’s renovation efforts were “slow to materialize.” The letter notifying Builders of Hope of the revocation was provided to The Lens Wednesday by the city.

The letter said the city can’t continue to tie up dwindling federal money in such “extremely protracted” efforts.

When The Lens contacted Welsh for a response, she said it was the first she’d heard of the city’s action.

In August of 2011 The Lens reported on a letter sent by the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s Director Reid Nelson, calling out the city for the haphazard nature of the relocation efforts.

At that time, Builders of Hope said they had to work out funding issues with the city and said that the houses would have finished the dry-in phase by September of 2011.

Meanwhile The Baltimore Sun has reported that Builders of Hope is set to rehab 500 houses located near John Hopkins Hospital. It also reported that the organization had grown from 10 to 50 employees.