Sexton in the City

by Sandra Stokes and Michael Duplantier


More than two years of work to save the sexton cottages in New Orleans' publicly-owned Lafayette Cemeteries No. 1 and No. 2 was not enough to prevent the proposed demolition of the historic cottages by the City of New Orleans.

In March 2012, representatives of Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, and Save Our Cemeteries visited Holt, Lafayette No. 1 and Lafayette No. 2 Cemeteries to review the work being proposed by the city.   The preservation groups learned that the proposed $2.6 million of improvements at cemeteries across the city included the demolition of the historic sexton cottages at these three cemeteries.

Because federal funds were scheduled to be used for the costs of replacing the cottages, the required Section 106 process was initiated by FEMA, and representatives of the non-profits, along with other government agencies and contractors joined in the review process with the objective to “avoid, minimize, or mitigate” adverse impacts to the historic cemeteries.  After it was determined that the cottage at Holt Cemetery was in good condition and could easily be renovated, the city agreed to do so, and the focus turned to the cottages in Lafayette No. 1 and No. 2.  Saving these cottages was more complicated. The buildings had been allowed by the city to fall into serious disrepair, and the city wanted to demolish the historic cottages to build cinder block maintenance sheds clad in cement board.

In September of 2012, after much debate, the city agreed that instead of demolishing the two cottages, it would allow preservationists to donate architectural designs and the project manual for the cottages' renovation, provided that the renovation plans would allow for construction within the available budget.   The engagement of the preservationists and the resulting solutions reached by the consenting agencies were praised as a perfect example of a Section 106 process.  There would no longer be any adverse effect to the historic properties.

Over the course of the next year and a half, the preservation groups and the city worked together in good faith toward this apparent win-win solution.  The non-profits worked tirelessly, meeting with the city every step of the way. Architect Michael Rouchell provided the drafting and the project manual, while John Schackai of Sustainable Architects was the designer and architect of record. The designs were approved by all parties at all levels.  The only remaining issue was that in order for the city to accept the donation of the architectural designs and services, Sustainable Architects would also need to sign a Cooperative Endeavor Agreement (CEA) with the city. 

The renovation of the cottages reached an impasse when the negotiations broke down over certain of the obligations required by the city to be part of the CEA. The obligations could not be agreed to, and the city eventually cancelled the working agreement to save the historic cottages.

The preservation groups then learned that the city no longer found the previously approved designs for the sexton cottages acceptable, and had concluded that the low maintenance of newly-constructed cement masonry structures was the only option.

The preservationists then suggested ways to salvage something from the proposed demolition of the cottages, such as using revised designs provided by the preservationists to build the new cottages, or deconstructing the existing cottages and reusing some of the material and trim.   Just prior to a scheduled meeting to discuss these and other design options, the preservationists were startled to learn that the city had withdrawn its request to use FEMA funds that were available for the cottages, thus abruptly ending the Section 106 review.  The city left federal funds on the table rather than continue meeting with preservationists to discuss ways to make the new designs blend better with the historic cemeteries that the cottages served. This cleared the path for the city to demolish the buildings and build cement masonry buildings with no further design consultation or review from preservationists. 

The Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historic Louisiana, and Save Our Cemeteries and the dedicated architects gave their all for more than two years to save these two historic cottages, an effort deemed important due to the critical role that the cemeteries play in the cultural history and authenticity of our city. The unfortunate result of this failed effort is particularly disappointing in that the goals of the City of New Orleans and preservationists were not mutually exclusive. The restoration of the historic sexton cottages could have maintained the cemeteries’ integrity, while meeting the programmatic and maintenance needs of the city. The impending destruction of the historic cottages represents not only loss of a part of New Orleans’ historic fabric, but loss of the promising precedent of an effective and consequential working relationship between preservationists and public officials.     

Elena Walker