Lake Vista: New Orleans’ Own Garden City

26 Oct

Lake Vista Community Shopping Center. Photo by John Cramer.

I recently had the chance to spend a morning taking a look at New Orleans’ Lake Vista neighborhood, a quiet mid-century residential development along Lake Pontchartrain developed in the 1930s and 40s.   Lake Vista was part of a much larger lakefront land reclamation project directed by the Orleans Levee Board in the 1920s and 1930s.  Assisted by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), the project drained land that was once swamp and created a new beachfront drive along with new public beaches and bathhouses (segregated by race of course as New Orleans wouldn’t integrate public park facilities until the 1960s).  The Board supervised engineer Hampton Reynolds in the design of this 800-lot suburban community six miles north of downtown’s Central Business District and French Quarter.  (More photos of the Lakefront Development can be found at this New Orleans Public Library site).

1936 view of a model of the future Lake Vista development. Photo from the New Orleans Public Library.

Today we can see that the place has a lot in common with other suburban developments coming up across the country during that period.  But with its cul-de-sac drives and its overarching accommodations to vehicle traffic, Lake Vista, so familiar a residential model to us today, was unlike any other neighborhood in New Orleans in the first half of the twentieth century.   The freedom of the pedestrian was also a major concern for designer Hampton Reynolds, whose cul-de-sacs were paired with broad landscaped green belts, allowing access to residences both by car and by foot traffic.   Reynolds probably found models for this dual approach in modern garden cities like Radburn, New Jersey (1928), designed by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright.  Reynolds might also have found local inspiration in New Orleans’ Exposition Boulevard (1885), a series of mansions accessed by vehicles from the rear but whose front porches face a broad sidewalk along what is today Audubon Park (designed by Olmsted Brothers in 1898).

One of Lake Vista's many tree-lined allées. Photo by John Cramer.

Lake Vista’s cul-de-sacs make for a very accessible neighborhood, but walking along the pedestrian allées one is struck immediately by the sense of quiet insularity that was at the core of garden city design ideology.  The lushness of the greenery (including  hundreds of expansive live oak trees that cover everything in cool shade) looks like it was inspired by New Orleans’ Garden District or even by the regal oak allées seen in some of the Deep South’s larger antebellum plantations (the famous row of trees at Oak Alley in Vacherie, Louisiana, comes to mind).  References to these fabled landscapes of Southern affluence were probably not lost on Lake Vista’s designers, who built the neighborhood specifically for New Orleans’ increasingly-comfortable white middle class wanting their own taste of the good life.  Built just before the start of World War II, Lake Vista’s planners adopted these familiar images of the Old South but framed them with modern urban planning ideas that heralded Louisiana’s and the New South’s new industrial prosperity.

Lake Vista's St. Pius X Church. Photo by John Cramer.

Lake Vista’s celebration of modern design is best seen at the literal center of the development, a core of buildings out from which radiate the house-lined green belts.   Homes at Lake Vista’s periphery are never more than a few minutes walk from this central complex of commercial and institutional buildings.  Contemporary architects like Gehry and Libeskind can take notes from James Lamantia’s St. Pius X Catholic Church (1966) whose wrapping of copper over a low, jutting mound of roof is an exploration in material and form way ahead of its time (Lamantia was a prolific Louisiana architect who died this year at the age of 88).  The church’s homogenous simplicity reminds me a little of works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Lake Vista United Methodist Church. Photo by John Cramer.

Another great church building just around the corner from St. Pius is the Lake Vista United Methodist Church, designed by August Perez, Jr., and Associates and completed in 1961.  The elliptical-shaped sanctuary’s floor-to-ceiling glass is clad in an intricate metal screen — I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that it was inspired by the sensuous geometries seen in designs by  Louis Sullivan.  I haven’t been able to go inside United Methodist yet but the effect of bright sunlight filtered through the metal screens must be a site to behold.  An early view of United Methodist’s screen can be seen in this Frank Lotz Miller photograph at Tulane’s Southeastern Architectural Archive’s website.

Lake Vista Community Shopping Center. Photo by John Cramer.

Perez also had a hand along with Wogan & Bernard in the design Lake Vista’s only commercial structure, the Lake Vista Community Shopping Center located at the very center of the development (Wogan & Bernard are best known for their work on New Orleans’ Union Passenger Rail Terminal).  A dramatic two-story Art Moderne storefront building clad in brick and yellow stone, the shopping center’s streamline canopies and plate glass display windows were completed in 1946, just at about the same time housing was becoming a hot commodity for returning World War II vets.   It wasn’t until after the war that residential construction really picked up in earnest in Lake Vista, but the commercial building at its center never quite lived up to its expectations.  Shopping and grocery store developments west of Lake Vista attracted most residents, leaving the Community Shopping Center as one of the less successful elements of an astoundingly successful neighborhood.

Rental apartments in Lake Vista (c.1939). Photo by John Cramer.

As for its houses, Lake Vista still retains many of its earlier mid-century residences, including my favorites: several Art Moderne apartment buildings ringing the central quarter of religious and commercial buildings.  Lake Vista was always intended as an affordable community and these rental units show that despite how much Lake Vista has become an exclusive as far as New Orleans neighborhoods go, there is still an effort to maintain the wide mix of family incomes that the larger community was designed to sustain.


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