Everybody hates the current New Orleans City Hall. It’s the third and worst of them all but the city outgrew the Cabildo and Gallier Hall so in 1957, a new and “modern” civic center was dedicated. The driving force behind it was then Mayor de Lesseps Story Morrison known to one and all as Chep. Hence the column title: The House That Chep Built.
Chep Morrison is largely forgotten in 21st Century New Orleans but he was a political powerhouse as mayor from 1946-1961. He was the last mayor to be elected by defeating an incumbent. The incumbent was Robert Maestri whose picture is in the dictionary next to political hack. Maestri was a loyal member of the Long machine. Chep Morrison was the scion of a prominent family and a World War II veteran determined to upset the political tea cart in New Orleans.
Maestri was the past, Chep Morrison regarded himself as the future. Unfortunately, his vision did not include the city’s Black population. As a “moderate” segregationist, Morrison wasn’t a hater, but he did little to help Black folks. The advent of the third city hall dispossessed thousands of mostly Black New Orleanians from the 3rd Ward neighborhood that many, including Louis Armstrong, called Back of Town. Team Morrison called it urban renewal and slum clearance; I call it an atrocity. For more details, check out a fine Picvocate article by Richard Campanella.
By the 1990’s there were rumblings about the decrepit state of the House That Chep Built. Its international architectural style no longer looked fresh and modern. It has always reminded me of an office bloc somewhere behind the former Iron Curtain in the former Czechoslovakia or former Soviet Union.
Then there was the question of maintenance. The combination of suburban white flight and the oil bust of the 1980’s depleted city coffers. The last thing a series of mayoral administrations wanted to spend money on was upkeep of The House That Chep Built. It got grottier and grimier over the years because of deferred maintenance.
New Orleans has long specialized in kicking the can down the road. Procrastination is the local style. That’s why a local wag dubbed it The City That Care Forgot, which could be flipped on its head as the city that forgot to care. I have my own nickname for this aspect of my city, TFC: This Fucking City.
The last semi-serious attempt to move city government out of The House That Chep Built came in the waning days of the Nagin administration. I say semi-serious because Mayor C Ray Nagin had become a laughingstock by the end of his second term. Nagin was a big talker who was forever floating exploding economic pies and other half-baked ideas.
In his final state of the city address, Nagin proposed a fourth city hall at the former Chevron Building on Gravier Street downtown. It was a scaled back version of an earlier proposal that included a park, amphitheater, and a casino to pay for the project. He even signed a letter of intent to buy the building, but the city council refused to fund the outgoing mayor’s final pipe dream.
That brings me to the latest proposal to abandon The House That Chep Built. If the third city hall was conceived in racism, hubris, and arrogance, Mayor Cantrell’s proposal to move city government to the Municipal Auditorium has only two of those sins: hubris and arrogance. Given Cantrell’s public wavering on the proposal, it’s unclear how genuine the proposal is or if it’s an election year stunt to pander to donors.
Whatever it is, the proposal is a bad idea. There’s a pot of FEMA money available to renovate the Municipal Auditorium, but $38 million is not enough to fully fund a fourth city hall. Besides, the Municipal Auditorium, is in bad shape having been ignored since Katrina and the federal flood. If you let a building sit empty that long in this climate, it becomes a repository for mold, rodents, and other things I’d rather not contemplate.
Here’s another TFC aspect of the proposal: thanks to procrastination by Mayors Nagin, Landrieu, and Cantrell, the FEMA money will vanish in 2023. The Cantrell proposal smacks of desperation to keep that funding available. I have a suggestion; the money should be used for the purpose it was intended: renovation of a New Orleans landmark that should be saved.
Then there’s the cultural impact of moving city hall to Treme. Lolis Eric Elie summed it better than I can at The Lens:
“Sorely lacking in the mayor’s original proposal was a basic understanding of the significance of the auditorium and the sacred ground on which it sits. Most famously, Congo Square was one of the precious few places that African Americans could gather and maintain their musical, religious and cultural traditions during slavery. Even now, it remains the spiritual center for Black New Orleanians, hosting festivals, music performances and freedom celebrations.“
Messing with Congo Square is bad karma, juju or whatever you want to call it; as is the whole fakakta notion of a fourth city hall in Treme. I like Elie’s idea of transforming the auditorium to a cultural center. A lot of history has taken place in that building including many meetings of the Rex-Comus courts, which may have jinxed the building. There’s some bad racist karma/juju associated with those dull gatherings, which could be dispelled by some of the alternative ideas floated by Elie and others.
This grandiose plan is the latest example of how Mayor Cantrell has lost touch with her roots as a neighborhood activist. She came to prominence with her fierce defense of the Broadmoor neighborhood, which some wanted to disappear via the infamous green dot plan floated by developers and other shady characters, including Nagin, after Katrina and the federal flood.
It’s time for Cantrell to listen to the concerns of the Treme neighborhood. That’s what their councilmember, Kristin Gisleson Palmer is doing with a proposal to temporarily halt the mayor’s plan. The council will take up Palmer’s proposal at their next meeting on July 1st.
I’m not a fan of the alternate proposals for a new city hall. It’s time to renovate The House That Chep Built instead of obsessing over a new building. Let’s correct the old mistake instead of making a new one.
One thing The House That Chep Built has going for it is location, location, location. Duncan Plaza is a perfect place for people to demonstrate against government arrogance, hubris, and high-handedness. There’s a lot of that going around when a bit of humility is in order in TFC: This Fucking City.
The last word goes to the Neville Brothers: