This page was last modified on 31 October 2012, at 09:41
Photo Credit: Bethany Rogers
During the 1950s, New Orleans reached the apex of its growth, nearing a population of 650,000, and the Orleans Parish Schools launched an initiative to expand its facilities, constructing 30 new schools between 1952 and 1960 (only three of which are still standing today). One of the most notable among this collection of 1950s, modernist schools was the Phillis Wheatley School in Treme, designated as a black elementary school in a still segregated Orleans School system. Designed by School Board Architect Charles Colbert, the Wheatley school was built to maximize usable space on an undersized inner city lot by elevating the building a full story on concrete piers and creating shady, rain-sheltered play space underneath the building. With only two rows of concrete pile supports, the building appears to hover; this floating design is made possible by the use of shop-fabricated, cantilevered, steel trusses that span the internal, open-air courtyard with classrooms skirting the outside. Colbert’s truss scheme minimized job site construction period and cost and allowed the series of skirting classrooms to be open to fresh air and sunlight on two sides. In a city of traditional architecture, modernist structures like the Wheatley School do not win over as many enthusiasts, but the space, cost, and energy efficiency of the school design is noteworthy.
The hasty abandonment of the school after Hurricane Katrina has left the lot and building littered, so it’s difficult to imagine the school buzzing with students and teachers. But this primary school has had an intricate fifty year history with its neighbors, especially the Lafitte housing community two blocks away. “The school and Lafitte, they were one. When you said Phillis Wheatley, you said Lafitte,” recalls Michelle Nelson, who went to the Wheatley school in the 60s and lived at Lafitte. He has vivid memories of an annual parade when school kids stepped to the Bell High School band and threw Mardi Gras beads to neighbors; he also recalls directing younger students across Saint Ann Street when he worked as a patrol guard in the sixth grade under the guidance of his favorite teacher, Mr. Grand Prix. The Lafitte housing complex that grounded this community was almost entirely demolished for redevelopment last spring and summer and now the school is slated to be razed by the New Orleans Recovery School District. “They’re just removing all memory,” laments Michelle, “They’ve taken all the places where I grew up. Now they’re tearing down the school.”