In the initial installment of this series on the built character of New Orleans, I looked at instructive ways that common New Orleans house types — the shotgun, the Creole townhouse — engage the street. So well established are these types, so ubiquitous and familiar, that their profound contribution to the public realm is easily overlooked; and the elements of that contribution are so thoroughly synthesized that they hardly seem intentioned, at all. Indeed, such absorption of intention into everyday operation may be a defining quality of a type. It is certainly an argument in favor of honoring typological traditions, because the useful intentions they preserve are ones we might not even notice, except when they’ve been neglected.
If such a seamless resolution of form and use and construction is something we expect of a type, then what are we to do with those crazy corner stores, corner bars, corner restaurants? Seen all over New Orleans (outside the French Quarter and the CBD), they form an easily recognizable family. Resolved, they are not.
In fact, their lack of resolution is their most obvious characteristic. Whatever the actual construction sequence may have been, each appears to be simply a house — a shotgun, a cottage, or something less distinctive — the street corner of which has been cut away in the dumbest possible fashion to make a doorway at a 45-degree angle. Perhaps an awning has been tacked on, or the walls around the entry painted a contrasting color. It’s the sort of thing a child with an X-Acto knife would do to a shoebox. Can we even call such a thing a type?
Like X-Acto knives in young hands, definitions are dangerous things. In architecture education, when we have attended to the idea of type, we have concentrated on the nicely resolved ones, the basilica and its cousin the livestock barn; the houses so beautifully enumerated in Steven Holl’s Rural and Urban House Types or, for New Orleans specifically, Malcolm Heard’s French Quarter Manual. There is sound pedagogy in looking closely at well-resolved types, precisely because their fine resolution so fully subsumes their intentions. To see what’s going on in a well-resolved type requires some study. To see what’s going on in the New Orleans corner store, not so much.
Seeing is not understanding, of course, nor understanding appreciating. Which is why it made sense for Thomas Hubka to write Big House, Middle House, Back House, Barn about that northern New England aggregation; and why Venturi & Scott Brown’s christening of the decorated shed — the epitome of the stubbornly unresolved — was such a watershed. These types are not as dumb as they look, and neither is the corner store. Pretty much all that is going on meets the eye, but it takes more than a passing glance to credit it.
As a student at Tulane in the mid-1970s, I frequented two corner restaurants, about a block apart on Webster Street, just downtown from the Audubon Zoo. Clancy’s was at Webster and Annunciation; it still is, but it’s not the same establishment. It’s come up in the world, for better and worse (a bit too pricey now for the undergrad). So has Norby’s, which was at Webster and Laurel. Over the last few years, Norby’s has become, first, Nardo’s — an Italian trattoria — and, now, Patois, where one can get roasted pheasant and seared scallops. In those simpler times, we went to Norby’s for the roast beef po-boys, dressed (lettuce, tomato, and mi-nez).
One lunchtime, a couple of friends and I were at Norby’s, and at an adjacent table were three ladies from the neighborhood, who were having one of those conversations that Bunny Matthews used to chronicle in the Figaro weekly in “F’Sure: Actual Dialogue Heard on the Streets of New Orleans.” It went something like this:
“Me, I’ne not gon’ be enbalmed. I gon’ be cremated.”
“Know what dey do when dey enbalm ya?”
“Dey slit ya open, dey take out y’ awguns, dey wrench ya out wit’ uh hose, an’ dey stuff ya fulla rags. Me, I gon’ be cremated.”
“Yeah, yo rite.”
Following Katrina, the description of the process sounds eerily premonitory. To a proper uplander, it was not exactly restaurant conversation. More like kitchen table conversation, and for good reason: the New Orleans corner restaurant has always been, in more ways than one, an extension of the kitchen. New Orleanians did and do eat out much more frequently than the average American, and the regulars at Norby’s were very like an extended family.
More literally, these businesses were often the actual homes of their owners. Norby’s had been, though it had ceased being so by 1977. Clancy’s still was. There, behind the counter, three or four steps led up to the kitchen, which served both the restaurant and the owner’s home. You can still see that change in level between business and residence at Clancy’s, as you can at Patois, as you can at Parasol’s, further downtown at Third and Constance. It is the distinguishing characteristic of the New Orleans corner restaurant, or bar, or store.
While the roof volume shelters both house and store, the two meet the ground in notably different ways. The store is a single step up from the sidewalk, while the residence is several steps up, the usual height above the sidewalk in pre-ADA America, keeping the pedestrian from looking directly into the home and allowing the resident to view the neighborhood over the heads of passersby. Where there are street-level windows in the business (often, in a store, there are only high windows to make room for shelving), both windows and doors signal the difference in floor height. The break in floor height serves, simply and effectively, to distinguish the public from the private, without having to put space between them: a basic principle of New Orleans urbanism.
