New Orleans' old homes prove they were built to last

When Bari Landry finally returned to her New Orleans home, she expected to break the lock and see a lot of damage. What she didn't expect was to find her home weathered the winds and subsequent floods of hurricane Katrina.

"I just opened the lock and walked in. I felt so guilty," she says now, standing on her porch in the south Lakeview neighborhood.

The structure of her home was, for the most part, intact. To withstand hurricanes and flooding, her 1923 Craftsman-style bungalow - in one of the city's many historical neighborhoods - had been built with a mix of impervious materials, such as plaster, cypress, and slate.

In fact, these homes will be some of the easiest to save in New Orleans, preservation experts say and should be among the first. They are the city's cornerstones, and their rebirth is New Orleans' rebirth.

"In Louisiana, culture means business," explained Lt. Gov. Michael Landrieu (D) at a Capitol Hill hearing last month.

He said surveys show that 28 percent of tourists who visit Louisiana come for the historic homes and neighborhoods - a unique mix of American, Creole, French, Indian, and Spanish influences.

"There is not a concentration of historic structures in America, let alone the world, like those in New Orleans," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington. "The architecture is as important to the culture of New Orleans as the food, the jazz, and the festivals. To lose it would be unimaginable."

New Orleans has 20 different neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places - more than any other city per capita - with some 37,000 structures ranging from Greek revival mansions to Creole cottages and shotgun shacks.

Because these neighborhoods were built by early settlers who understood the dangers of their environment, they sit in the city's highest parts, and came through the storm in the best shape.

The hardest part, Landry says, was gutting her home, "confronting our life, and carting everything out to the curb."

The easiest part was receiving support from the Preservation Resource Center (PRC) of New Orleans, which is helping residents restore their historic homes. The group has been providing expertise, cleaning supplies, architects and mold-remediation specialists to survey damage to homes. It is looking for eight homes in eight different historic neighborhoods whose owners want to come back.

They are called "Demonstration Homes" and the PRC is hoping they will spark other residents to return and restore their homes.

"We see them as beacons of hope and inspiration," says Patricia Gay, of the PRC. "We think they will have a ripple effect on other renovations."

She says no project is too difficult; the PRC has saved entire buildings that have collapsed. The cost of rehabbing historic homes is much less expensive than demolishing them and then rebuilding.

But while homeowners like Landry can take out loans to start rebuilding even before they receive insurance checks, others in poorer neighborhoods have no means to fix up their homes. Some didn't have insurance.

Mildred Bennett, for instance, owns a shotgun shack in Holy Cross. It was built in 1884 as a wedding gift and has been in the family ever since, with the intention that it always will.

But Ms. Bennett, who has been relocated to Ennis, Texas, had no flood insurance and received only $4,000 for wind damage to the historic structure.

The PRC contacted her, and the shack has become a "Demonstration Home" as well. The PRC and National Trust will pay to refurbish it.

"When she heard it was going to be rebuilt, it was the first time I heard joy in her voice," says Bennett's granddaughter, Donna Duplantier. "She's very homesick and cries every day."

The National Trust is asking Congress for $60 million in grants to help homeowners rebuild in the city's historic districts, saying that everything turns on their return.

Other organizations agree. "The historical neighborhoods were the underpinnings of the city's economy, and rehabilitation of those historical buildings is critical to bringing the city back," says Ed McMahon, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

His organization recently released a report about how the city's neighborhoods should be revived. Attention should be given quickly to those that received minor or even moderate damage, such as the 20 historic districts, says Mr. McMahon.

"But in the rush to rebuild, it would be a mistake to put people back in harm's way - and land that is 5 to 12 feet below sea level is dangerous no matter what you do with the levees," he says.

That includes parts of the much-debated Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East - neither of which are designated as historic landmarks.

"Like Venice, Italy, New Orleans is a cultural treasure. And everyone who lived in the city should be allowed to come back," says McMahon. "But that doesn't mean that they all should live in exactly the same spot that they lived before."

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