A. Hays Town Award: The Preservation Resource Center

The A. Hays Town Award
Photo: Hector Sanchez

Since 1974, New Orleans' PRC has been revitalizing entire neighborhoods with grassroots restoration work—expanding their efforts with each year. On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Julia Reed checks in on the revitalization of the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward

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A. Hays Town Award

The A. Hays Town Award
Hector Sanchez

Our A. Hays Town Award recognizes the people and organizations who have dedicated themselves to upholding classic Southern architecture.

In June 2014, Katie Chosa and Andy Franklin bought their first home —a circa-1900 single shotgun house in Holy Cross renovated by the PRC. "It's like a brand-new house in a historic shell," Katie says.

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Founding of the Preservation Resource Center

In 1974, when the Preservation Resource Center was founded, New Orleans was at a turning point. The urban population had peaked in 1960, and some neighborhoods were spottily inhabited. Sleek office buildings, fueled by the short-lived oil boom, were going up on Poydras Street, and historic buildings were being bulldozed for parking lots. Nearby, Julia Row, a spectacular collection of 13 pre-Civil War town houses, was now dubbed "Skid Row," and on St. Charles Avenue, buildings were being razed at such a pace that activists demanded a moratorium.

Home in 2005, prior to PRC renovation.

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National Historic Preservation Act

"People were not only alarmed by what was happening, they'd started to get organized," says Patty Gay, the PRC's director since 1978. Consciousness had been raised in part by the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1965—and the subsequent formation of local historic districts. The entire French Quarter was declared a National Historic Landmark, but there'd been heroic victories as early as 1906, when activists rallied to save the Cabildo, a rare relic of the city's Spanish regime.

Home in 2005, prior to PRC renovation.

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Single Shotgun House
Photo: Hector Sanchez

From its inception, what set the PRC apart was its holistic approach. "The PRC looks at the preservation of neighborhoods and culture as well as architecture," says Jack Davis, a former New Orleans newspaper editor and trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Its objective is to have healthy communities, not just an inventory of old buildings."

The foundation piers of this single shotgun house collapsed, but the whole home was rebuilt with the salvaged materials.

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Neoclassical Revival Shotgun House Before

Early on, the organization learned the value of reclaiming even one or two properties in a blighted area. In what Gay describes as the PRC's "first real victory," it not only purchased and restored one of the Julia Row town houses but also established its headquarters there. Today the neighborhood is a bustling mix of residential properties, James Beard Foundation Award-winning restaurants, and nationally known art galleries.

Home in 2005, prior to PRC renovation.

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Neoclassical Revival Shotgun House
Photo: Hector Sanchez

The group's next target, the Lower Garden District, where a whole block of houses sat empty, prompted the creation of two of the PRC's signature programs. Operation Comeback acquires "hopeless" properties, fixes them up using historically accurate methods, and sells them for below-market prices. "We're more willing to work with buyers," says Mary Hewes, PRC communications specialist.

The PRC returned this Neoclassical Revival shotgun house to its former glory.

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Double Shotgun Sunset House

"We hand-hold; we give them extra time to secure funding. We want long-term owners, not flippers." Rebuilding Together helps disadvantaged folks—including the elderly, veterans, and single heads of households—stay in the houses they've already got, chiefly by making repairs or renovations the owners can't afford. Other impactful programs include workshops to educate renovators and first-time home buyers.

Home in 2005, prior to PRC renovation.

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Double Shotgun Sunset House
Photo: Hector Sanchez

By 2002, the PRC's focus had moved to Holy Cross, part of the now-fabled Lower Ninth Ward. In the three years before Katrina, the PRC acquired and renovated four homes, three of which had already sold. Days before the storm, the cover of the center's magazine, Preservation in Print, had been mocked up with a photo of the fourth house. The headline: "Everything's Fine in the Lower Nine."

Crushed by a 60-ton pecan tree, this 1870s double shotgun house was the PRC's first post-storm success. Now it's home to famed trombonist Freddie Lonzo and his wife, Nanci McVille. They call it the "Sunset House" for its clear views of the Mississippi River.

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Dual-Owner Double Shotgun Before

By early morning, August 31, 2005, the world knew that everything was tragically, epically far from fine in the hardest hit Lower Nine, so called because the Industrial Canal (completed in 1923) separated the space from the rest of the Ninth Ward. "We weren't about to abandon Holy Cross," says Gay. The PRC acted quickly to rebuild damaged houses and put them back into use. Today more than 100 Holy Cross houses have been rebuilt by the PRC.

Home in 2005, prior to PRC renovation.

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Dual-Owner Double Shotgun
Photo: Hector Sanchez

Likewise, in hard-hit neighborhoods throughout the city, Rebuilding Together quietly did what FEMA couldn't—it helped folks navigate the crazy paperwork and organized volunteers (who were now fixing roofs and raising foundations rather than simply installing the odd wheelchair ramp) so that exiled homeowners could return to their homes. Information regarding grants and tax credits that the organization had long disseminated became not just useful but also crucial.

The PRC converted this dual-owner double shotgun house into a single-owner home without changing the facade.

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1900s Victorian

In the end, every one of the PRC's programs seemed as though it had been conceived to cope with such a tragedy. And in a way, it had. Gay and her colleagues came together when the city was in danger of losing its bricks-and-mortar heritage. They knew then that if the architecture disappeared, if the neighborhoods fell apart, the very soul of the city would also vanish.

Home in 2005, prior to PRC renovation.

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1900s Victorian Post Renovation
Photo: Hector Sanchez

Thirty years later, the risk was even more dire, but they were prepared. "The main thrust of their recovery effort," says Davis, "has been to get people to live here, to move into neighborhoods that would otherwise be in jeopardy." As it happens, it's the very same mission they've had all along.

Despite severe storm damage, this 1900s Victorian still retains its original heart-pine floors, brick fireplace, and wood wainscot.

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