School, Crossing

How do you move a 3-million-pound building across New Orleans? Carefully.

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.

A handful of people showed up last November to watch the initial move (the school will ultimately be relocated to the site of the city’s old crime lab on nearby Banks Street). Sam Morse grew up in the 1960s living in a blue 19th-century shotgun house on Palmyra Street—the last one to be demolished to make way for the new hospital, he claims—and attending McDonogh No. 11. Surveying the tabula rasa of the construction site, where backhoes and bulldozers motored with grinding, erratic purpose, Morse reconstructed his childhood neighborhood: over by that white truck was a bar where his grandma worked, over there was a corner store run by Mr. Joe and Mrs. Joe, and this here was the little park his mom would take him to, where he wasn’t allowed up on the low stone walls because, you know, the traffic. He toured the McDonogh No. 11 building from memory—the auditorium, the cafeteria, the high ceilings and good light on the second floor, the schoolyard where he played as a kindergartner.

Morse and the other spectators soon dispersed, since it was a chilly day and the concentration required to see the building actually move was total and Zen-like. Staring long enough created a sense of intimate psychic connection with the dove-gray masonry building, as if you were somehow contributing to its glacial, miraculous crawl.

In reality, the move was a precisely planned and orchestrated operation; McDonogh No. 11 is the largest building ever to be moved in the state of Louisiana and one of the largest ever moved in the country. Over several months, workers dug out its foundation and low-ceilinged first floor and meticulously replaced them with 37 dollies equipped with hydraulic jacks and 296 wheels. During the two-day move, a crew of 15 men in fluorescent-green vests continually checked the dollies and the jacks’ hydraulic fluid, making sure everything was level at all times. A small crew of welders stood by, just in case. A guy named Louis remote-controlled the dollies along a roadway of foot-thick interlocking wooden planks that workers with forklifts picked up as soon as the building passed over and carried around to the front of the convoy, until the whole procession had traveled the length of two and a half football fields.

Since Katrina, New Orleanians have gotten used to things disappearing—homes, schools, businesses, housing projects, neighborhoods. But ultimately we carry within us the apparatus for preserving what we really want to preserve. Sam Morse will keep returning to the shotgun on Palmyra Street, to the hamburger joint his dad would treat him to after late-night asthma scares at Charity Hospital. Anita’s Diner, whose window frames the new view of McDonogh No. 11, retains a warm network of regulars, newcomers, and longtime employees. If you’re enjoying a bowl of butter-swamped grits and ask about the old-school R&B playing from a boom box, Dwana, who’s worked there for more than 20 years, will explain it’s from a CD burned for the diner by the cook’s sister, and will give you a copy if she has an extra.

Dwana seems unfazed by the accelerated urban morphing she’s witnessed from the diner’s window, shift after shift, year after year. She just hopes the new hospital will create jobs and help residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. She points past McDonogh No. 11, poised on its blue steel dollies and ready for its next move, to show me an empty hotel the state plans to implode. Even if it’s her day off, she says, she wants to be at Anita’s to watch it come down.