The New Orleans corner store does this and much more. Consider its other neighborhood-building attributes.
A gathering space created. Just as the stoop of a shotgun forms a semi-private space where the resident may greet a passer-by, so the sliced-off corner, with perhaps an awning appended above, makes a public space for neighbors to gather. In the shotgun house, the semi-private nature of the stoop is reinforced by its facing another such stoop across the street, individual neighbor to individual neighbor. The corner store’s oblique entry faces no one in particular; even if the building diagonally across the intersection is a residence, it will not be facing the corner. The space formed by the 45-degree angle, bound to no individual realm, is purely public.
The neighborhood observed. Likewise, while the shotgun stoop helps put eyes on the street, they are on a single block of a single street. The eyes of the corner store are on two blocks of each of two streets. Here is an overlapping of scales — the realm of the house-eyes is nested within the realm of the store-eyes — and a spatial and visual knitting together of the neighborhood.
Pedestrian passage gentled. The cutting away of the corner also eases the walker’s turn and so tightens the lived experience of the neighborhood even further.
Block form maintained. While the cutting of the corner welcomes the pedestrian, the uncut roof volume maintains the urban form of the block at the larger scale. What is apparently nothing more than an expedient decision not to complicate the roof framing serves a greater purpose, as well; such is how unintended benefits enter a type. In addition to maintaining the urban massing, the unmodified roof maintains the pattern of house forms: the store has been inserted in what remains fundamentally a residential neighborhood. Further elaborations of the storefront — the awning, bold painting, even signage — tend to occur only below the eave.
Long elevation mitigated. The typical New Orleans block, 200 feet on a side, has narrow, deep lots along the primary street faces, with a couple of even deeper “key lots” at mid-block of the secondary streets. The long sides of the corner houses isolate the key lot houses from the continuous pattern of residential fronts. The corner store mitigates this isolation, not only because it eases the turn, but also because the store typically occupies only the first third or half of the building; the rest is the residence. Midway down the long side is the residential entrance. The long elevation is broken in two, and one more stoop (if often a minimal one) enlivens the secondary street.
Quite a lot, we can see, goes on in the ad hoc architecture of the corner store, all of it worth the consideration of designers working on the rehabilitation of the city. Yet many of the old time corner stores are derelict. It would be fair to ask why such vital neighborhood places have so frequently failed. The answer lies not in the architecture, but in the demography of the city. Even before Katrina, vast numbers of houses in New Orleans were vacant, the victim of middle-class flight and endemic poverty. Many still are.
The paradoxes of this situation are many. Most glaring is that many residents of devastated areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, deeply attached to place, are rebuilding in locations that, despite the best efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, will be increasingly prone to catastrophic flooding, while housing on high ground stands empty. Add to that the exacerbation of a diffuse pattern — or non-pattern — of residential density, which militates against the viability of municipal services and neighborhood amenities. This is the explanation of the derelict stores: the neighborhoods that once supported them had been gradually vacated, long before the storm.
The Lower Ninth suffers the same circumstance, approached from the other end; it has not yet reached the population density that can support neighborhood-serving retail. I was last in New Orleans in April 2010, and, while I did not make a systematic survey, my impression was that the only place to buy prepared food in the Lower Ninth was from a woman who was selling plate dinners out of her kitchen; there was absolutely no place to “make” (that is, buy) groceries. The motivations for the house/store hybrid are not far submerged. A neighborhood that can’t yet support an independent business may very well support an extension of the family kitchen.
Other factors, however, work against such a neighborhood-making use. Not least of these is the (certainly prudent) fire code requirement that mixed-use buildings be sprinkled — a significant expense, adding, according to architect Wayne Troyer, $5 per square foot to new construction costs, not counting the $10,000 or more required for the public utility hook-up. The ungainly corner store type nevertheless offers important lessons. It suggests that new buildings at the corners of blocks not have a structural pier at the corner, whether the building is immediately intended as a store or not. The cost of a second pier and a header, to allow the corner someday to perform its welcoming functions, is a gift the neighborhood will enjoy. Perhaps some of these buildings, as part of a broader development effort, might be configured and equipped by the developer to satisfy the requirements of fire safety. Perhaps financing might be structured to encourage the owner-occupied corner business.
In addition, in its bald lack of resolution, the corner store affords a rare opportunity for the inquiring designer. Rather than add yet another misshapen creature to the mutant petting zoo that comprises much of the well intentioned new housing in the city (not just the Make It Right houses), architects might do well to apply their ingenuity to maturing the adolescent awkwardness of the corner store, which can afford — indeed benefit from — unique and unexpected forms. Because, let’s face it, such forms — the disjointed polyhedron, the titanium swoop — have always been as much advertising as architecture. And corner stores, like art museums, do need advertising.