Phyllis Wheatley Falls

Photo: Matthew Hinton/The Times-Picayune.

Not even a month after we wrote about the impending demolition of the Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School, the battle over one of New Orleans’s last standing mid-century modernist schools has come to an abrupt but decisive conclusion. On Friday, bulldozers began their work on the dilapidated structure, two months before anyone had any reason to expect them.

WMFlead2Image courtesy World Monuments Fund.

The Recovery School District (RSD), which works to rehabilitate non-performing schools in Louisiana, decided last July to raze Phyllis Wheatley in August 2011 and build a “21st century school” in its place. The move had the support of the community board of the neighborhood of Tremé-Lafitte, but was strongly opposed by preservation groups like Docomomo Louisiana, who instead proposed adaptive re-use of the modernist landmark. Over the past few months, the preservationists amped up their campaign, getting nationwide attention.

9712577-standardPhoto: Matthew Hinton/The Times-Picayune.

The RSD responded by moving surprisingly fast. On June 16th, the campaigners received an email from RSD Superintendent John White, detailing all the efforts the RSD has made to engage with any possible solution that could preserve the school, and announcing, “The state of Louisiana has received bids for this project. The Phyllis Wheatley building is scheduled for demolition to begin this month.”

Demolition began the next day, and will be completed in two weeks. Another modernist icon is on its way to a landfill. Phyllis Wheatley was a victim of long-term systemic neglect, and neither the school district nor the preservationists acted with the necessary vision and imagination at a time when something could have been done to save it. And this sudden and sneaky rush to demolish just shows how bitter the fight had become. There was no way these two groups could have engaged in the kind of long-term, meaningful collaboration that could have preserved the school and still satisfied the educational needs of the neighborhood. This battle was probably lost long before it began.

More on the demolition saga of Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School here.

For more on the losing battle to save modernist school buildings, we untangled the story of Paul Rudolph’s Riverview High School in our film, Site Specific: The Legacy of Regional Modernism.

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