NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Born and raised in Algiers, Arthur Ruiz has fond memories of Behrman Park.
“We used to go swimming here, and I used to play football,” Ruiz said.
A member of the Algiers Historical Society, he also feels a special connection to the historic building next door.
“It’s just to me the architecture. It’s just so detailed,” he said.
Beyond a small portico along the 2600 block of General Meyer Avenue is the Touro Shakspeare Home, named for city benefactor Judah Touro and former New Orleans Mayor Joseph Shakspeare.
Built in the early 1930s, it opened as an almshouse or home for the poor. The city-owned property later functioned as the city’s only public nursing home, and more recently, a privately managed elderly care facility.
At the time of Hurricane Katrina, it was “fully operational, housing 119 residents,” according to city documents the FOX 8 Defenders obtained in a public records request.
“It was just a peaceful place for the elderly to spend their last years on Earth,” said Ruiz, who has watched the 60,000-square-foot building deteriorate since the storm. “Why just let it sit there for 14 years and not even secure it?”
It appears every place where a window or door used to be is wide open, and it wasn’t until just recently this year - about the time we submitted a public records request for documents - that the city erected a fence around the property.
Since Algiers didn’t flood after Katrina, Ruiz wonders why Touro Shakspeare was allowed to deteriorate so badly.
City Council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer said the building, which is in her district, was “absolutely neglected.”
“The previous administration...I begged them to board it up. They did not, so consequently they’ve lost all of the stained glass windows that were inside. They’ve allowed vandals to come in over time,” she said.
According to Palmer, there was even a fire in the building a few months ago.
Preservation Resource Center Executive Director Danielle Del Sol says that’s how we lose historic structures.
“Just it being open and exposed to the elements is bad enough for the building, but for people to get in there and live there, or trespass in there, that’s dangerous as well,” Del Sol said.
Even in its dilapidated state, Del Sol explained that Touro Shakspeare is still incredibly grand, from the columns in front and the unique diamond-patterned brick work, to the now-overgrown courtyards and chapel with its 20-foot dome.
Search “Touro Shakspeare” online, and you’ll find many images and video people have taken in and around the property, which really shows the extent of the damage and vandalism.
City documents after Katrina detail “wind damage primarily affected the roof structure...sections of copper roof gutters and copper downspouts.” It goes on to say, these damaged areas “allowed for the infiltration of rain water,” and delays in initial clean-up resulted in “accelerated mold growth.”
Those same documents say the tenant, which was in a lease agreement with the city to “maintain and operate a nursing facility on the premises at all times” began the cleanup and repair work, but “ceased the repair/ renovation activities in April 2008.”
Documents then show in 2009 under Mayor Ray Nagin, the city entered into an agreement with a local architect to provide design services to restore the facility to operation. The cost of that agreement totaled more than $288,000.
“At that time, it looked like some FEMA funding was gonna come through to stabilize the structure, to make it water tight and secure it for future redevelopment but we just haven’t seen any progress,” Del Sol said.
“I really believe that the city is not a good steward of buildings, and I think if we have an opportunity to put out a building to a potential developer, I think we should. I know that there have been people interested in doing elderly care here and doing a nursing home,” Palmer said.
She stressed the property is prime real estate, adjacent to Behrman Park and across the street from Delgado’s West Bank campus, and Palmer says it’s eligible for historic tax credits, on the state and federal level, which could help offset renovation costs.
“I’m not even asking for public money here. I’m asking for - just put this out for bid and let’s see what comes back,” Palmer said.
“With the right investment, someone could absolutely bring this building back to its original grandeur and more,” Del Sol said.
They’re all in agreement that moving forward during this tricentennial would be fitting for the future of Touro Shakspeare and benefit the Algiers community, home to roughly 58,000 New Orleanians.
“I would just pray, and actually have been praying, that somebody would step up to the plate and partner with the city and actually restore this,” Ruiz said.
FOX 8 requested an interview with the city for this story, but the only response we got from the mayor’s press secretary was that the city is currently looking at placing the building back into service, close to its original intended use, in keeping with Touro’s legacy.
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