The Preservationists

From: Country Roads Magazine - Matt A. Sheen

Both when at home and while abroad, people tend to visit two types of places. The first are the old-fashioned, historic sites, which exhibit charm, individuality, and character. In the second category are the modern attractions, which instead offer convenience, ubiquity, and familiarity. New Orleans is that rarest of American cities in which people tend to seek out both in equal measure. Still, at heart most folks fall into one group or the other: those drawn to the quaint storefronts installed in nineteenth century houses along Magazine Street, or those who eschew them for the outlet shopping mall by the river; those who delight in riding original streetcars, or those who merely use them to get to Harrah’s Casino; those who admire the ironwork on the galleries overlooking Bourbon Street, or those whose eyes keenly search out the neon “Daiquiri” signs.

Sandra Stokes, Chair of Advocacy for the Louisiana Landmarks Society (LLS), falls squarely into the former category. “I have always found beauty along with a bit of excitement in historic architecture—in the rhythm yet individuality displayed in a row of shotgun houses, a weathered barn, or a magnificent home built with unsurpassed craftsmanship,” she said. “It's a tangible connection to the past, like wearing your grandmother's ring, or working at your grandfather's desk. There is a continuity, a sense of those who were here before, still present and touching our lives.”

Taking heart from instances like the community’s successful effort to stop an overhead expressway from being built straight through the French Quarter in the 1960s, Stokes holds out hope of converting people to her way of seeing. “I'd like to believe that everyone, in some way, appreciates historic architecture,” she said. “Some may have a deeper awareness of the connection to the past, of the beauty of the craftsmanship, the history embodied within, the uniqueness, the quaintness, or that it is the conglomeration of buildings in scale and context that create a tout ensemble which may touch their soul.” She noted that progress often replaces the extraordinary with the ordinary, abandoning the past rather than enlivening it.

Preservation became Stokes’s focus in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when she joined a wide spectrum of people concerned with historic preservation, social justice, civil rights, land use, cultural heritage, healthcare, and fiscal responsibility, all working together to prevent the architectural and cultural heritage of New Orleans from being destroyed. Faced with considerable pressure from the state government and other interests, they were able to prevent the demolition of Charity Hospital, a classic Art Deco building abandoned after Katrina.

Despite that victory, Stokes laments that they were unable to convince the city to re-establish the hospital within the building or to prevent the demolition of the adjacent neighborhood to make way for the new Veterans Administration and university medical centers.


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