In August, Pickery co-owners Danny Guillot and Bart Westdorp were notified that their property was going to be expropriated by the state for the Phase IV expansion of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. "People [usually] don't challenge the expropriation," says Guillot and Westdorp's lawyer, Randy Smith. "Generally, the landowners feel resignation at the property being taken and focus on getting fair compensation for the property."
Guillot and Westdorp say they are determined to save the building that has served not only as their home and the workspace for their furniture repair business, but also as a performance, exhibit and gathering space for artists of all stripes. A trial is scheduled for Civil District Court Wednesday, Nov. 13, to determine the Pickery's fate.
Originally, Guillot and Westdorp did not set out to open an arts center. "When we initially got the place in 1999, we had no intention of doing art shows or theater or anything. That organically grew out of the people we met," Guillot says. The business partners spent a year restoring the 150-year-old structure, which recently was designated a historic landmark. The name refers to the building's original use in the mid-19th century, when cotton was brought from the fields to a pickery to be picked clean. The Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC) notes that only three pickery buildings remain standing in New Orleans, and in its landmark designation report values the structures as "a vital part of the economic history of New Orleans." (The HDLC hasn't yet taken an official position on proposed demolition.)
Jimmie Fore, executive vice-president of the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority, says he regrets the need to tear down the Pickery, but says that the move is mandated by the economic imperatives of the convention industry. "When you start weighing jobs and dollars and taxes paid, the decisions you make may not be pleasant, but they have to be the decisions that will protect, preserve and grow the business that you have," Fore says. "If you don't build, if you don't expand, then the business goes away."
The design for the Phase IV expansion is based on a feasibility study that recommended the construction of 500,000 to 600,000 square feet of exhibition space. "That would keep the city of New Orleans competitive with the cities that we compete with regularly," Fore says. "If we did not choose to expand, or if we built less space than the study recommended, then we would lose market share." The Convention Center projects that the addition to the building that will be constructed on the Pickery's block will be responsible for an additional $567 million a year in additional spending in the city, and will account for 7,200 jobs.
Wednesday's trial will determine whether the Convention Center has the right to expropriate the Pickery, as well as another designated historic property on the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Race streets, owned by Dr. Steve Lesser. Guillot and Westdorp hope that Judge C. Hunter King will be influenced by the fact that the original master plan for the Convention Center's expansion left their block untouched. "We're not opposed to this expansion, we just don't feel that it's being done in a very responsible manner," Westdorp says. "They haven't been able to show any kind of overwhelming evidence that they really need the area. Also, our property is 4,200 square feet, and the convention center is going to end up being 1.6 million square feet of exhibition space. They don't really need our little bit of property. It seems like they could work around it."
Convention Center attorney Matt Chenevert says that planners considered the original L-shaped design optimal because it met the square footage requirement without resorting to expropriations. "We took this plan and showed it to the neighbors, to City Hall, to the mayor, and to city planning so they could understand what we were thinking about doing," Chenevert says. Then negotiations began: the mayor wanted several streets widened and room to extend the riverfront streetcar line; the neighbors wanted access to the river. Chenevert says they were happy to comply with these requests, but adds that "we lost a lot of building in a big hurry." The revised plan makes up for the square footage lost.
"It opens up the rest of this block for development, and when you add that on, it's about 180,000 square feet," Chenevert says. "And magically that comes up to almost the same number that we lost by cutting back [to comply with the requests]." The final design for the Phase IV expansion has 524,000 square feet of exhibition space.
"We have an obligation to the state and to the city to deliver the kind of building that they're entitled to," Chenevert says. "We understand, too, the need for these kind of interesting buildings, but I don't know if I would agree with those who say that this building is unique. It really isn't. Just two days ago, I saw on Richard Street a very large warehouse of the same age and construction as the Pickery, that is being demolished right now. They're taking it down, brick by brick. It's the same kind of building. And can I drive through there and find more? Yeah, I think I could."
