One of the most outstanding architectural sites in Louisiana, with some of the richest history, is slated for auction to the highest bidder on Thursday. The Old Carrollton Courthouse in New Orleans was built in 1855 by architect Henry Howard based on designs by Thomas Jefferson. The Greek Revival building remains one of the state’s most significant buildings outside of the French Quarter.
The courthouse served as the seat of government for Jefferson Parish from its construction until 1874, when the City of Carrollton was annexed to New Orleans, then another 120 years as a New Orleans public school building and informal community center for the Carrollton area. In its years serving as a courthouse, it was the site of important legal judgments, including an antebellum decision affirming the personhood of slaves. It was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War. In its later life, the courthouse became McDonogh 23 as part of a pioneering investment in public education. It was home to Benjamin Franklin High School from 1957 through 1990, a magnet school that was the first public high school to integrate, and provided a model of peaceful integration during the civil rights era. Lusher Charter School and Audubon Charter School followed. Valued by all for its historic status and its grounds as an aesthetic asset, it is one of the few remaining examples of the structures and parks that once comprised the mid-18th century Town of Carrollton.
Although it is difficult to imagine today, after the closure of McDonogh 23 in the 1950s the building was slated to be demolished for a grocery and parking lot. It was then that Louisiana Landmarks Society first stepped in to successfully advocate against the destruction of the building. In 2015, after the building sat vacant for two years, Landmarks Society again came forward, nominating the building to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, and to Landmarks Society’s own list of the Nine Most Endangered Sites in New Orleans. In the time since, Landmarks Society has held public meetings and listened to the community, whose overwhelming comment has been the desire to see the site remain as a benefit to the community. We supported the Tulane School of Architecture and LSU School of Landscape Architecture students in the project to reimagine uses for the property. Landmarks Society has continued to work diligently to find a reuse of the building that would appeal to all.
Six months ago, the Louisiana Landmarks Society began working with the French Consulate, the Alliance Francais, and CODIFIL to create La Maison de France — an ultimate center for French culture and education. In that short time, the project has garnered much support, but has not yet raised the necessary funding. Unfortunately, the deadline set by the Orleans Parish School Board is Thursday. The OPSB is disposing of the Carrollton Courthouse site as surplus property — but not considering the overwhelming sentiment shared at public meetings to ensure this building continue its rich history in service to the community. It is to be auctioned to the highest bidder — regardless of the high bidder’s intended use.
One assurance that provided some comfort to the community was when representatives of the School Board agreed, at several public meetings, to work with Louisiana Landmarks Society to place a covenant on the building to protect it from inappropriate alterations. Now board officials are saying that since the site falls under review of the Historic District Landmarks Commission, the covenant is not necessary. This is simply not true.
The suggested covenant would be a perpetual agreement binding all future owners to protect the historic features of the property. A covenant can place restrictions not only on the façade of the building, but on the grounds and interior, which the HDLC cannot. Whereas there are numerous examples of the City Council overruling the HDLC, a covenant would protect a property regardless of political and developer whims.
A site with this rich history, with this degree of architectural significance, and of this stature should have the utmost protections available. As stewards of the Carrollton Courthouse, the School Board should ensure those protections for generations to come.
Sandra Stokes is president of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, a nonprofit devoted to historic preservation.