Efforts are underway to restore a nearly century-old high school building in St. John the Baptist Parish that has fallen into disrepair — a project that could cost close to $5 million.
The two-story Leon Godchaux High School, near the intersection of West 10th Street and River Road in Reserve, has been sitting vacant since the late 1980s. Built early in the last century, the school was named after the local sugar magnate whose family donated the land for it.
These days, the building is in such bad shape that an engineering firm recently recommended demolishing it.
For years, the dilemma for school officials has been deciding whether to repair the building or tear it down, said Gerald Keller, a lifelong Reserve resident and a longtime School Board member. “The property, the building, is starting to fall apart,” he said of the historic structure, which sits near the School Board’s office.
Keller wants to renovate the building and potentially convert it into a sugar museum in a nod to the industry that was long the area’s economic driver. It might also serve as a visitors’ welcome center, or both.
To do that, Keller has helped revive a long-dormant local historical society, which is now exploring how to bring in the necessary cash, likely through some combination of fundraisers, grants and donations from local businesses.
After they get a plan together, the group will present it to the School Board, which would have to declare the property unusable so the historical society could move to acquire it.
The building, which comprises about 15,000 square feet of space, suffers from a litany of problems. Sections of its roof are missing, which has led to extensive water damage; metal doors are severely rusted; the electrical system and wiring need to be replaced; and the building’s entrance is in “deplorable condition and must be reconstructed,” according to a report by All South Consulting Engineers of Metairie.
The firm’s engineers could not even make it up to the second story because of the damage, but they wrote that “it seems likely that the second floor is in as bad a condition as the first floor.”
Overall, the cost of repairing the building is estimated at between $3.2 million for a partial historic restoration and $4.8 million for a full renovation.
Noting the cash-strapped district’s limited resources, the report recommended a less expensive option: demolishing the building “due to the extreme loss of structural integrity, the extent of required construction and the anticipated high repair and environmental cleaning costs.”
Keller pushed back against the idea of knocking it down, pointing out that the building was donated to the school district under the condition that it be used for educational or cultural purposes; otherwise, it would be returned to the family.
John Stubbs, director of Tulane University’s preservation studies program, said he is working with the group to help preserve the building, which he said is “in need of attention right away because it’s so vulnerable.”
The historical group is planning to gather feedback and ideas for preserving the building from local residents over several days in April.
Stubbs said they’re also hopeful about restoring the nearby Godchaux-Reserve Plantation House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places but also has fallen into disrepair.
Aside from immediate funding needs, he said, the group will be looking at ways to ensure the buildings will have a stable source of income in the future so they can be maintained.
“We’re looking at the long and the short of it, including the immediate side and the not-so-immediate side,” he said. “The school could be part of the solution, as far as restoring the house and making that whole property a useful, valuable cultural-heritage institution or amenity along that stretch of River Road.”
Finding the money to do the work is “certainly the first challenge,” Stubbs said, but he said similar undertakings have been “done countless times across the country, so this shouldn’t be too hard.”
“It really should be preserved no matter what,” he added. “It’s bought and paid for. It’s part of Reserve’s history, the history of the area. It’s named after a great name in the region. I just think it would be a shame to lose it.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.