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Delirious New Orleans

Delirious New Orleans
Manifesto for an Extraordinary American City
Foreword by Kevin Alter

An authoritative study of New Orleans’s distinctive vernacular architecture that makes a compelling case for preserving and rebuilding these cultural treasures.

Series: Roger Fullington Endowment in Architecture, Roger Fullington Series in Architecture

January 2009
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266 pages | 10 x 10 | 224 color and b&w photos, 12 line drawings |

From iconic neighborhoods such as the French Quarter and the Garden District to more economically modest but no less culturally vibrant areas, architecture is a key element that makes New Orleans an extraordinary American city. Delirious New Orleans began as a documentary project to capture the idiosyncratic vernacular architecture and artifacts—vintage mom-and-pop businesses, roadside motels, live music clubs, neon signs, wall murals, fast-food joints, and so on—that helped give the city's various neighborhoods their unique character. But because so many of these places and artifacts were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Delirious New Orleans has become both a historical record of what existed in the past and a blueprint for what must be rebuilt and restored to retain the city's unique multicultural landscape.

Stephen Verderber starts with the premise that New Orleans's often-overlooked neighborhoods imbue the city with deep authenticity as a place. He opens Delirious New Orleans with a photo-essay that vividly presents this vernacular architecture and its artifacts, both before Katrina and in its immediate aftermath. In the following sections of the book, which are also heavily illustrated, Verderber takes us on a tour of the city's commercial vernacular architecture, as well as the expressive folk architecture of its African American neighborhoods. He discusses how the built environment was profoundly shaped by New Orleans's history of race and class inequities and political maneuvering, along with its peculiar, below-sea-level geography. Verderber also considers the aftermath of Katrina and the armada of faceless FEMA trailers that have, at least temporarily and by default, transformed this urban landscape.


2010 Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize

Vernacular Architecture Forum



Honorable Mention, 2009 PROSE Award for Architecture and Urban Planning
Association of American Publishers


  • Foreword
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Part 1: A Delirious Landscape
  • Part 2: Commercial Vernacular Architecture in New Orleans
  • Part 3: Soul, Funk, and Hip-Hop
  • Part 4: Illusion, Delusion, and Folly
  • Part 5: Roadside Nomadicism and a City's Rebirth
  • Part 6: Architecture under Siege: A Lesson from Katrina for Twenty-First-Century America
  • Notes
  • Index

Stephen Verderber has taught in the School of Architecture at Tulane University for more than twenty years and is a registered architect. He is currently Professor of Architecture in the School of Architecture at Clemson University in South Carolina.


I was raised in a Chicago suburb a mile from the world's second McDonald's. As the years passed, and my life and culinary tastes evolved, I witnessed the destruction of its initial spirit—its sense of place. That location was used as a testing site for new architectural concepts, and it was constantly being renovated and expanded in an unending cycle of change. Much later, the work of nonarchitects, particularly Herbert Gans's seminal writings on the dialectic between high and popular culture, influenced me greatly. I had been taught in architecture school up to that point to reject the everyday vernacular because it was contaminated and therefore unworthy of serious study by an aspiring architect. These so-called contaminated building types—gas stations, drive-ins, motels, neon signs, free-form rural churches, and amusement parks—fascinated me. These places reminded me of the sense of liberation I had felt while sitting many an afternoon on that shiny red and white tile bench at McDonald's when I was a kid.


My perspective of "acceptable" versus "unacceptable" in architecture was permanently altered. Everyday vernacular architecture remained outside the margins of theoretical discourse to most purists in Chicago, my place of birth and the domain-stronghold of modernist Miesian discourse. These buildings and places were viewed as no more than idiosyncratic "outsider" buildings, as unselfconscious artifacts. To me, however, these outsider buildings and places were the analogues of my experience with the then-exploding language of pop music—rock in particular—and the evolving language of pop(ular) architecture. Their packaging and marketing were analogous as well: communicating with a mass audience through the use of memorable visual, spatial, and sonic "hooks" not unlike a melody or chorus you can't shake from your head. Both were centered on mass consumption, immediacy, and associated products consumed in multiple places simultaneously. It was about being fully immersed in popular culture as a way of taking part in a civic dialogue. Here, everyone was invited—invited to experience "the latest," "the new and improved," be it the Beatles' latest number one hit or a new hamburger variation, such as the Big Mac—only all at once.


