Thursday, September 1, 2011

Exclusive: A cursory look at the Dixie Brewery structural assessment

Here, thanks in part to the kindness of a number of people, is a brief look at the VA-commissioned structural assessment of the Dixie Brewery complex in the VA Footprint.

Obtained by public records request (after multiple direct requests meetings), the assessment contains an executive summary that continues to make it unclear just what parts of the complex will be retained and what will be demolished.

The work commissioned focuses largely on a portion of the original, red brick 1907 portion of the building - the structure that rises to a height of six stories with a dome along Tulane Avenue - but also cascades down multiple levels to what used to be Banks Street in the back.

This diagram and several others makes it clear that VA really only seems to envision utilizing a very limited portion of even the 1907 building in its adaptive reuse - it cuts off the back of the original part of the brewery after the first step down of the wedding cake, so to speak, along what used to be S. Tonti (right side of picture...the third and fourth "steps" down of the building are not shown...or really investigated, it seems, with much seriousness):

Note below, too, that only a limited portion of the original 1907 building is shown in many of the specific studies done by various expert consultants.  It doesn't look like VA even intends to use the bulk of the original building that extends above the carriageway (about four stories) - other than the facade wall along Tulane and where it curves back in a bit (left of picture below):

Still, a portion of the draft document report shows that the report authors acknowledge that "in fact, demolition and abatement costs are less than they would otherwise be because portion of Dixie are being salvaged and not demolished."

And the report then specifically gives a bit of hope about the potential to adaptively reuse more portions of the  four-story section along Tulane Avenue: "further savings can be gained if testing of the structure behind the western portion of the Tulane facade can be conducted and validates that portions of this structure can be retained."

Still, this draft document is where we begin to see that the two renderings from April 2010 showing Dixie incorporated into the VAMC research facility...really show us, by and large, all there is to know.  It seems that nothing beyond what's visible of the existing Dixie structure in this rendering shot and this rendering shot will be saved or utilized as VA sees it - not the adjoining, long white, wooden bottling building built along Tulane Avenue in 1919 and designed by architect Emile Weil.  There is, tellingly, no rendering showing the facility from a mid-point, at, say, Tulane and S. Tonti (*I will note that one recommendation in the document calls for either hardening the Tulane Avenue walls internally to make them blast proof...or to permanently take the parking lane along Tulane).

The language about demolition in the executive summary is rather muddled and evasive:

The presence of lead, asbestos, and mold in the site is no surprise given its age, purpose, and openness to the elements since Hurricane Katrina.

The troubling thing about the executive summary is this section:

It's great to see that the VA genuinely appears to be committed to reusing portions of Dixie Brewery in its research facility.  Importantly, the report notes that various consultants involved in the assessment are designing emergency measures to deal with significant deterioration of some of the bays along the former S. Tonti facade (brick and mortar deterioration that has long been visible to any passerby).  That's good to see.

However, it's not good to see the "other additions" simply written off...largely, it seems, because VA only wants to use the six-story tower portion of the 1907 building.

My recommendations to SHPO - and to anyone else who cares - after my first initial skim of the document:

1.  Push for retention of greater portions of the original 1907 building.  For example, push to retain the full extent of the "wedding cake" steps down the former S. Tonti Street facade - even if it is just the brick facade for the third and fourth steps down.  Push for retention of the full four-story part of the original 1907 structure that is lakeside of the carriageway, not just the facade.

2.  See if the Tulane Avenue facade of the white, 1919 portion of the building can be retained - keep the awning, the loading docks, the sign, etc.  Despite the dismissive language in the report, a modern facility could rise up behind this facade, but it would, even if modified for more entry points, provide a character-filled face for a greater portion of the Tulane Avenue facade.  In the long run, put trees and cafe tables outside between the awning/facade and the street.

3.  Examine the retention of the brick portions the 1934 portions of the complex at S. Rocheblave and the former Banks Street intersection.  If the bulk of the new research facility can simply rise up out of the center of the block, keep as much of the external corner faces that give historic character as possible.

There will likely be more to say and share as we dig into the draft document.  Let us know what parts of Dixie Brewery are important to you in the comments.

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