Most of a historic French Quarter carriage house, nearly 200 years old, has been demolished after work by its owner and a hired contractor left it unsalvageable, according to city officials.
The owner of the building at 724 St. Philip St. was slapped with more than $6,000 in fines last week during an emergency hearing held by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration.
Officials with the Department of Safety and Permits found that owner Larry Anderson violated 12 city regulations when he tore down parts of the structure during illegal renovations. Because he tore down two exterior walls, they said, the building was left in imminent danger of collapse.
The illegal demolition was a “staggering” blow to the city’s oldest neighborhood, according to Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates.
“It’s an 1820s building that’s not there any more,” Lousteau said at the hearing.
The building was erected in the 1820s and once housed a one-story, double-door carriage house where horses were kept.
The brick-red stucco façade faces St. Philip Street. Long and skinny, the structure was built to extend the length of the property. A cottage-style, two-story structure was attached to the back and has been left intact.
Records show that from 1917 until the 1950s, the stable was converted into an Italian sandwich shop owned by Biaggio Montalbano, a Sicilian immigrant. The deli owner became known for his “Roma sandwich,” a garlicky, muffaletta-like concoction of olive salad, meats and cheeses.
Over time, the French Quarter changed, and so did the building’s function and appearance. The shop’s white façade is now red, with wooden doors painted green. A driveway and courtyard have replaced the left half of the carriage house. The right half, left intact, was converted into apartments.
Until recently, that is. What’s left now, neighbors said, is an unsafe structure with walls and part of the roof missing, exposed electrical wiring and a damaged foundation.
Anderson bought the property in 2006 for $450,000. But the real problems didn’t begin until February of this year, when he received his first permit to do work on the property.
Records show Anderson said he wanted to tear down and reconstruct part of the wall alongside the driveway and reinforce the opposite wall, which an engineer said was bowed by 8 inches, causing tension in mortar joints.
The work, made necessary by years of neglect, was supposed to fix the building’s problems, not make them worse. But just days after he was given the permit, Anderson was issued a stop-work order, still in place today.
That’s because his contractor tore down almost the entire wall by the driveway, rather than replacing the bricks in a piecemeal fashion, according to the Vieux Carre Commission staff.
That illegal demolition had a domino-type effect, compromising the structure of the wall on the opposite side of the building.
From there, Anderson kept incurring violations, records show, exceeding the scope of work he was allowed to do and further compromising the building.
“The removal of termite-damaged roof rafters and joists began, along with the removal of interior framing, before a reframing plan had been approved. For that matter, I have no idea to what extent any interior renovation and reconstruction has been reviewed,” Vieux Carre Commission Director Lary Hesdorffer wrote in a March email to Anderson. “But it appears substantial work has gone beyond the scope of the permit, putting the other structural elements in jeopardy.”
In the email, Hesdorffer said that Anderson’s contractor met with city staff “over 20 times” about how to properly renovate the building. Regardless, records show that Anderson received at least four citations when the city found violations at the property between Feb. 20 and Sept. 9.
The citations ranged from working without a permit to violating building codes and having unsafe conditions.
The “work exceeded scope of the original permits,” reads one citation, issued in September. “Attempts to provide owners with a reasonable timeline to pursue corrective actions have failed. Structure is in danger of worsening as no tarps have been installed and electrical wiring has not been made safe.”
Records provided Wednesday showed workers had left live wires exposed, extension cords in common areas, debris on the site and a building that was in “imminent danger of collapse.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Chief Building Official Zachary Smith expressed renewed frustration with Anderson, who he said had been unresponsive to prior warnings and who didn’t show up at the hearing but sent his contractor instead.
“We’ve tried the nice route for the past five months. We’ve gotten nowhere with it,” Smith said. “Once we’ve gotten to that point, then we turn on the mean face.”
Lousteau and Anderson’s neighbors contended that even with citations and fines, not enough was done to save the historic building. They said that despite stop-work orders, the construction continued, unabated, through July.
“As a city we have just sat by and watched this building disappear. And until today, there have been no consequences,” Lousteau said at the hearing.
She said later that the city often has a “poor track record” when it comes to code enforcement.
“It’s baffling that any building in the French Quarter could be systematically demolished without the city taking immediate steps to prevent its loss,” Lousteau said. “The city needs to make it clear to this and other property owners that the destruction of our architectural heritage will be dealt with seriously.”
Leslie Perrin, a neighbor who shares a common wall with Anderson, echoed Lousteau’s sentiments. She said she’d long complained about the work Anderson did.
“Since April, the building has totally been open,” Perrin said at the meeting, asking why Anderson’s workers weren’t stopped sooner. “It’s a hazard.”
Anderson, who owns at least three other properties in the city, couldn’t be reached for comment, but public records show that he, too, said he was frustrated with the city.
“It now seems that there are new directives and inputs that necessarily delay all my efforts to have my contractor address this emergency,” Anderson wrote in an email to the city on March 17, regarding the second wall he had to remove.
Neighbors said they don’t know much about Anderson. The Vieux Carre Commission said he hadn’t incurred any violations before starting the project on St. Philip St.
Kevin Thomas, Anderson’s former contractor, said he wasn’t privy to everything his boss had planned.
“He stopped work on the project,” Thomas said Wednesday. “He’s not sure what he’s doing with the property.”
Most recently, on Oct. 6, Anderson applied for a permit to replace the walls that he tore down and to build a two-story building at the front of the site. Those plans have yet to be approved.
Smith said he and the Vieux Carre Commission need to see plans with more architectural details before allowing Anderson to do any more work. Another hearing will be held within a month, city officials said, at which point they expect an update.
“We want to see what those plans are,” Smith said. “And the VCC has expressed frustration: They want to see what the whole project is going to be before it goes forward piecemeal.”