Over time I built up a sizeable collection of images of these places, and the growing number of books on this unorthodox subject came as little surprise. Later, I came to realize that many others shared this same passion for the vernacular of the ordinary, everyday realm. Soon, the National Trust for Historic Preservation was carrying the banner in grassroots campaigns to save vintage movie theatres, gas stations, neon signs, early McDonald's restaurants, and so on. Remnants of the vanishing inventory of the architecture of the road—including the earliest Mc Donald's restaurants—were now taken in some quarters as serious "works." Interest had grown in Japan and Europe in this quintessentially American phenomenon.


By 2005, I had lived in New Orleans for twenty years, and because of other professional pursuits and priorities, I had not devoted much serious attention to the city's wealth of unique twentieth-century commercial buildings, signage, and artifacts. New Orleans is undoubtedly among the greatest American cities for the study of architecture and urbanism. I continued to be fascinated by the city's relative compactness, enforced by the geographic limits of its location and its being surrounded by water on all sides. By compactness, I am referring to the core city and its interwoven inventory of colonial, Greek revival, Victorian, modernist, and unselfconscious, everyday building types and artifacts.


Throughout the nearly twenty-two years I lived in New Orleans, I became embroiled in certain preservationist battles in the city and its suburbs. These occurred, pre-Katrina, when particularly insensitive developers or politicians tried to ramrod particularly miserable proposals through the review processes, and I wrote (published) letters to the editor at the Times-Picayune. Perhaps the most flagrant example I witnessed during the two decades I lived in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina was the senseless destruction of the Rivergate Convention Center, designed with bravado by the very talented New Orleans firm Curtis & Davis. Designed in the early 1960s in the International Style, the Rivergate had been highly regarded by historians and architects far beyond New Orleans. Its destruction in 1996 was tragic. Unfortunately, in retrospect, I felt I did not help enough in the cause. I promised myself to not stand on the sidelines the next time a similarly important modernist civic landmark was threatened with destruction.


In my own neighborhood, in the Uptown section, I fought to save a vintage mom-and-pop grocery located a short walk down the street from where I lived. It had changed hands three times in recent years, and yet the newest owners persevered. They continued to sell sno-balls and po-boys to the kids of the neighborhood, delectables for which the place had been known for six decades.


Katrina changed just about everything in New Orleans. A few days before the storm, I had casually convinced the owner of a nearby 1950s drive-in (Frostop) to dig through the cache of personal photos he had collected of the place from its inception. In the back of my mind, I had hoped to convince the owner to fully restore the place. They were stored in old boxes in his attic, and he told me he hadn't gone through them in years. The Friday before Katrina he brought a handful of the old photos and offered them to me. The drive-in would take on five feet of Katrina's floodwaters, and the materials he had brought to show me that day were completely destroyed.


New Orleans's role was central in the history and development of American outsider, or folk, vernacular building types, including the gas station, the fast-food franchise, the movie palace, the roadside motel, the sno-ball stand, and the post-World War II commercial strip. But it was just as important as a place where important American modernist works by firms like Curtis & Davis were built. My appreciation of the dialectic between elite and everyday, popular architecture in New Orleans would ultimately be driven by my close involvement in trying to spare yet another modernist masterpiece by Curtis & Davis from senseless destruction. This dialectic would inadvertently come to function as the operative bookends of this project, post-Katrina. It would also for me provide insight into the mysteriously intersecting functions of race, class inequalities, aesthetic tastes, the art of politics, and the peculiar, below-sea-level geography of the place.