To Guillot and Westdorp, it's not just the building that makes the Pickery special, but also the activities that go on inside it. That's something, they say, that the Convention Center decisionmakers know nothing about. "This is one of the more vibrant art and cultural scenes going on in the city," Guillot says. "We feel they should at least make the effort to see what it's about before they decide to knock it down."
Guillot is standing inside the Pickery, where a cavernous first floor is set up for the play Trust Fund Babies. Guillot and Westdorp's workshop is tucked behind a wall of salvaged wood-framed windows. Chairs dangle mysteriously from the 20-foot ceiling, high above a long bar. Upstairs, in the two apartments, large painted canvasses adorn the walls. "It's become a permanent exhibition space at this point," says Westdorp.
Guillot and Westdorp have earned praise from New Orleans artists for the Pickery. "It's been a breath of fresh air for the art community," says Carol Leake, chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Loyola University. "What the Pickery has done was unlike anything else. They've had events that were so cross-disciplinary, using theater and art and music, that got people very excited."
Simeon Hunter, assistant professor at Loyola, agrees. "The Warehouse District has fulfilled a certain function artistically, but none of those places provide an easy outlet for young, upcoming artists in the city," Hunter says. Talented students graduate from Loyola's art program every year, he says, but with no spaces to show work. "They're not established enough for the Contemporary Art Center and they're not safe enough for the commercial galleries. So they're obliged to go elsewhere in the country to establish themselves, and of course what happens is that they don't come back. This perpetuates the situation where New Orleans is a music town, but not an art town.
"If the Convention Center needs to tear down an interdisciplinary cultural center in a historic building," continues Hunter, "then they must compensate [Guillot and Westdorp] adequately so that it can be moved, instead of simply squashed. They must recognize that the value of that site is not just that of a derelict warehouse. This little building is not just a building. To be a facilitator in the economic and cultural life of a city is not negligible."
Local theater producer mikko has staged several shows at the Pickery, including an adaptation of T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland. "Most artistic spaces in town have an agenda of some sort," he says. "At the Pickery, there's no agenda except the desire of the artist. In The Wasteland, I had a guy drop from the rafters in a mountain climbing outfit and swing from his heels in the middle of the audience. I couldn't do that anywhere else. The Pickery is the only artistically free space in the city, both literally and figuratively free."
Guillot and Westdorp rarely take money for use of their space, and they encourage the producers of each event to donate some of the proceeds to charity. A group art exhibit in March of 2002 titled "Art in the Dark" brought in 2,000 people and raised money for KIDsmART, a nonprofit organization that works with inner-city kids. Guillot and Westdorp say they wish that the Pickery could be seen as a potential perk for the convention industry as well. They say they've discussed creating an arts corridor in the area, adding a sculpture garden in the space between the Pickery and Lesser's property.
"We actually feel that we'd benefit the Convention Center by being here, because it provides more of a pedestrian opportunity for conventioneers and more of the feel of New Orleans," says Guillot.
In the battle over what's best for New Orleans, Chenevert and Fore focus on their projection of increased spending and local jobs. "What this building does is bring people to our city that earn money outside of this state and this area, and allow them to spend it in our trade channels," says Fore. "That's the only thing we do."
Guillot and Westdorp acknowledge that projections like those are hard to argue with, but they nonetheless believe they have a case for the Pickery. "New Orleans seems to have a sort of uniqueness, a flavor to it," Westdorp says. "We feel that if you start tearing down one historic place after another, whether it's a cultural center like this or other historic warehouses, and start replacing them with this homogeneous product, with Wal-Marts and Red Lobsters and all that, eventually there will be nothing left of the real New Orleans. I guess we're just asking for them to take a little better care of their history and their heritage."
But Chenevert says that in the case of the Convention Center, there is no possibility of a compromise. "We did not want to disturb anybody's homes or businesses, but it just came to pass," he says. "We didn't have a choice." Pending the outcome of this week's trial, the Pickery is scheduled to be demolished in February.