In the November issue of The Community Standard, Stewart Farnet shared his views on current architectural trends in New Orleans. This month he talks about the French Quarter. Farnet is highly qualified to discuss architecture in the Quarter since, as a native New Orleanian, he has worked in the French Quarter for seventeen years and was a member and past chairman of the Vieux Carré Commission's architectural committee.
Stewart Farnet on the balcony of his office at the Devéze-Henderson House, 612 Royal Street.
Community Standard: Why did you decide to locate your architectural firm in the French Quarter?
Farnet: Back in 1957 I joined a firm that was located in the Vieux Carré. It was my good fortune to be reintroduced to the pleasures of being within a half block of Jackson Square, and having interesting sights and activities to supplement my business day. My family has had a shop (Stewart's) on Bourbon Street since the early 1900's and, as a boy, I worked afternoons and weekends there. My grandfather's grandfather, Samuel Stewart, built both the upper and lower Pontalbas. I have roots and reason to be here.
Community Standard: Will you describe your offices in the old Henderson townhouse?
Farnet: The building which my offices occupy is truly elegant. Contemporary business or professional offices have generally become stereotyped. To me, it's refreshing to have an office that is partly office and partly residence in atmosphere. The flavor of the original townhouse is there — all the millwork, the cornice work, the moldings, and yet in very appropriate arrangement for my use as an office. Its scale and its general arrangement is perfect for me.
Community Standard: What type of work do you principally handle in your practice?
Farnet: Because of my having practiced in the Quarter for nearly 20 years and having served on the Vieux Carré Commission for eight years, I am sometimes thought of as a “preservation architect,” or an architect whose preference is historic restoration or renovations. Actually, only a fraction of my work deals with preservation. I most enjoy dealing with what our technology can do.
Community Standard: Can modern technology and history peacefully coexist in the French Quarter?
Farnet: The Vieux Carré, I think, has always been, and is now, a unique area because it honestly reflects all the various phases of its history. There are buildling types representative of all the historic periods in the existence of the city of New Orleans and I think there is very strong feeling for the fact that it ought not stop at 1840. 1974 ought to be able to stand with as much dignity alongside 1840.
Community Standard: How does the Vieux Carré Commission feel about new structures in the Quarter?
Farnet: The Commission has moved into the posture now of encouraging contemporary compatible interpretations for new construction, so that we will hopefully no longer have faint images of historical styles.
Community Standard: Can you give an example of how this new concept is being put into practice?
Farnet: The renovation of Waldhorn's on Royal Street, where, for the first time, the Commission allowed the use of plate glass. It's a controversial project, and it was a first. But, to me, it was a wise choice. We had two alternatives. One was to deny the application for plate glass and leave what was a non-conforming canopy and bay-window system, which was not particularly attractive. It covered the original arches of the building so you couldn't tell what the original masonry looked like at all. We elected to restore the masonry and the scale of the original openings and permit the applicant to fill those in with just simple plate glass. I think that it is very successful visually and an exciting building.
Community Standard: The Civil Courts Building in the 400 block of Royal Street has often been ridiculed as a detrimental intrusion into the Vieux Carré. What is your opinion of the building, now that it has stood for sixty-five years?
Farnet: The Civil Courts Building is an atypical terra cotta faced monument, but, in its way, contributes to the scene. It's well-constructed and to the extent that it houses one of the only surviving historical uses in the Quarter, government, it adds to the variety which keeps the Quarter alive.
Community Standard: What do you think of newer structures such as the Downtowner on Bourbon Street and the Royal Orleans?
Farnet: The Downtowner represents the far end of the “Vieux Carré Style” spectrum; the building is a travesty of scale, proportion, and materials. The Royal Orleans is a far better design job, and in its way has become something of a landmark. It's more tastefully done, but it's only slightly more honest a building. The St. Louis Hotel, on the other hand, combines the forms of the past in a far more creative way, and enhances the flavor of uniqueness so important to the Vieux Carré.
Community Standard: Who has the most influence on the development of the French Quarter?
Farnet: The city's administration has the most potential for influencing the future of the Vieux Carré. The future of the Quarter rises and falls on the awareness of the government as to its values, potentials, and the things that make it unique.
Community Standard: How has tourism affected the French Quarter?
Farnet: It is a source of great strength. It is inconceivable that you would have an area of such valuable buildings and do such an outstanding job preserving them, and then not have people want to visit.
Community Standard: Are there negative aspects to having all these tourists?
Farnet: The problem comes in determining at what point we have too much — at what point the French Quarter losts its own personality and takes on the personality of the transient. A lot of people think we passed that point five years ago when the great impact of apartment and hotel construction began to be felt, and I think there is some merit to that argument. Certain areas have changed dramatically.
On the other hand, there are positive results from that kind of growth. For example, you can see it in the block where the Richelieu Hotel is located. Until four years ago, it was in danger of collapse. We see it now, preserved and restored, with many apartments, but the buildings are there. When do you determine that a feasible commercial use of buildings is justified, and how long do you hope than an angel will come along and buy a building for use as his own home?
Community Standard: What recent demolition would you describe as the greatest loss to the French Quarter?
Farnet: The loss of an original Gallier slave quarter building. It was scheduled for preservation and restoration as a part of the program of renovation at the Italian Hall building which fronts Esplanade Avenue and has its rear on Barracks Street. As a result of a construction accident, the rear wall of the Italian Hall fell and in falling tore down the Gallier slave quarter. Fortunately, the Vieux Carré Commission has record drawings, so that even though the original building was lost, all the original materials must be saved and the new construction will conform to the original design. That's a small kind of token success.
(See also Part 1 of this interview.)
Stewart's - “As a boy, I worked there.”
Waldhorn's plate glass - “Very successful visually.”
Civil Courts Building - “Contributes to the scene.”
The Downtowner - “A travesty of scale, proportion, and materials.”
The Royal Orleans - “Something of a landmark.”
St. Louis Hotel - “Far more creative.”
Copyright © 1974–2005 Henry H. Mitchell.