New Orleans's indigenous culture remains complex and contradictory. Two of its most celebrated annual events are the world-renowned Mardi Gras spectacle and the somewhat lesser-known but equally important New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Locals refer to the latter as simply Jazzfest. Locals and visitors alike become enrapt in the spirit of these two events. Each expresses a collaged visual and sonic landscape. Both are temporal, fleeting, here then gone. Each lasts two weeks. Mardi Gras, tied to the Lenten calendar, usually falls about eight weeks before Jazzfest.


Jazzfest is very much ingrained in the neighborhood where it is staged, and it touches the Esplanade Ridge, Gentilly, and Mid City neighborhoods. On the final Sunday of Jazzfest in 2005, as I walked from the New Orleans Fairgrounds (where Jazzfest is staged each year), people were playing chess on tables on the street corner, and impromptu pickup jam bands were wailing away on sidewalks in front of the rows of shotguns houses. We (David Quinn and I, plus our two teenage sons) came upon iconic Liuzza's Restaurant, in operation since the 1920s. There, a street party and crawfish boil was happening on this near-perfect afternoon. To me, this scene epitomized the good side of life in New Orleans. It was a positively delirious, upbeat scene. Next week I began to document via photos the offbeat places, buildings, and artifacts I had grown to love over the years, all over the city, with a passion that I could neither explain nor fully understand myself.


From east to west, suburb to swamp, sampling this visual landscape itself was, for me, a genuinely delirious (in the most positive sense of the word) experience. The traditions of escapism persisted. I hold many fond memories of riding the roller coasters with my two young children and their friends at the Jazzland (later Six Flags New Orleans) amusement park in the years just before Katrina. It is now in ruins. Delirious behavior—and by extension, delirious places—after all, had always been elevated to the status of civic virtue in New Orleans. For this reason, Delirious New Orleans became the obvious choice for the title of the project. It was chosen four months before Katrina, and was influenced by Rem Koolhaas's inspiring book Delirious New York (1978). Twentieth-century architecture amid New Orleans's inimitable cultural gumbo would be the central focus. By the weekend Katrina struck, over one hundred buildings, places, and artifacts (such as signs) had been documented. In many cases, the same subject matter was reshot at different times of day in an effort to capture its expressively delirious qualities.


My wife, Kindy, or my son, Alex, sometimes joined me on these sojourns, pre-Katrina. Friends and colleagues offered suggestions once they heard what I was up to. Why was I compelled to do this now, after having lived for twenty years in the city? I still was not really sure, but one thing was certain in retrospect, post-Katrina: Katrina rudely interrupted and yet further rekindled my on-again, off-again love affair with the city. As it was for everyone, my sense of sudden dislocation was real and profound. After a fourteen-hour evacuation car ride-exile march, and three very surreal nights in a Houston hotel with what seemed like multitudes of evacuees (and their pets), my wife and our two teenagers journeyed onward to Austin, Texas. Our dear friends, Charles and Christy Heimsath, provided us with shelter and, a few days later, helped us find a small house to rent until the end of the year, when we could return to repair our flooded home. That first week in Austin, Fritz Steiner, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, offered academic refuge there. In my delirium (in the most negative sense) brought on by the cataclysmic events of that first week, I had described to him the pre-Katrina Delirious New Orleans project and its possible ramifications post-Katrina. I am greatly indebted to him and to the faculty, students, and staff of the UT School of Architecture for their support, kindness, and shelter during the fall semester of 2005, while Tulane University remained shuttered. Parts 1 through 4 of this book were largely assembled in Austin.


