Federal Aid for New Orleans Historic Preservation
A second round of historic preservation grants to help more displaced New Orleans residents get back into their homes
Ray Kern sits on the front porch steps of his 1921 Craftsman-style bungalow where he has lived for over 20 years.
New Orleans homeowners who were denied federal grants to restore their historic properties got some good news today: Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitchell Landrieu announced that Congress had approved a second round of funding that will give the residents a chance to share $10 million in preservation aid.
Landrieu has been lobbying for the added funding since 2006, when a $12.5 million allotment ran dry after serving just 289 of the more than 1,200 applicants who qualified.
"This next round of Hurricane Recovery Grants will help people in South
Louisiana rebuild their homes and help our neighborhoods recover in a
meaningful way," says Landrieu. "My office is ready to get this additional
funding into the hands of Louisiana homeowners quickly, so that our
rebuilding can move forward." That means beginning in early September,
contacting applicants who were previously identified as priority candidates,
but were turned down for funding due to the budget shortfall, to start
reviewing their proposed projects.
The grants are important to New Orleans, which has more historic properties per capita than any other American city with over 35,000 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. When Katrina's floodwaters swamped the city, many of those old homes, schools, and cultural institutions were left in near ruins.
To help restore those buildings, Landrieu, along with The National Trust for Historic Preservation, asked Congress for disaster relief money specifically earmarked for preservation. Lawmakers responded by awarding the $12.5 million to the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office.
The office then started doling out grants just 45 days after the homeowners' applications for assistance were due. The timeline is remarkable considering that two years after the storm thousands of New Orleans residents are still waiting on insurance or other federal aid money. Grant recipients, who got between $5,000 and $45,000 apiece, immediately got started shoring up damaged foundations, replacing roofs, mending cracked plaster walls and refinishing old wood floors. But the money ran out with a long line of applicants still waiting.
With the new allotment moving through the system, the first batch of grant recipients are still making repairs. It hasn't been easy, though. Meet four homeowners and see how they are overcoming the immense challenge of rebuilding their houses—and their lives.
Cracks in the foundation need to be repaired to stabilize Kern's house and to avoid even more damage.
Grant award: $45,000
Ray Kern bought his first house, a 1921 Craftsman-style bungalow in the Carrollton section of New Orleans, on March 7, 1984. It was the day after Mardi Gras, and Kern, who was weary from all his partying, figured that putting his money into real estate would keep him from spending it on more late nights out on the town. Plus, he loved the simple linear design of the bungalow and the row of lanky pine trees flanking one of its sides. From the original plaster walls and heartpine wood floors, to the old divided light windows and wide bands of crown molding, it was clear to him that the original builders of the place didn't cut any corners.
Over the next 20 years, Kern, a computer systems and software engineer, painstakingly restored much of the house himself, refinishing the floors, replacing broken roof tiles, and updating the plumbing and electrical. "I was raised in a family that if you could, you would do it yourself. My father was an electrician and a mechanic, and when I started making repairs, I found I had a knack for it," Kern explains.
As Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans, Kern decamped to a fortress-like warehouse that he owned. After four days—that seemed like four weeks—of being holed up with seven friends, two cats, and multiple cans of Vienna sausages, Kern waded through waist-deep water to discover his house was still standing. "The relief knowing that I still had a house was incredible. There were no broken windows and the roof was still on. This was my home," Kern says.
Today Kern continues to negotiate with his insurance company about his settlement, but he feels some sense of relief after having received a $45,000 preservation grant to repair his home's foundation, re-plaster cracked walls, and restore the varnish that was eaten away by floodwaters on a series of heartpine boards that line the wall alongside the staircase.
"I was ready to leave the city before I got this grant," Kern says. "I had been shut down and frustrated time after time. And then in six weeks (after submitting the application) I got the money. This is the only bright spot in this whole ordeal for me. It is what's been keeping me fighting on."
Kern's original cypress siding suffered massive water damage, resulting in numerous fissures.
