"This? This building is your City Hall?" two tourists, husband and wife, remark as they contemplate the worn 11-story structure that was once viewed by architects as a stunning and dramatic illustration of the post-World War II modernist movement in public facilities.
Any apologies would only become more fulsome upon entrance to the building: where once visitors were greeted by a gleaming open marble corridor, made distinctive by the thin aluminum lines that mark hand railings and an overhanging balcony, today a bulky security desk loaded with TV scanners sits clumsily toward the middle of the main lobby.
The marble, looking sadly older than marble on other, far older buildings in the city, is dull and smudged. Surveillance cameras, prompting the installment of new wiring, push out from ceilings that have been continuously patched and repatched for the better part of four decades.
"It is not a building that has aged well," says New Orleans architect J. Ron Filson, the former dean of Tulane's school of architecture. "It looks old and feels old. It was one of those buildings that was built with materials that had clear life spans to them -- unlike the heavy massive materials that went into the construction of Gallier Hall -- lifespans that probably were not intended to last upwards of 40 or 50 years."
Says fellow architect Betty Moss, who calls herself a fan of the City Hall building: "It's a victim of neglect. For years there has been deferred maintenance on the elevators and the air conditioning system, and everything else -- on just keeping the place up.
"Plus," adds Moss, "they have put up the worst kinds of partitions in some of the offices and did a bad job of trying to keep the painting and carpeting fresh. After awhile, those kinds of things take a toll on a building that is heavily used and nearly 50 years old."
Cedric Grant, as City Hall's chief administrative officer, has overseen an effort by the Morial administration to upgrade the building's maintenance and has spearheaded such major infrastructure improvements as the installation of a new heating and air-conditioning system in the late l990s. He is somber about the local landmark.
"This building is at its maximum use," Grant says. "And it very clearly needs more work. But in order to do the kind of renovation and repair work it really needs, it would cost millions more in the budget, and I'm not sure anyone is willing to make that commitment.
"But I can tell you that from almost the day we started this administration, and even during the previous administration, there has been talk about building a new City Hall," continues Grant. "And no matter how you look at it, that is a daunting proposal. In my estimate it would cost at least $120 million to build a new structure that would do all the things this building does, while also including all of the high technology, security and other wired things you need for any modern public facility today to function."
How a new administration, with a new mayor who places great emphasis on the symbols of high technology, will regard life in the l950s City Hall is still unknown. "Mayor-elect Nagin will do a full assessment of all City Hall related properties -- including rented office space -- at some point after he takes office on May 6," Nagin's press secretary, Patrick Evans, formally remarked in a release, after noting that "no one has brought this specific issue up to Mayor-elect Nagin." Nagin has also discussed the possibility of moving city government and selling or leasing the current structure, which occupies prime real estate.
Still, at least one member of Nagin's campaign staff, who asked to remain anonymous, is aghast over the prospect of working every day in the facility. "It's a depressing and ugly building," says the staffer. "I think it's a bad symbol for the city because it seems so old and worn-out."
New Orleans' City Hall has not always received such deflating reviews.
Designed by a team composed of two prominent New Orleans architectural firms -- Goldstein, Parham and Labouisse and Favrot, Reed, Mathes and Bergman -- the current City Hall was officially unveiled in the spring of l957 as the centerpiece in a corridor of modern development that included the $16 million Union Passenger Terminal; new buildings for the local civil courts, state offices and Louisiana Supreme Court; and the Main Library, with a modernistic facility that became a reality the following year.
"This City Hall is a symbol of our new New Orleans," said then-Mayor deLesseps Morrison, who, like Nagin, came to office as a young outsider and reformer. "We are a people who have refused to believe that horizons have limits or that the heavens have a ceiling."
However overblown the rhetoric, the new City Hall -- even in a metropolis not known for its modernist leanings -- won early praise. The New Orleans Item hailed it as a solid illustration "making New Orleans the national showcase of what a city can do." Time magazine called it the "eleven-story, $8 million glass-and-class City Hall," while American City Magazine headlined: "New Orleans City Hall: Big and Cool."
