Prior to its destruction in June 2011, the Phillis Wheatley Elementary School served the historic New Orleans African-American neighborhood of Tremé since opening in 1955. Celebrated worldwide for its innovative, regionally-expressive modern design – the structure had sustained moderate damage during the storms and levee breach of 2005. DOCOMOMO Louisiana advocated for its restoration via adaptive reuse. “A Plea For Modernism” is narrated by actor Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”, “Tremé”).

Charles Colbert, architect

Photographer: Frank Lotz Miller

Curtis and Davis architects

Photographer: Frank Lotz Miller

When one thinks of New Orleans, one thinks of its historic 19th century architecture. However, in the 1950’s the city became a hotbed for modern architecture. An expanding post-war population demanded new public works – and over thirty public schools were constructed – designed by a cadre of architects who practiced a regional approach to modernism – characterized by innovations in circulation, lighting, and ventilation – just as New Orleans’ historic architecture is sensitive to site and climate.

These schools were models of regional modernism – inventive designs which are of a place, by a place, and for a place. However, this significant architecture is rapidly disappearing from the urban fabric of New Orleans. Of the thirty schools built, only four are are left standing – three of which are threatened by demolition. Sadly, the Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School of New Orleans sustained too much damage as the fourth, and was demolished in June 2011, a loss for the city and history of modernism.

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