Grant award: $5,010
When Bari Landry bought her sturdy 1923 Arts and Crafts style bungalow in the Lakeview section of New Orleans in 1987, all the place required was a little cosmetic work. "The previous owner wasted no expense on structural repairs, but for decorative touches like painting, it needed a woman's touch," she said. The house was framed and sided with old growth cypress and still had the original lime plaster walls in the three bedrooms and in the hallways. Other period touches included back-to-back coal burning fireplaces with clean-lined wooden mantles, the original front door flanked by sidelights and a fan-shaped transom on top, and a welcoming stucco-clad front porch.
Upon returning home after Katrina, Landry discovered that her bungalow suffered much less damage than many newer homes constructed with inferior building materials. Perched on 3-foot piers, it sustained 4 feet of floodwater but its durable cypress floors didn't buckle and its doors didn't warp. Landry removed mold from the plaster walls simply by spraying them with bleach. The roof held up to the 140 mile-per-hour winds, requiring repairs only over the front porch where a fallen tree branch sheered off some of the original slate tiles. Landry replaced them using slate she salvaged from other homes in her neighborhood that had been razed.
Landry used her Historic Property grant to patch cracks in the plaster walls and to refinish the floors. Each new repair reminds her how much she adores her house: "I absolutely love my Arts and Crafts home now; I don't think I could ever find a house anywhere that I liked as much or had as much character."
Fractures in the plaster interior walls extend up towards the ceiling. Kern will hire a craftsman who specializes in plaster repair to do the restoration work.
Grant award: $43,500
Kelvin Hewitt bought his home in the Holy Cross neighborhood of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward after it told him that it needed a friend during his first tour with a realtor back in 2000, and "I told him that I needed a house, so we worked things out." His mid-19th century Italianate-style shotgun cottage had 10-foot-tall cypress shutters with curved tops on the two front windows and distinctive spindlework decorations on the entry door. The floors were made of sturdy white oak, and one could pass gracefully from one room to the next through large archways where pocket doors used to stand. After Hewitt moved in, he began a whole-house renovation, repairing gashes in the Sheetrock walls, and fixing electrical problems himself. He tackled each job as a new challenge and way to connect with his house.
Hewitt's work was nearly complete when Hurricane Katrina hit and he was forced to evacuate to Georgia. Upon returning to New Orleans the following spring, Hewitt discovered that his home was still standing. "My house was in one piece; everything else I could work with," he says. But in addition to damage caused by the storm, looters had stolen several shutters, mantles, and the original side door.
Hewitt is once again working on his home, using the $43,500 that he received from the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office to replace broken four-over-four windows, patch gaps in the clapboard exterior siding, and refinish his oak floors. Hewitt even tracked down a company in Mexico that makes the same type of slate tile that once sheathed his roof so those repairs can also be in keeping with the original character of the home. Hewitt's doing all the repairs himself to stretch the grant money as far as it will go. "I need to rebuild and move on and not dwell on the past," he explains. "I want to work on the next part of my life, not just my house, but myself. I'm tired of grieving. I'm young, I'm strong, and I have what it takes to rebuild."
Bari Landry stands in front of her 1923 Arts and Crafts style home where she has lived for the past 20 years.
Grant award: $45,000
In 1974, 13-year-old Troy Legeaux moved with his family to the Parkview Historic District in New Orleans, settling into the 1930s side-hall shotgun that he still calls home today. The house was made almost entirely from cypress: the framing, exterior siding, mantles, baseboard moldings, and all the transom-topped interior doors. And a side porch extended almost the entire length of the house, providing every room with a door leading outside, and flooding it with natural light.
Thirty years and 2½-feet of floodwater later, the solid materials that first attracted Troy Legeaux's family to the house are what saved it from total destruction when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina swept through the city. The combination of plaster over cypress lathe allowed the walls to "breathe" and dry without much damage. And under the soggy carpet and pealing floor tiles, Legeaux discovered the original heartpine floors, which were still intact. The house's pier foundation was badly damaged, but Legeaux has already fixed it using a portion of the $45,000 grant he got from the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office. Repairs on the roof, which sustained damage from falling tree branches and other debris, are set to begin. And Legeaux plans to rebuild the old side porch using cypress instead of pressure-treated lumber to keep the original feel of the house.