By Beth Donze
If not for the oak trees lining both sides of Ursulines Avenue, the French Gothic Revival building with dormer windows crowned by leaved stone finials might be mistaken for a convent located somewhere in Europe.
But the four-story brick structure, a relatively unknown piece of New Orleans’ rich architectural landscape, was built in Treme more than a century ago as the original St. Joseph Academy, the all-girls’ school operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Workers are in the final stages of a $34 million makeover that is transforming the former academy and a pair of neighboring structures into 79 units of affordable apartments for New Orleans’ working artists.
“I’m thrilled because I attended school here,” said Sister of St. Joseph Joan Laplace, reminiscing about her happy years as a member of St. Joseph’s class of 1959 during a recent tour of the construction site.
“A few years after graduation I remember riding on the Claiborne Avenue overpass for the first time and seeing this beautiful place in the distance,” she said. “I thought, ‘What is that building?’ Then I realized it was my high school! I had never seen it from above.”
Ready in six months
The renovation project, on track for completion in about six months, sprawls across a two-block-deep parcel of Treme bounded by Ursulines, North Johnson, Dumaine and North Galvez streets. Overseeing the overhaul is Minneapolis-based Artspace, the country’s leading non-profit developer of affordable arts facilities. Gibbs Construction of New Orleans is the general contractor.
The U-shaped edifice that takes up the entire 2100 block of Ursulines Avenue is actually three separate structures erected by the Sisters of St. Joseph over 50 years.
The oldest building on the site – the 1887-built Gothic chapel at the corner of North Galvez and Ursulines – was modeled after a church in the sisters’ congregational home of Bourg, France, by New Orleans architect John Freret. Once restored, it will provide 8,000 square feet of soaring interior space, complete with a stage in the former sanctuary for musical performances, arts programming and community meetings.
“It is the last standing building in Treme with external buttresses,” said Joe Butler, project manager and director of Artspace’s New Orleans office, showing visitors holes drilled into the chapel’s brickwork for its earliest phase of restoration: the injection of an expandable resin that will reinforce the aging walls and allow carpenters to carry out delicate repairs to the chapel’s wood-and-slate roof.
Also being preserved are several architectural features that point to the building’s use as the place where the local Sisters of St. Joseph would pray, attend Mass together and profess their vows through the late 1950s before relocating to their more modern novitiate on Mirabeau Avenue. Those elements include unembellished stained-glass windows, Corinthian columns that blossom into ribbed vaulting in the ceiling, and a choir loft wrapped in its original wooden balcony.
“The whole thing is deeply architecturally significant. It’s definitely a spiritual place, and we want to recognize that (in the restoration),” Butler said.
Became Bell Jr. High in 1961
Fifty-six of the development’s 79 one- and two-bedroom apartments will be carved out of two spaces: the elegant main school building, which opened in 1906 as St. Joseph Academy, initially serving first through 12th graders; and a neighboring building added in 1937 at the corner of North Johnson and Ursulines to house the academy’s cafeteria, library and second-floor gymnasium.
The sisters sold their Ursulines Avenue property to New Orleans Public Schools in 1961, relocating St. Joseph Academy to a new Gentilly campus on Crescent Street through 1980.
Andrew J. Bell Junior High School, an institution that would go on to draw praise for its excellent music program, operated out of the old academy site from 1961 until being permanently shuttered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It rained inside the academy building for seven years,” said Butler, describing the eight-year long effort by Artspace to secure the vacant and moldering structures from the school board, the Recovery School District, the city, the state and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). Artspace took full possession of the parcel in 2016, in concert with HANO’s mission to build affordable housing to replace units lost in the Katrina-forced demolition of the Lafitte and Iberville housing developments.
A gifted N.O. architect
The 111-year-old former academy building, whose top floor once accommodated student boarders, was designed by Gen. Allison Owen, the New Orleans-born architect responsible for Notre Dame Seminary, the adjacent archbishop’s residence and Academy of the Sacred Heart’s main campus on St. Charles Avenue.
The Artspace units will offer lots of natural light, courtesy of large windows, and hardwood flooring, much of it longleaf pine salvaged from the various buildings.
Surviving features at the former academy include its central stone cross and carvings on exterior window moldings that depict and repeat the same face of an anonymous woman.
Sister Joan said she was excited to learn the marble stairway leading to her alma mater’s grand front entrance would also be restored by Artspace. She and her classmates were barred from using this entrance except on prom night, when seniors and their dates were required to report to campus for a pre-dance inspection of their attire.
“It was like a receiving line, and after you got received, then you could go to the Jung Hotel or wherever your prom was,” Sister Joan said, laughing at the memory of the sisters keeping extra tulle handy to pin to dresses they deemed immodest.
Respectful of sisters’ role
Butler said photos from the buildings’ past will grace the new development in the many common areas set aside for professional art displays and social gatherings. The New Orleans-born project manager reached out to the sisters to get their input upon learning there were 44 Sisters of St. Joseph currently ministering in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houma. The congregation’s ties to Treme predate even the chapel, with the first three sisters arriving from France in 1857 to assume care for the elderly and sick in a home at North Johnson and Laharpe streets.
“It is always very important for us to understand the history of the buildings we’re involved with,” Butler said.
“As St. Joseph Academy, this was a place of love and spirituality and learning. As Bell School, this was also place of love and spirituality and learning,” Butler added. “We want to continue the tradition that was started here by the Sisters of St. Joseph and carried on by the teachers at Bell School. We think of ourselves as the next stewards of the property, not the owners.”
The project, funded primarily by housing tax credits, historic tax credits, philanthropic investment, the city and state, is seeking individuals and groups interested in making a tax-deductible donation toward the chapel’s restoration. Phase one of the Artspace project – 23 affordable housing units inside the former Benjamin Franklin Elementary – a 1913 school building in the 900 block of North Johnson Street – will receive its first occupants in January. A grand opening is planned for spring 2018. For more information, call Joe Butler at 453-4989 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.