Professors Kevin S. Alter and Michael Benedikt, codirectors of the Center for American Architecture and Design at the School of Architecture, were important supporters of this project. Their insights, encouragement, and pivotal role in critically and graphically making this into a book are greatly appreciated. Jim Burr, the humanities editor at the University of Texas Press, also was a great source of encouragement at an unstable moment in my life and career. Thanks are also due to Victoria Davis, at the University of Texas Press, and freelance copy editor Kip Keller for their diligent editing and checking of the manuscript. Many thanks to Raquel Elizondo, assistant dean (now retired) of the University of Texas School of Architecture, to Professor Steven Moore and the students in his graduate design studio, and to Eric Hepburn, Tisha Alvarado, Tara Carlisle, Tracey E. McMillan, Christine Wong, and Kerry Coyne. Special thanks to Jason Heinze, my research assistant while in residency at Texas (and later at Tulane), and to Jessica Gramcko, Breeze Glazer, and Dori Hernandez, my research assistants at Tulane. Jason Heinze himself was affected by the tragedy, since his parents lost their home in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. For reading a draft of most of the manuscript, special thanks to Dr. Eugene Cizek. Gene is a close colleague, architect, and preservationist of the highest caliber. Also, thanks to Dean Reed Kroloff of the Tulane University School of Architecture, who understood my decision to remain domiciled in Austin in Katrina's aftermath. Thanks to St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin and its head, the Reverend Roger Bowen, for taking in my two “Katrina kids,” Alexander and Elyssa Leigh. The St. Stephen's faculty, staff, students, and parents were a source of kindness and inspiration. Without question, this project is dedicated to my wife, Kindy, for her unwavering support and understanding for so many years.


Thanks also to Sony for inventing the 2 GB memory stick. Following the catastrophe, it was a challenge indeed to photograph a city whose power grid was rendered nearly completely dysfunctional. In between house repairs during the fall of 2005 and the 2006, I was in the field, so to speak, on post-Katrina reshoots. I made many day trips to New Orleans from Baton Rouge and the home of the Reverend Miller Armstrong and wife, Maryann. To their hospitality and support, I am greatly indebted. Thanks also to dear friends Mary Martha Quinn and David Quinn. Post-Katrina, Delirious New Orleans took on a new meaning. It was now as much about the dark side of deliriousness, delirium, as about itsjoyous aspect. Conceived at first as celebratory and upbeat, the project became shadowed by the question whether it would be possible to portray pre-Katrina conditions in the face of Katrina's devastation—the massive dislocation, destruction, and upheaval of the storm's aftermath. Readers should bear in mind that the book's title is more meaningful and resonant to me now than before the hurricane. In no way is the title meant to be insulting in any way to anyone or to any place.


The city was technically "closed" and evacuated when I first returned to survey the jaw-dropping damage, ten days after the disaster. The ruined neighborhoods and the scope of the destruction were shocking. Being there then felt eerily like being thrust into a war zone, and a remnant of that initial feeling stayed with me thereafter, day in and day out. That first visit, however, remained the most haunting. The mold-infested stench of the toxic waters that engulfed everything in and around my home remains vivid to this day. The floodwaters had receded from my neighborhood only a few days earlier. The situation in Mississippi was very different: the Mississippi coast was wiped clean by an act of nature, while New Orleans sat poisoned by the multiple failures of its poorly constructed government-built levees.


In the weeks and months following the catastrophe, pundits around the globe speculated wildly on the city's future, including its architecture. There is insufficient space here to refute the various misperceptions that were widely reported. Suffice it to say, not all the rich people lived on high ground before Katrina, and not all the poor people lived on low ground. In a period of nearly three hundred years, the historical condition that had evolved across time and space was far more complex. It is true that high concentrations of African Americans lived in the lowest-lying neighborhoods, which were the most severely flooded, though middle-class and upper-class whites in other neighborhoods, such as Lakeview, also lost everything. Overall, could more lives have been saved through better predisaster planning? Of course. But it makes little sense here to excoriate those responsible for the total breakdown in leadership at all levels of government that the world witnessed in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. That subject will be left to others to explore in the years ahead.


