The local campus for a French university. A library. A museum. A community center.
Those were among the ideas offered by New Orleans residents Wednesday night for redeveloping the vacant Carrollton Courthouse, which is scheduled for auction and, according to preservationists, at risk for demolition.
Last month, the Carrollton Courthouse was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2015 list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” The list is intended to raise awareness about threats to sites that preservationists consider national treasures. This year’s list also included the Grand Canyon, South Street Seaport in New York and the old U.S. Mint in San Francisco.
The courthouse also appears on the Louisiana Landmarks Society’s 2015 list of the nine most endangered local historic landmarks.
The courthouse was built in 1855 to serve as the seat of Jefferson Parish government before Carrollton was annexed by New Orleans in 1874. The Greek Revival-style building was designed by noted architect Henry Howard.
It has served a number of uses over the years, mostly as a school. McDonogh No. 23, Benjamin Franklin High, the Lusher middle school and Audubon Charter School all were housed in the building, but it has been vacant since 2013.
Many of the people at Wednesday’s meeting, which was called to solicit ideas to redevelop the building, said they attended school in it.
The structure is owned by the Orleans Parish School Board, which has declared it surplus property and is considering selling it at auction.
School Board member Woody Koppel said the school system doesn’t have the money to maintain or repair the building beyond cutting the grass and maintaining an alarm system. However, the board has decided to postpone listing the property for auction as residents try to come up with ideas for its redevelopment.
Ultimately, the School Board has to either auction the property or transfer it to another government agency, Koppel said.
Because a buyer would not be barred from demolishing the building, preservationists fear it is at risk of being razed. However, Stan Smith, chief financial officer for the School Board, said the board likely could put covenants in any sales document requiring that a buyer, at minimum, keep the façade.
Architect Peter Trapolin said the reuse possibilities for the building are “only really limited by someone’s imagination.” He suggested that it could be turned into a cultural center or community center that would be open to the public.
Erik Smith, a Tulane University professor who attended Franklin when it was housed in the building, agreed with the idea of public use and said that two ancillary buildings on the site could, perhaps, be leased as office space to generate revenue to maintain the courthouse.
Doug Roome said he thought the building should be turned into a museum.
“I’m sick and tired of handsome old buildings being gutted on the inside and just the shell remains,” Roome said. “That’s atrocious.”
Turner Lott, 9, said he’d like to see the building converted into a museum and library surrounded by a public park.
John Stubbs, director of the preservation studies program at the Tulane University School of Architecture, suggested the School Board should give the building, or sell it for a nominal sum, to a nonprofit or consortium of nonprofits that would schedule “seasonal, ripe and income-producing” programming for the public at the site.
“This is an exceptional situation,” Stubbs said. “This is not real estate.”
Carol Allen, who lived in France for two decades, suggested that the site could be turned into an extension campus for Paris’ Sorbonne University.
Carrollton resident Keith Hardie suggested that the building be used to house the city’s archives.
Krystal Cox, a tax credit reviewer for the state’s Division of Historic Preservation, said the building would likely qualify for federal and state tax credits.
The suggestions from residents will be compiled and submitted to the School Board and the City Council, Louisiana Landmarks Society Executive Director Walter Gallas said.