Thomy Lafon Elementary School, New Orleans

23 Dec

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.

The Lafon School in 1954 (Tulane Libraries, Special Collections, Southeastern Architectural Archives)

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.

The Lafon School today

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.

Francine Stock recently wrote a great piece on New Orleans’ threatened mid-century schools.  Here’s the Regional Modernism blog’s Thomy Lafon Elementary School photo set.

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3 Responses to “Thomy Lafon Elementary School, New Orleans”

  1. Melvin Royal March 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    I was born in New Orleans in 1941. I attended Thomy Lafon Elementary School in 1948-1954. I lived on the north and southside of the school in the Magnolis Housing Projects. The north side was on 3312 South Roberson Street and the south side of Thomy Lafon school was 2611 Sixth Street by a 2 block street separation. The four city blocks-streets I was housed in that covered both residences were Freret Street, Louisiana Avenue, Magnolia Street and Washington Avenue. In between were Seventh Street the mailing address of the school. For historic interests I was present during construction and excavation of Thomy Lafon when perhaps some objects of interest were found and generated a lot of excitement when a firearm was found as I observed in my nascent and innocent manner at the time. I keenly remember the smell and newness of the building and especially the architectual structure of design which was striking to me even at 7- 8 years old. I have some fond memories and photos of by old stomping ground.

  2. Melvin Royal March 18, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    My first elementary school teacher was Mrs Anderson followed by Mrs Hunter, Mrs Demesmie, Mrs Prout, and Mrs Scott and I hope to recall my other teacher, I’m so ashamed.

  3. johndcramer March 19, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    Thanks for your story about attending Thomy Lafon school, Melvin. I’m so happy to hear about the impact the building had on you, even at such a young age.

    I’m glad to see the increased attention being paid to the neighborhood. I just wish the attention didn’t have to come at the cost of so many beautiful and important buildings.

    Thanks again!

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