The professional journals were kind, especially the Architectural Record. Correspondent Robert Caldwell seemed determined to outdo Morrison's fizz when he observed "the gleaming new marble-faced City Hall from whose lofty mayor's office Morrison can see the framework of an elliptical marble and glass State Supreme Court building going up, a new limestone, glass and aluminum State Office building, and a new library, which will be a translucent rectangle of glass and aluminum-grill sunscreens."
With dramatic fins, a rectangular slant on a small block that gives it more physical space, and steel and glass everywhere (the budget for cleaning the windows jumped to $8,000 from the $1,300 yearly spent on Gallier Hall), the new City Hall seemed the epitome not only of modernism but of the promise of a progressive tomorrow.
But in ways that today seem either embarrassing or quaint, the new City Hall was also a distinct relic of its time: bathrooms, in the decade before the civil rights revolution, were racially segregated, while the basement was designed to serve as a fall-out shelter -- the latter a lagniappe for Morrison who, when his office was at Gallier Hall, suggested that Lafayette Park would also be a nice place for a shelter.
"I don't know what kind of shelter it provided," says CAO Grant about City Hall. "But for years the basement was used to store important documents, and that ended up being a big mistake because of the seepage. This, after all, is New Orleans, and these buildings are always moving."
When Mayor Marc Morial moved into City Hall in l994, he launched a campaign to remove as many of the basement documents as possible.
At the same time, he took one look at the greasy baseboards, broken furniture, and torn carpeting in both his office and several other offices in the building and told one reporter for the Times-Picayune: "The place was just rotting -- rotten, old, scratched up, not clean."
Within a month of Morial taking office, City Hall's outside sidewalks were pressure-washed, the building's perimeter was newly landscaped, and a fresh coat of paint was slapped on the walls of the first, second, fourth and seventh floors, which house the agencies most used by the public. A corporate fundraiser helped raise the $15,000 needed to replace two of the blue letters in the outside neon "City Hall," and transform the entire sign with red lettering, a gold fleur de lis and a blue river running through the letters.
"I think given the constraints of the budget and the condition of the facility, we have done as best as we can with this place," says Grant, who adds that the annual City Hall property management budget, including both personnel and supplies, is a relatively modest $1.8 million.
For some long-time City Hall fans, that money is a smart investment. "It's a classic example of the l950s modernist movement in architecture and deserves better," says Creed Brierre, the president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
"In fact, if you look at any of the current architectural journals, you can easily see that this kind of movement is coming back," Brierre adds. "All over the country we're seeing new examples of modernism, such as the new building that is going up in Oklahoma City to replace the one that was bombed in l995, the design of which looks very much like our City Hall around l957."
Adds Moss: "If you really study it, you can quickly see that our City Hall is an amazing building. The offices on the north side of the building have a lovely soft light from the outside, which is part of the original design."
And for any office that gets too hot on a warm spring day, on either side of the building, there are windows that City Hall staffers can open for air: "How many new buildings can you do that in?" Moss asks. "That's a very attractive feature."
Grant admits that the idea of building a new City Hall is a seductive one. "The Mayor has talked about it, about building a structure that is more energy-efficient and receptive to technology, with public meeting spaces that are more state of the art," he says.
"But with all of the other pressing issues facing our city in the last decade, building a new City Hall was never a top priority."
Still, former Tulane dean Filson counts himself as one architect who believes a new City Hall under a new mayor would be a powerful symbol for New Orleans. "For Nagin, like Morrison before, it would be an important opportunity for the city to really say something about itself," Filson says. "And that's no small thing."
CORRECTIONS: In last week's arts feature, "Passion Player," several facts detailing Father Ernest Ferlita's career were incorrect. Ferlita earned a Doctor of Fine Arts from Yale University not a masters degree, directed one play a year at Loyola University not four, and was the valedictorian of Spring Hill College not Jesuit High School in Tampa, Fla. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.