This book has six parts. In Part 1, pre- and post-Katrina images are presented. The latter images are presented to convey the post-Katrina delirium that so forcibly transformed the city, literally overnight. It is a set of complex conditions, including starkness, desolation, sadness, loss of place and collective memory, and the rising public anger as it became clear that the disaster was largely man-made. Part 2 examines the language of commercial vernacular architecture in New Orleans. Part 3 extends this language to embrace vibrant, expressive folk architecture—the soul, funk, and hip-hop expressions—in the African American neighborhoods of the city. Pre-Katrina, a compelling, culturally resonant, and provocative "on our own" architectural dialect had begun to flourish and inform place making in these neighborhoods. Part 4 attempts to examine the causes of the complex and contradictory conditions that resulted in the bifurcation of New Orleans's contemporary architectural traditions. These conditions are viewed largely in relation to institutionalized racism and racial intolerance, class inequalities, clandestine political maneuverings, and how these determinants are expressed in the Mardi Gras subculture. Part 5 looks at the aftermath of Katrina, especially the armada of FEMA trailers that descended upon the city and its suburbs and invaded the commercial vernacular landscape. Part 6 describes the intense battle I became closely engaged in to save a National Register-caliber landmark modernist church from 1963 by Curtis & Davis: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church, in Gentilly. This was an intense, pitched battle between an invading force bent on total destruction and those who saw the loss of the church as a critical setback for the rebuilding of the city. Sadly, the church was destroyed in early June 2007 after the failure of an eleventh-hour effort to save it for future generations of New Orleanians.


I am indebted to the Friends of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church (the ad hoc organization I helped form) for its intense devotion to saving this masterpiece. This group includes David Villarrubia, Robin Brou-Hatheway, Patricia Schreiber, Arthur Scully, Jim Logan, Frank Silvetti, Maurice Malochee, Frances Curtis, Arthur Q. Davis, Nell Curtis Tilton, Walter Gallas, Karen Gadbois, Mark Folse, David Gregor, Elliott Perkins, Stephen Braquet, Breeze Glazer, Steve Dumez, Fritz Suchke, Georgi Anne Brochstein, Lois Frederick Schneider, Kendall Frederick Pron, Barry Bergdoll, John Hildreth, Pete Rizzo, Michel Ragon, John Klingman, Steve Dumez, Ellen Weiss, Grover Mouton, the hundreds of loyal Cabrini parishioners who did not want to lose their beloved church and parish, and a handful of brave students at the Tulane School of Architecture. Thanks to my son, Alexander, who fearlessly navigated the rubble of the church to document its demise.


I am also grateful for generous support from Clemson University, my new academic home after more than two decades of teaching at Tulane. And incidentally, my leaving Tulane for Clemson had absolutely nothing to do with the church controversy, contrary to rumors spread by antichurch agitators. A grant from Clemson helped pull the project through the home stretch to completion. I joined the faculty in the School of Architecture at Clemson in 2007. Thanks to the Clemson Advancement Foundation and its director, LeRoy S. Adams; to Ted Cavanaugh, chair of the architecture program; to Esther Kaufman and Brandon Walter for their support; and to Jan Schach, former dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Humanities at Clemson.


Delirious New Orleans has been a fascinating and daunting project, and no one should make the mistake of underestimating the challenges that lie ahead in reconstructing New Orleans. These include global warming and its effects on rising sea levels and the increasing ferocity of hurricanes; determining how to protect a city that lies below sea level and is subsiding significantly in many areas; the severe loss of coastal wetlands because of shortsighted human interventions over the course of many decades of environmentally irresponsible development; and the urgent need to repair long-entrenched and fragile racial, social, class-based differences within the city and its metro area.


New Orleans is a city living on a knife's edge. Sadly, two years out, the rebuilding process remains stymied by a severe leadership vacuum. New Orleans suffered as nearly a fatal blow as any American city has ever experienced. A tremendous percentage of the city's housing stock was decimated. Countless homeowners and renters have been locked out of returning to their homes. The city's population has dropped by half. Insurance problems are worsening. Without a place to live, who can come back? The reconstruction of buildings alone will not bring New Orleans or New Orleanians back home, although this is of critical importance in the recovery process. A city is about its spirit, grit, and soul as much as its physicality. This book is therefore as much a cautionary tale as it is a call to arms to protect, rebuild, and preserve the architecture and cultural heritage of a truly extraordinary American city.


—Stephen Verderber