More in Salvage

Recycling Katrina's Ruins

One of the Gulf Coast's hardest-hit communities deconstructs a battered 18th-century cottage to help rebuild others with its antique bricks and beams

Photo by Russell Kaye
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Nicholas Ducros Collins's house on Bayou Road is rubble, like so much of St. Bernard Parish in post-Katrina Louisiana. Here, where only five of 27,000 homes escaped the serious damage caused by the hurricane's winds and floodwaters, bulldozers are leveling the landscape.

But in this particular pile of handmade brick and old-growth cypress beams are building blocks of renewal for people whose cultural and architectural traditions date back more than 200 years, to when the area was a Spanish province settled by Canary Islanders. Los Isleños, as their descendants are called, want to recycle the old house parts and use them to restore a museum complex that will help preserve their endangered heritage.

While salvage is exactly what the Isleños' resourceful ancestors would have done with a ruined house, this generation is also embracing a new trend in modern building called deconstruction. The idea is to keep useable materials out of landfills by extracting them by hand and with power tools rather than pulverizing them with a tractor. "You remove things by teasing them out," says David Reynolds, director of the Green Project, a New Orleans nonprofit group that's working with AmeriCorps community service members to deconstruct the Collins home. "Everything is done in a surgical way. It's like in an operating room, but we're using three-foot crowbars to excise tissue."

Green Project deconstructions typically take place on houses that are still standing. Workers start with the roof and progress down to the foundation. But in the case of the Collins house, Katrina did much of the work. "It was a wall of debris when we got here," says Green Project site manager Jeremy Maxwell-Parish. Under normal circumstances, the group would also sell the salvaged materials at its retail store. This time they'll be given to the Isleño community instead.



Ducros Collins and his wife, Lucy, have been living in a FEMA trailer since the hurricane—as have thousands of other Islenos who returned to the parish in recent months. The couple plans to build a new house on their lot, so they donated the remains of their old one to the Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society, the nonprofit group that is funding the deconstruction. Its members want to use salvaged structural beams, wide plank flooring, bricks, doors, and mantels to help rebuild two severely damaged houses located on the grounds of the Los Islenos Heritage and Multi-Cultural Park. The ad hoc village of vintage house museums—some of which were moved to the 30-acre property over the past decade—teach visitors about Isleño history, as well as that of Native Americans and French and German colonists who also have roots in the region. "Everyone is bulldozing, but I just didn't have the heart to do it," says Ducros Collins. "I wanted to put the materials to good use."

Nicholas Ducros Collins's house on Bayou Road is rubble, like so much of St. Bernard Parish in post-Katrina Louisiana. Here, where only five of 27,000 homes escaped the serious damage caused by the hurricane's winds and floodwaters, bulldozers are leveling the landscape.

But in this particular pile of handmade brick and old-growth cypress beams are building blocks of renewal for people whose cultural and architectural traditions date back more than 200 years, to when the area was a Spanish province settled by Canary Islanders. Los Isleños, as their descendants are called, want to recycle the old house parts and use them to restore a museum complex that will help preserve their endangered heritage.

While salvage is exactly what the Isleños' resourceful ancestors would have done with a ruined house, this generation is also embracing a new trend in modern building called deconstruction. The idea is to keep useable materials out of landfills by extracting them by hand and with power tools rather than pulverizing them with a tractor. "You remove things by teasing them out," says David Reynolds, director of the Green Project, a New Orleans nonprofit group that's working with AmeriCorps community service members to deconstruct the Collins home. "Everything is done in a surgical way. It's like in an operating room, but we're using three-foot crowbars to excise tissue."

Green Project deconstructions typically take place on houses that are still standing. Workers start with the roof and progress down to the foundation. But in the case of the Collins house, Katrina did much of the work. "It was a wall of debris when we got here," says Green Project site manager Jeremy Maxwell-Parish. Under normal circumstances, the group would also sell the salvaged materials at its retail store. This time they'll be given to the Isleño community instead.



Ducros Collins and his wife, Lucy, have been living in a FEMA trailer since the hurricane—as have thousands of other Islenos who returned to the parish in recent months. The couple plans to build a new house on their lot, so they donated the remains of their old one to the Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society, the nonprofit group that is funding the deconstruction. Its members want to use salvaged structural beams, wide plank flooring, bricks, doors, and mantels to help rebuild two severely damaged houses located on the grounds of the Los Islenos Heritage and Multi-Cultural Park. The ad hoc village of vintage house museums—some of which were moved to the 30-acre property over the past decade—teach visitors about Isleño history, as well as that of Native Americans and French and German colonists who also have roots in the region. "Everyone is bulldozing, but I just didn't have the heart to do it," says Ducros Collins. "I wanted to put the materials to good use."

