Coming back to New Orleans at holiday time means a couple of things things: seeing family and friends, eating way too much of my mother’s amazing chicken and sausage gumbo (absolutely irresistable folks – the magic’s in the roux). Holidays in New Orleans also means doing a little bit of urban exploring.
This week, I sought out Thomy Lafon Elementary School, built in 1954 by architects Nathaniel Curtis and Arthur Q. Davis whose lifelong design partnership produced some of the boldest Gulf Coast projects of the twentieth century. New Orleans’ Superdome (1975) and the now-demolished Rivergate Convention Center (1968).
Named to honor a nineteenth-century New Orleans African-American philanthropist, Thomy Lafon Elementary School was an early triumph for Curtis and Davis’ young firm. Its glass-clad classrooms, reached by snaking concrete ramp, raised over covered play areas recalled the early work of Le Corbusier. The Lafon School also signaled another importation of tropical modernism from South America to the Gulf Coast. The architectural press at the time lauded the Lafon School not only for its progressive design but also for its progressive social vision – this innovative new school was built for the children of the Magnolia Street (C.J. Peete) Housing Projects, one of New Orleans most racially- and economically-isolating.
Today the Magnolia Projects are gone, replaced with a new market-rate housing development unsettlingly named “Harmony Oaks.” And happily I found this week that the now-vacant Lafon School still stands, though it’s now surrounded by uncomfortably cheerful French Quarter townhouse knockoffs. To put it mildly, the Lafon School is in bad shape, but all of the trademark modernist elements that made it such a hit in 1954. Battling heavy leaning by the city to demolish it, New Orleans modernism-lovers including Francine Stock, president of DOCOMOMO US/Louisiana, are keeping an eye on the Lafon School’s status in the hopes it can be rehabilitated.