As a preservation developer, I advocate for policies that encourage the rehabilitation of historic structures, while also undertaking rehabilitation projects for my own account and that of others. My company tries to maximize the social impact of our work beyond the bricks and mortar of preservation projects.
It was with that in mind that we decided to enlist a team of like-minded professionals to document the nuts and bolts problems and solutions of a sample preservation project, and then share them with a broader audience. We call it the Preservation Toolkit.
Our test case is the rehabilitation of the long-dormant upper floors of five historic buildings on Canal St. in New Orleans. Though in some ways hyper local, many cities face a similar challenge. How does one sensitively rehabilitate the upper floors of a commercial corridor and reintroduce them to commerce in an economically viable way?
Our intent is to complete the project and then share information that ranges from from Microsoft Word templates of easements, construction details of lightwells, and the social histories of the young, independent women who worked in the Taxi Dance Halls in our buildings.
The final body of work will be accessible in an online database hosted by the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans and made available to other property owners, whether across the street or across the country.
While the overall preservation project is far from completion, the most interesting part of the Preservation Toolkit thus far has been the creation of the @preservationtoolkit Instagram account.
@preservationtoolkit on Instagram
Susan Langenhenning of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans provided counsel that was simple and liberating: All channels of communication don’t have to include the same level of detail and they don't need to target the same audience. She suggested we use simple videos on Instagram as a “Light Skim” for those casually interested in preservation.
Or, as one of our consultants, Melissa Chua, put it, “The @preservationtoolkit Instagram is for folks who don’t yet realize they are preservationists.”
The content for the Preservation Toolkit account is created by my staff, but we look to the design and construction professionals associated with the project for our source material. None of us are Instagram influencers or media professionals. We are a team of developers, architects, engineers, and construction professionals attempting to document a preservation project from its inception through construction completion.
One of the initial challenges we faced was gaining community and partner buy-in, in part due to the future use of the upper floors, which are being rehabilitated into 36 short term rental apartments (think Airbnb apartments but licensed as a hotel). Because contributors to the Preservation Toolkit donate their time and expertise as part of a civic effort, we knew these community and non-profit organizations would be less likely to partner with us as well if we were also in partnership with the hotel brand. As a result, we made a conscious decision to make sure the name of the hotel does not appear within the @preservationtoolkit account and the hotel brand is not a sponsor. Removing the name of the hotel brand from the Preservation Toolkit also allows to take a more progressive stance than we might otherwise be able to take if we did.
Because of this decision and our record of community involvement and activism, we have entered into partnerships with not-for-profit partners. In addition to our partnership with the Preservation Resource Center, Tulane School of Architecture’s Preservation Studies program is providing interns, the Nola Mural Project is contributing public art, and the University of New Orleans’s Public History program is using the project as a class project for one of its graduate courses.
Our designers, Trapolin-Peer Architects, are experienced preservationists. At this point in the project we have not recruited all of our financial partners but in the past, we have been successful in finding investors and lenders who are truly concerned with social impact as well as financial return and we expect the same here.
In the first couple of months we have tried to strike a balance between posting light-hearted content that shows off the “Before” condition of the building with more substantive videos that documents challenges and solutions. Behind the scenes we are lining up interviews, cajoling experts to appear on camera, and doing research.
We have also learned that it is extremely difficult to present a complicated problem and solution in a 20 second video. All the professionals who have agreed to appear on camera are experts in their fields and they are used to working through extremely difficult problems. Boiling down without dumbing it down is challenging.
As a result, we are experimenting with different formats. We are adjusting our tone. On camera interviews have been discarded in favor or voiceovers and our videos have gotten shorter. We are working on the appropriate mix of “ruin porn” with the meat and potatoes videos related to construction challenges and solutions. It is very much a work in progress.
One of the preservation challenges of our project is exploring the appropriate way to treat any architectural remnants of Jim Crow. The dressing rooms of Canal St. department stores were segregated and one of our buildings was the site of McCrory’s lunch counter, the site of civil rights sit-ins that led to the desegregation of Canal Street.
While there are variety of different ways to tell this story, especially when the end-product is a for-profit endeavor and not a museum, we made the decision to commit to a, “You tell us” approach over one of, “We’ll tell you.” Consequently, the Toolkit includes outreach to elders in the African American community.
Not surprisingly, “scope creep” has been an issue. As we pursue archives or interview elders it is natural to want to purse every story that strikes our interest. But the preservation challenges on a particular project are just as much about figuring out where to run the ducts or how to raise the equity and it has been challenging to find the right balance. And we have to do so in a way that does not reveal proprietary information, violate copyright, or divulge confidential financial information.
You are invited to follow @preservationtoolkit on Instagram, track our construction progress, and our transformation into social media celebrities. Please comment and tell us what you would like to see on future episodes of the @preservationtoolkit.
Neal Morris is the principal at Red Mellon Redevelopment and Restoration.