Thursday, August 14, 2008

Unbuilding: Rubble

In her first visit to New Orleans in 1974, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the New York Times Ada Louise Huxtable described a "demolition derby" underway in the Central Business District (CBD):

"Rows of Greek Revival commercial buildings, of the kind New York ruthlessly demolished in lower Manhattan in the 1960's still stand, often enhanced by the iron filigree galleries added from the 1850s on. But many are gone and more are being knocked down almost daily, as are the later Italianate, Renaissance and cast-iron structures nearby, that make up the 19th century commercial city."1

At the time Huxtable was writing, the French Quarter had been spared an earlier threat, in large part due to the creation of the Vieux Carré Commission. The 1930's New Orleans of architect- photographer Richard Koch had witnessed a tendency towards what Los Angeles Times writer Christopher Reynolds has called erase-atecture. Koch recorded some of these demolitions while conducting work for the Louisiana Historic American Buildings (HABS) program. The photograph reproduced here depicts an unidentified man at the site of the just-razed Office of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company (former Old Morgan Building aka William Brand House), 331 Magazine Street. Over the course of its lifespan, the building originated as a private residence, was redeveloped to serve the purposes of banking, and finally housed a succession of two railroad companies before it was demolished in the autumn of 1938. The Works Progress Administration reported on September 14: "The Old Morgan Building, Magazine & Natchez Alley has been torn down to its foundations. Negro laborers are now scraping and stacking the bricks. . . [which] are a bright vermillion, and because of their being covered with cement have retained a brilliant hue."2

Jeff Byles'
Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition (New York: Harmony Books, 2005). [TSA Library TH 447.B95 2005] is a cultural history of rubble-making. Describing demolition as a particularly American approach to urban renewal, Byles nonetheless presents European programs such as Baron Haussmann's percée/arterization of Paris alongside the razing of New York's Penn Station and the clearing of vast tracts of housing in Detroit and Los Angeles. This is a very generalized book, and those who seek an in-depth analysis of "Demolition for Progress" will find it lacking. For those interested in the current demolition of housing projects in New Orleans, Byles' chapter 7 discussion of the Captain W.O. Pruitt Homes and the L. Igoe Apartments in St. Louis will be provocative.

Demolition-as-Spectacle: More than 4,000 pounds of dynamite and 21 miles of detonating cord were used to raze Seattle's Kingdome in March, 2000. [gwrash youtube video].

1"Outside Eyes Turn to CBD Demolition," The New Orleans States-Item 23 April 1974 (Lifestyle Section B) page 1.Box 4, Tulane School of Architecture Records Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

2Report dated 14 September 1938, Louisiana Works Progress Administration Collection, The State Library of Louisiana.

[Photographs above: Alfred Eisenstaedt, Architecture Critic Ada Louise Huxtable, LIFE 1974 (available via and Richard Koch, 331 Magazine Street, autumn 1938. Richard Koch Drawings and Photographs Collection, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries].

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