if you were sitting at the lunch counter of Anita’s Diner on Tulane Avenue one afternoon last fall, making leisurely work of your catfish po’boy, you might have noticed the edge of a large building through the restaurant’s plate-glass window. At first, you would have seen just its decorative cornerstones and a bit of pale-green roof. But if you put down your sandwich and stared across the street, using a telephone pole as your point of reference, you would have noticed the space between the building and the pole slowly closing. By the time the waitress, Dwana Terrance, brought you your coffee, the graceful window arches—a little Italianate, a little Second French Empire—would have inched into view. At a rate of about 100 feet per hour, the 16,000-square-foot, 3-million-pound McDonogh No. 11 School was completing its 900-foot journey through the Mid-City section of New Orleans.
After Hurricane Katrina, McDonogh No. 11, one of more than 30 New Orleans schools whose construction was funded by the 19th-century philanthropist John McDonogh, had become ensnared in a now-familiar tangle of intentions and resources involving local, state, and federal authorities. Louisiana had cleared 34 acres of storm-ravaged Mid-City, demolishing some buildings and relocating others, to build the $1 billion, state-of-the-art University Medical Center. FEMA had just poured millions of dollars into the renovation of McDonogh No. 11, one of the few remaining schools designed by the 19th-century New Orleans architect William A. Freret—which sat squarely in the spot the state then slotted for the new hospital’s emergency-room entrance. When baffled citizens and local officials pointed out the idiocy of tearing down a building that taxpayers had just paid $3 million to rebuild, the state agreed to move it to a new site.