For a decade, the old C.T. Parker Building in New Orleans City Park sat derelict and unused after being damaged by floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina.
The building had become an eyesore, especially compared with the dramatically improved New Orleans Botanical Garden next door, one of the few remaining examples of Art Deco-style public garden design.
On a recent Tuesday, however, Champagne toasts abounded as park officials celebrated the building’s restoration to its former glory, thanks to a generous donation from the Oscar J. Tolmas Foundation.
“We have transformed it into this magnificent arrival center,” said Susan Hess, president of the park’s board of directors. “And it’s just going to be the most wonderful building.”
When it opens to the public Monday, the Oscar J. Tolmas Center will serve as the main entrance for the park’s Botanical Garden and Storyland. Located in the center of the park, it will also serve as the park’s new focal point, with an information center for visitors, a refreshments booth, public restrooms and gift shops offering garden accessories, plants and novelties.
The new facility is one of many improvements to the park this year, thanks in part to private donations and funding from the Regional Planning Commission and the state’s capital budget.
“Since Katrina, the board has done an amazing job of improvements to the park,” said Lisa Romano, vice president of the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust. “This park is not only surviving, it’s thriving.”
Additional capital improvements have been made to the park’s overall infrastructure as well as to individual exhibits and gardens, improving the beauty and the flow of traffic for visitors.
For instance, over the summer a $50,500 federal grant brought new bicycle infrastructure to the park, complete with parking in 15 locations.
The park was also awarded money for a bike path on Marconi Drive. Chief Development Officer John Hopper said the park is waiting on the state to put together a bid package for the project.
In front of the new visitor center, Victory Avenue has been raised and extended, and it has been given colorful plantings, a new sidewalk, new light poles and two new parking lots.
Additionally, a new brick patio has been built around the Peristyle, and red brick is being put in the plaza between the Goldring/Woldenberg Great Lawn and the City Putt miniature golf course.
Combined, the improvements lead up to “a beautiful new entrance” to the Botanical Garden and Storyland, all while visually connecting the entrance to the park’s other amenities, according to City Park CEO Bob Becker.
“It really moves the center of the park down here,” Becker said.
Then there is the new Sir Cumference playground, which opened over the summer at the Festival Grounds between the Christian Brothers School and the Reunion Shelter on Friedrichs Avenue.
The playground sits inside a paved concrete circle, with geometric details that inspired the name. Geared for children ages 5 to 12, it includes climbing areas, monkey bars, a slide, balance beams and musical instruments for kids to play.
Also brand new is the Helis Foundation Enrique Alférez Sculpture Garden in the Botanical Garden, a tribute to a leading figure in the city’s art community for more than 70 years.
It features a combination of familiar and rare works by Alférez, who crafted sculptures and architectural eye candy all over New Orleans under the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.
The new sculpture garden features 14 sculptures and casts of works, many of which were purchased from Alférez’s daughter, Tlaloc. They’re located in the former site of the Palm Garden, an 8,000-square-foot space with pergolas and outdoor galleries.
Then there is the most controversial of the new attractions, a $13 million golf course designed by prominent golf course architect Rees Jones that is scheduled to be finished by 2017.
Construction of the 220-acre course started in March, to replace golf courses lost after Hurricane Katrina. It aroused the ire of protesters who said they’d long enjoyed the overgrown spaces of the abandoned courses, but Becker said the course will provide necessary revenue for the park.
Other planned additions include the Louisiana Children’s Museum Early Learning Village, a skate park and a four-acre water park called City Splash, to start construction next year.
The 58,000-square-foot children’s museum is due to open by the end of 2017. It will include a nature center, literacy center, teacher resource center and performing arts center. It will also have outdoor activities, including an edible garden, kitchen, discovery walks and programs exploring the park’s various ecosystems.
“There’s a lot more to come, so you need to be prepared to be delighted in the future,” Botanical Garden Foundation President David Waller said.
“It’s exciting to have this much stuff in the pipeline,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was altered on Nov. 30 to reflect that the sculptures in City Park by Enrique Alférez were purchased from his daughter, not purchased by his daughter.