New Orleans' historic Carrollton Courthouse is coming out of retirement — to house the retired.
Up for auction on Thursday, the vacant landmark was scooped up for $4.7 million by a Houston-based developer of senior living communities.
CEO Carl Mittendorff of Colonial Oaks Senior Living placed the winning bid at the Orleans Parish School Board headquarters in Algiers.
The company's closest projects so far have been in Lafayette, but it's been exploring the New Orleans market for the past few years, Mittendorff said. He called the courthouse “the perfect site.”
“It’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful building,” he said. “We want to preserve what’s there and restore it to a new day.”
Built in 1855 by noted New Orleans architect Henry Howard, the building spent only 19 years as a courthouse before the city of Carrollton was annexed by New Orleans. It then became McDonogh School No. 23 until 1950 — and, after a brief scare in which the A&P grocery chain wanted to demolish it for a new store — it became Benjamin Franklin High School, then an extension campus for Lusher and Audubon charter schools.
The building was deemed no longer usable for a school in part because of leaks and weather damage, the result of deferred maintenance. Repairs could be particularly expensive because of rules that apply to historic structures.
But Mittendorff said he was undaunted by the building's condition.
“We’ve got a great local team that specializes in preserving historic buildings and has a strong track record in the city of New Orleans doing just that,” he said. “We know that we’ve got some challenges ahead, and we’re excited about facing that with the right local partners.”
The developers don’t yet know how many elderly people the site will house, but the project will involve the entire campus, Mittendorff said.
Mittendorff sat during the auction with local developer Tom Winingder, who has been involved in a new development at Magazine and Richard streets as well as the renovation of St. Anna’s in the Lower Garden District.
Mittendorff described Winingder as a friend and said he did not know yet whether Winingder’s company would be involved in redevelopment of the courthouse.
The second highest bidder was New Orleans-based developer Bernard Fromherz, with a bid of $4.6 million.
The courthouse has been the subject of numerous efforts to preserve it for public use since Audubon Charter School departed at the end of 2013. The National Trust for Historic Preservation included it on its 2015 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places; Tulane architecture students used it as a case study for a number of potential uses; and individual activists have tried to rally support for projects like a museum, a public market or a building trades school.
None of those efforts, however, came to fruition.
The auction was preceded by a discussion of language in the title of the building specifying that the land would be used as a school, which some had thought might stop the auction or prevent the courthouse from being redeveloped for other purposes.
Attorney Bill Aaron told the prospective bidders, however, that the Orleans Parish School Board believes that language was simply a description of the property rooted in the history of its transfer from the city in the 1950s, but not a restriction on its future owners if the school system no longer needs it.
“Our opinion has consistently been that that was a description of the property that was mandated to be transferred,” Aaron said. “It was not a restriction on the deed.”
He said the School Board assumes the title can be cleared and will refund the auction winner’s deposit if it can’t.
Among the first to bid on the building was John Cummings, who has received national acclaim for his renovation of Whitney Plantation into a slavery museum. Cummings said he saw the site as an opportunity for upscale, low-density residential development.
“You could have had four magnificent homes with enough land for parking and a park right at Carrollton and St. Charles,” Cummings said. “I think it would have been a winner.”
Ultimately, Cummings said he was concerned that the title issue was more serious than school officials believe. With what he saw as ambiguity in Aaron’s answers, Cummings said he decided to stop bidding at $3.6 million, instead of the $5.5 million he had originally planned.
“It really wasn’t clear you could do anything with the building other than a school,” Cummings said. “We did not get that cleared up. I withdrew from the bidding because it was not clear they could deliver that title.”