This is a continuation of our posts of April 2 and July 6, 2015 in which we introduced the beginning and mid-life of the history of the very influential Thomy Lafon School named in honor of Creole philanthropist Thomy Lafon.
On December 18, 1952 the most prominent headline of the stories on page 13 of The Times-Picayune was “Records Explain Casket Mystery” with the subheadline “New School Site Was Old City Cemetery Area.” It tells the story of the mystery of human bones and caskets found by workmen at the site of the new Thomy Lafon School .
The story told how “after a day of scholarly sleuthing” in city records by the New Orleans Parish School Board’s office of planning and construction the mystery had been solved. As we know from the first installment of this 3-part series on the Thomy Lafon School the school was initially constructed on the site of the Locust Grove Cemetery the city’s cemetery for indigents and those who had succumbed to diseases such as yellow fever. It is apparent that the School Board’s office of planning had not done its research to know, or care about, this history beforehand.
What they found by doing a records search in the city archives was that the land was part of the old McDonough estate, sold to a private owner in 1859, and the estate was divided between the cities of New Orleans and Baltimore. In 1865 a second private owner of the property sold it to the city, which set it aside “for cemetery purposes only.” However, all was ignored when powerful city and school organizations decided to erect the Thomy Lafon School on this site and it was
determined that the bones uncovered during excavation would be reburied by the city. Efforts would be made not to disturb any more burial locations than necessary in the construction of the school.
Nonetheless, in the early 1950s a new school was being erected.
Designed by Curtis and Davis Architects and completed in 1954, the Thomy Lafon School was nationally hailed as a model in progressive school design.
The Lafon school embodied state-of-the-art philosophies about educating children and providing them with a modern, uplifting school environment. It also won an honor award from the American Institute of Architects for its design. Its classrooms were located high above the ground atop arched concrete piers, and the walls were largely made of glass to give children treetop views. Shaded play areas were beneath the raised structure.
According to the Louisiana Landmarks Society the Thomy Lafon Elementary School was built on raised piers that saved it from the ﬂoodwaters after Hurricane Katrina that would occur in 2005. The open space underneath the elevated structure helped to cool the building in the cloying New Orleans climate. As is well-known in the Gulf Coast region breezes naturally cool an elevated structure. In the case of the Lafon school, the elevated structure also created a wealth of covered play space, protected from the elements. The school was built with a sensitivity to local environmental conditions. The exterior walls were mostly glass which gave the children new perspectives, as well as an abundance of natural light and ventilation. The Landmarks Society went on to say that the building was solidly engineered, designed in sympathy with our climate, and had become part of our cultural and historic fabric.
The building was located at 2601 Seventh Street at the former center of the Magnolia Street Housing Project, which was demolished to make way for the Harmony Oaks housing development. Though the school was in operation until Hurricane Katrina and did not flood, from the outset the Recovery School District had been adamantly opposed to its reopening and had sought FEMA money to raze the building. The proposed use of federal funds for demolition triggered the Section 106 process as established in the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. The act requires that properties to be affected by such plans be evaluated for their historic worth to mitigate harmful effects to significant structures. The Thomy Lafon School was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 by FEMA and the State Historic Preservation Office, embroiling the building in further controversy as interested parties lobbied either for or against its demolition and there was a series of meetings on March 24, 2010 concerning the Lafon school.
Unfortunately, the question of Lafon’s preservation was rendered virtually obsolete by a bizarre twist of fate taking most of those involved by complete surprise. Research showed that the building stood on land once occupied by Locust Grove Cemeteries #1 and #2. Though some bodies were relocated historic accounts and recent archaeological work indicated that remains were still interred on the site. This circumstance brought into play the Louisiana Unmarked Burial Sites Preservation Act and the Louisiana Cemetery Act which dictate that the site not be used in any way inconsistent with cemetery use, though precedents have been set for using unmarked cemetery lands as parks or playgrounds. No such laws were on the books when remains were discovered in 1952 when ground was broken on the modernist school. The Thomy Lafon School could have been legally converted into a mausoleum, but zoning laws and the wishes of Harmony Oaks’ residents made that option unlikely.
The March 2010 meeting was largely dedicated to an effort to review the draft Memorandum of Agreement between FEMA and consulting parties. MOAs establish a course of action to be taken with a specific property; in this case, the draft outlined how the Thomy Lafon School could not legally or feasibly be reused and, by default, would be demolished.
This historic modernist school in Central City, the Thomy Lafon School, was listed in the 2008 “New Orleans’ Nine Most Endangered Sites” by the Louisiana Landmarks Society, but nothing, apparently, could save it.
Currently, the area is fenced off with seemingly no access for the public. There are stone “remembrance orbs” dedicated to Creole philanthropist Thomy Lafon, the three schools named in his honor and Locust Grove Cemetery. The area is located between Sixth, Seventh, Freret and Magnolia Streets in New Orleans.
Sources: The Times-Picayune, Thursday, December 18, 1952, page 13; “An Investigation Into the Ethnographic and Historical Significance of the Holt Cemetery,” Ian Christopher Morgan Branyon, 1998, University of New Orleans Special Collections; Curtis & Davis Architects, Folder OPSB-147, Box 12, University of New Orleans Library, Special Collections; “2 New Orleans public schools are demolished in post-Katrina rebuilding campaign,” nola.com, September 4, 2011; “Thomy Lafon Elementary Headed for Demolition; Hope Remains for Salvage and Documentation,” http://docomomo-nola.blogspot.com, April 2, 2010; “Demolition underway on historic Lafon school in Central City, http://uptownmessenger.com, August 30, 2011; author Keith Weldon Medley; “A Reason for Smiles in Back of Town,” Life magazine, March 29, 1954.