New Orleans' old homes prove they were built to last

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New Orleans has 20 different neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places — more than any other city per capita — with some 37,000 structures ranging from Greek revival mansions to Creole cottages and shotgun shacks. Because these neighborhoods were built by early settlers who understood the dangers of their environment; they sit in the city's highest parts, and came through the storm in the best shape.

The Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans is helping residents restore their historic homes. The group has provided expertise, cleaning supplies, architects and mold-remediation specialists to survey damage to homes. It is looking for eight homes in eight different historic neighborhoods whose owners want to come back.

They are called "Demonstration Homes" and the PRC hopes they will spark other residents to return and restore their homes.

"We see them as beacons of hope and inspiration," says Patricia Gay, of the PRC. "We think they will have a ripple effect on other renovations."

She says no project is too difficult; the PRC has saved entire buildings that have collapsed. The cost of rehabbing historic homes is much less than demolishing them and then rebuilding.

But while homeowners like Landry can take out loans to start rebuilding even before they receive insurance checks, others in poorer neighborhoods have no means to fix up their homes. Some didn't have insurance.

Mildred Bennett, for instance, owns a shotgun shack in Holy Cross. It was built in 1884 as a wedding gift and has been in the family ever since, with the intention that it always would be.

But Bennett, who has been relocated to Ennis, Texas, had no flood insurance and received only $4,000 for wind damage to the historic structure.

The PRC contacted her, and the shack has become a "Demonstration Home" as well. The PRC and National Trust will pay to refurbish it.

"When she heard it was going to be rebuilt, it was the first time I heard joy in her voice," says Bennett's granddaughter, Donna Duplantier. "She's very homesick and cries every day."

The National Trust is asking Congress for $60 million in grants to help homeowners rebuild in the city's historic districts, saying that everything turns on their return.

Other organizations agree.

"The historical neighborhoods were the underpinnings of the city's economy, and rehabilitation of those historical buildings is critical to bringing the city back," says Ed McMahon, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

His organization recently released a report about how the city's neighborhoods should be revived. Attention should be given quickly to those that received minor or even moderate damage, such as the 20 historic districts, says McMahon.

"But in the rush to rebuild, it would be a mistake to put people back in harm's way — and land that is five to 12 feet below sea level is dangerous no matter what you do with the levees," he says.

That includes parts of the much-debated Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East — neither of which are designated as historic landmarks.

"Like Venice, Italy, New Orleans is a cultural treasure. And everyone who lived in the city should be allowed to come back," says McMahon. "But that doesn't mean that they all should live in exactly the same spot that they lived before."

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