Out of the Water

In the aftermath of Katrina, a New Orleans library and
community center reinvents itself through sheer determination.

The story behind the new Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center begins, as many sagas in New Orleans do, with water: when the levees failed after Hurricane Katrina, the original 1993 library found itself holding two feet of inundation. Even though the historic house connected to it, which served as a community center, wasn’t as badly flooded, its faulty foundation became even faultier. The neighborhood of Broadmoor faced an uncertain future, but its residents saw their library and community center as indispensable. “It was important to bring back the neutral space that rests at the heart of our neighborhood, where all sections of Broadmoor meet and touch,” says LaToya Cantrell, chairperson of the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA).

Seven years later, the new library, a rugged, unapologetically modern structure by Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR), and the restored community center, with a rain garden in front, serve as a testament to both community resolve and the city’s evolving relationship with water.

The facility, which opened last April, is the ultimate recovery story—it’s a direct result of the grassroots efforts that emerged after Katrina, when neighborhoods frustrated by government inaction began organizing, some for their very survival. In January 2006, just four and a half months after the storm, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission unveiled a plan that would convert some low-lying residential neighborhoods into parks and open spaces. A now-infamous map appeared in New Orleans’s Times-Picayune, showing six large green dots scattered throughout the city, which indicated areas that would not be redeveloped. One of those green dots was Broadmoor. “That map was really the catalyst that spearheaded our recovery,” says Cantrell, whose organization played a huge role in galvanizing the community, and later raised money for the new library. “Less than a week after that, we organized a rally called Broadmoor Lives and began forming committees.”

The green dots were defeated in fairly short order, but with Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration in disarray, recovery planning fell largely to the neighborhoods. A racially and economically diverse area, Broadmoor was particularly active and organized. The BIA enlisted the help of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Clinton Global Initiative and began with a focus on efforts that would engender broad community support—what Cantrell calls “the low-hanging fruit.” She appointed Kurt Hagstette, a Broadmoor resident and an architect at EDR, as chairman of the library committee. His initial goal was altogether modest. Since the fate of the library was very much in question, he wanted to reestablish it as a vital community hub as soon as possible.

As the New Orleans Public Library deliberated over which branches would be reopened, the BIA pushed forward with ambitious plans: it wanted to replace the damaged building with something that spoke to renewal. “In the beginning, when it looked like there wasn’t going to be any money for anything,” Hagstette recalls, “the neighborhood came together and secured $2 million from the Carnegie Foundation.”

The support from Carnegie convinced the city to save the library, but it wasn’t nearly enough to build a new one. To receive additional funding, the BIA needed to convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—the hopelessly bureaucratic holder of federal purse strings—that the old library was more than 50 percent damaged. This required a full-court press from both the BIA and EDR. “We ended up going through four different damage assessments,” Cantrell says. “Finally, FEMA came back and said, ‘full replacement.’ So that gave us $4 million toward the project, in addition to the $2.3 million we’d already raised.”

Even though the new building would eventually be owned and operated by the pubic library system, the BIA had become the de facto client for the project. “We asked EDR to bid on the project,” Cantrell says. “They knew us, they knew the project, and they won the bid.” Even if EDR hadn’t been embedded in the process from the outset, they may well have won the job. The firm has played a big role in post-Katrina rebuilding, while also establishing a national reputation for contemporary work in a city that is famously resistant to new architecture.

In deference to the 1917 house, the architects reducedthe footprint of the library slightly and pushed it back from the street, giving the old building greater prominence. Restoration of the historic house, which was always a given, began with a tricky feat of engineering. Like many buildings in swampy New Orleans, this Arts and Crafts–inspired mash-up was sinking, so engineers at Roubion Shoring first stabilized it and then used a carefully calibrated hydraulic system to lift the wooden structure. “For a period of time, the house seemed to levitate five feet in midair,” says Steve Dumez, EDR’s design director. “My kids were fascinated.” Eventually, the house was placed on the same raised platform as the new library, creating a link between new and old,and lifting the entire facility above flood levels.

The 6,300-square-foot library—a fairly simple structure that’s sheathed in a series of perforated metal panels designed to act as rain shields—is defined by an elegant formal move that accomplishes several goals. “The roof form addresses the mass of the existing house by spiraling from low to high,” Dumez explains. “This allowed us to develop the interior as a continuous space, while still giving definition to the specific program areas below.” As visitors progress through the library, the interior volumes increase, creating zones for reading, reference, technology, stacks, and a children’s room. “Because the helix wraps around itself, we were able to capture a small courtyard in the center of the space, bringing light into the heart of the library,” he says.

Although a proposed green roof was spiked due to budget concerns, EDR used the roofs of both buildings to channel storm water to a single point, where it’s diverted into a rain garden in front of the old building. The parking lot is landscaped so that storm water drains into a second bioswale. “The client wanted it to be an educational piece about the larger issue of water,” says Wes Michaels, a landscape architect with Spackman Mossop and Michaels who collaborated with EDR on the project. “We wanted it to be something that people could understand as a feature of the landscape, that would be a beautiful garden as well as a piece of infrastructure.”

The Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center’s story is still unfolding; Broadmoor is a work in progress. LaToya Cantrell is running for city council. The project has filed for LEED certification, aiming for a Silver rating. (Bioswales, rain gardens, and green buildings might not be a big deal elsewhere, but the U.S. Green Buildings Council counts just 13 certified buildings in New Orleans, and only 35 in all of Louisiana.)

Recently, the library held a contest to name its new café. “We didn’t know that Broadmoor would be so subversive as to name it the Green Dot Café,” Dumez says. The architects didn’t realize that by placing green cement board beneath the external metal scrims, which created a facade with thousands of dots, they were providing an inadvertent reminder of the neighborhood’s struggle and triumph. “We knew we were creating green dots, but we didn’t connect it to this,” says Dumez. They didn’t have to; Broadmoor did it for them.

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