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cypress mantel
Photo by Russell Kaye
This cypress mantel is one of three 1794 originals that will be salvaged from the Collinses' ruined house for reuse. The others, called "wraparounds," framed the openings of a two-sided chimney.
The Collinses' 1794 house is an example of colombage, or bricks-between-posts construction. The building technique, examples of which are extremely rare in the United States, was popular in 18th-century Europe. There, native fieldstone, rather than brick, was used to form walls between networks of hand-hewn posts and beams. In St. Bernard Parish, a 465-square-mile swath of land located about 5 miles southeast of New Orleans, colombage was one of the principle building methods. Such walls housed hundreds of the Canary Island families brought there in the late 1700s by the Spanish colonial government to farm the land and protect its Mississippi River shoreline from British invaders.

Today, the Isleños' cultural survival has a lot to do with these sturdy homes, which were ­constructed with sunbaked bricks, lime mortar, cypress heartwood, and clay plaster, says parish historian William de Marigny Hyland. Though damaged, the vast majority of those houses still standing can be restored. "They were built with elements of the local environment, and they were built to withstand the excesses of that environment," Hyland explains. By comparison, thousands of newer houses, framed with less-rot-resistant wood and clad inside with paper-faced drywall (a breeding ground for toxic mold when it gets wet), will have to be torn down or entirely rebuilt.



The parish's old homes used to be surrounded by cypress forests, swamps, and marshes. These wetlands, as well as a string of now decimated barrier islands offshore, were once considered the first line of defense against flooding. That was until 1965, when the United States Army Corps of Engineers completed digging a shipping channel through the parish to provide a shortcut between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Saltwater flowed from the Gulf into the freshwater habitat, killing some 18,000 acres of marsh and 1,500 acres of cypress swamp in the parish. What remains today is a seldom-used brackish channel called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which has more than tripled in width over the past 41 years due to erosion. Looking out over the waterway, Parish historian Hyland says, "This is what destroyed us."



Just over a year ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina's winds toppled trees and ripped off roofs. Then, a 20-foot tidal wave, caused by a rise in the shipping channel, which locals have dubbed the "hurricane superhighway," lifted structures in the Los Isleños Heritage and Multi-Cultural Park right off their pier foundations and left behind more than 6 feet of stagnant water. It took three weeks for the flooding to recede.



Now, the Islenos' main museum building is damaged beyond repair; a 90-foot water oak fell on the circa-1840 colombage cottage, shearing off its front rooms and exposing decades' worth of rot and termite infestation. And with other buildings in rough shape, the Isleños fear for their heritage. "The Los Isleños complex was important before the hurricane but now it's even more important," says Jerry Estopinal, a high school teacher and the Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society historian.

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Photo by Russell Kaye
Green project crew member Asher Griffith removes a two-panel interior door from a collapsed portion of the Collins house.
A ninth-generation Isleno, Estopinal has a personal connection to the complex: His ancestors' original home was moved there in 1999 to save it from the wrecking ball. The four-room cottage was likely constructed in the early 1780s for Isleño settlers. It's one of just a handful of original homesteads remaining in the parish. And like the Collins house, the cottage is an example of a rare building form. It's framed with hand-hewn cypress posts and beams, though instead of the brick infill used in colombage, the walls are formed from bousillage, a mixture of mud, moss, and animal hair that was once used by Native Americans living in the area.



To help with the Estopinal cottage restoration, as well as that of the museum complex's 1840s Ducros Library, a nine-member deconstruction crew now picks through the rubble of the Collins house. They are looking for intact building materials and architectural details that are fit for reinstallation.

The bricks that AmeriCorps members Amanda Gray and Elaine Smith collect will be used to re-create the original, two-sided fireplace that once stood in the center of the Estopinal cottage. Also bound for a new life are four sets of French doors. Site manager Maxwell-Parish and Ryshaad Hall, of AmeriCorps, gently coax them out of their wracked surrounds in the facade of the Collins house. The doors, which still have their wavy glass windowpanes, porcelain knobs, and hand-forged iron pintel hinges, will replace windows and solid-panel doors that were installed at the cottage after a similarly catastrophic hurricane passed over the parish in 1915.



Cypress posts and ceiling beams with decorative beading, two-panel interior doors, and countless bricks saved from the Collins house ruin will be used inside the Ducros Library. That colombage building was named for its former owner, Dr. Louis Alfred Ducros, parish coroner and Ducros Collins's grandfather. Before Katrina, it housed a branch of the public library, as well as archeological artifacts unearthed in the region. Now, the Ducros Library is an empty shell, its books destroyed and its surviving artifacts packed away for safekeeping. The interior brick-between-posts walls have been stripped of damaged plaster sheathing, as well as some modern, mold—covered drywall.



The building stands ready to be restored. And thanks to some careful extractions from the rubble, it will be one step closer. "Preserving some of the original fabric of (the Collinses') very historic home is crucial to the preservation of the complex as well as to the story of this village and of the Isleños," Estopinal says. "Our architecture and our history are really what drive this area. This is who we are."



 
 

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