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Senior Living Facility, The Carrollton, is Featured in Bloomberg’s City Lab Series

Originally published on Bloomberg City Labs

To restore the Carrollton, built in 1855, architects retained its neoclassical style and added modern amenities for assisted living.  

The architect Henry Howard gave New Orleans many of its most celebrated structures. In addition to the four-story Pontalba Buildings, whose wrought-iron balconies front Jackson Square, and the St. Charles Avenue billiards hall that is now home to the Pickwick Club, Howard also designed scores of Italianate and Greek Revival shotgun houses across the Garden District. Some of those 19th-century homes have names now, too, because they’re Howard’s work.

One of Howard’s best projects has had many titles over the years. Built in 1855 as the primary court and jail for the town of Carrollton, the Carrollton Courthouse only hosted legal proceedings for 20 years, as Carrollton was annexed by the city of New Orleans. In 1874, the courthouse was rechristened McDonough No. 23, a segregated school for white children. Later, it served a stint as Benjamin Franklin Senior High School.

But after 1987, its uses grew more temporary and tenuous, and more than once it faced the wrecking ball. Residents of the Uptown neighborhood railed against proposals to replace the courthouse with a grocery store or sell it to a condo developer. When the building finally sold for auction in 2018 for $4.7 million — following fraught legal issues — it had been sitting vacant and deteriorating for five years.

Illustrations courtesy of Bloomberg City Lab

After a three-year renovation that also added 200,000 square feet of new construction, the Carrollton reopened in February as an assisted living facility. The $28.5-million facelift took pains to restore the Greek Revival civic building to its antebellum glory while making it a suitable home for older residents. Subtlety was the watchword.

“The neighbors were initially reserved about what was going to happen with this site,” says architect David Curtis of Waggonner & Ball, the firm that led the preservation and adaptation of the project. “The courthouse building is so revered, any attempt to revitalize it would be met with some concern.”

Sometimes, an old building in need of renovation will still have redeemable components — 200-year-old windows can still be in usable shape. But that wasn’t the case with the Carrollton. “The structure was in need everywhere we turned,” says Joe Yenni, market leader for building in New Orleans at Impetus, contractors for both new construction and renovation for the Carrollton.

Illustrations courtesy of Bloomberg City Lab

Not only did building features need to be completely reconstructed, inside and out, the work often had to be done using historic methods. The former courthouse is a load-bearing masonry building, for example, so repairing the brickwork called for a technique called tuckpointing, as well as the use of a historic mortar mix. Modern mortar risks making the mortar stronger than the bricks, which can cause them to crack. “If you want anything to fail, you want the mortar to fail, not the bricks,” Yenni says.

For the builders, the challenge was coming up with ways to introduce modern elements in a 168-year-old building that didn’t draw attention to themselves or challenge the integrity of the historic design. That approach also extended to the Carrollton’s new construction, which comprises two residential wings and connecting spaces between the buildings.

Landscaped ellipses in front of the new wings serve as rain gardens to retain stormwater, consistent with local regulations to alleviate flooding.

Illustrations courtesy of Bloomberg City Lab

The central court building is the social hub of the project: It hosts communal dining spaces, lounges and other amenities for the 93-unit facility. Only three of the apartment units are found in the courthouse building. The rest are located in the new wings, which were subject to deep setbacks and height caps, so as not to compete with Howard’s courthouse. With substantially less lofty modern ceiling heights, the wings are three stories tall, while the courthouse is just two stories.

“Obviously, with today’s economic drivers, we couldn’t go put 18-to-20-foot ceilings in the new construction components of the building,” Yenni says. “You have much smaller floor and ceiling heights on the wings. So the connected buildings have ramps in them. Very hidden and subtle.”

Illustrations courtesy of Bloomberg City Lab

Standard residential units have a bedroom, living area and kitchenette. On a floor devoted to memory care, the units don’t have kitchen spaces. Two of the floors feature “neighborhood setups” that give residents their own dining area and other communal spaces, away from the central courthouse.

As the facility is located on Carrollton Avenue — a major Crescent City parade route — the building also has street-facing balconies to allow residents to enjoy a time-honored local tradition. These aren’t wrought iron, as seen in other buildings designed by Howard, but rendered with a minimalist touch in steel that doesn’t try to compete with the courthouse’s soaring Ionic columns.

There’s also a bar that’s open to the pubic — this is New Orleans, after all — giving neighbors access to a building they fought to save. Historic preservation efforts sometimes come up short. Buildings get lost; well-meaning neighbors can fight so hard against change that they block progress. With the Carrollton, according to its builders, everybody wins.

“This type of facility is a low-impact use for this site,” Curtis says. “It doesn’t have much vehicular traffic and it’s a relatively quiet type of place that shouldn’t impact the quality of life in the neighborhood.”

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