Buried Treasures: Storm's Toll On Culture

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005

Add to the human toll of Hurricane Katrina a staggering cultural cost. Early reports document capricious and heart-rending losses.

Historic houses were swept away, watercolors swamped. Museums survived, but heat, humidity and lack of security threaten individual works of art and major collections.

"I don't think we've ever in our history had an actual threat to our cultural patrimony of this scope," says Edward Able, president of the American Association of Museums, which is keeping a running online tally of treasures lost.

Biloxi, Miss., paid dearly. Just 18 months ago, Laura Bush named the city one of the most effective in the country at preserving its architectural heritage. This week, David Preziosi, executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, put "before" and "after" pictures on the Web to document how few are left.

The 1848 Biloxi Lighthouse stands tall. But the two-story Dantzler house, refurbished and about to open as a Mardi Gras Museum, was erased. The 1856 Tullis Toledano house, with brick columns and sculpted dormers, is gone. So is the 1895 Breilmaier house with its romantic arched latticework.

Beauvoir, the retirement retreat of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was sheared of porches and columns. Presidential archives were reported safe on the second floor of a 1990s library building.

The storm slammed a casino barge into the shimmering steel facades of the unfinished $30 million Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, which was designed by Frank O. Gehry and due to open next year.

"Devastating," said Brian Zamora, project architect for the Gehry firm, who was waiting for photos to reach the Gehry office in California.

The campus of five buildings was designed to withstand 150 mph winds and a 14-foot storm surge.

"All our buildings are still standing and up, minus the one the barge flew into," Zamora said. "The Grand Casino barge is on the front of the site, lodged up against the African American Gallery. It wiped out the trees on the front half of the site. Everything around the site is gone. The neighborhood is gone."

The ceramics of George Ohr (1857-1918), the "mad potter of Biloxi," had been stored safely elsewhere. Marjie Gowdy, executive director of the museum, wrote by e-mail that the entire collection had been moved to the Mobile Museum of Art. She noted that Ohr's studio and shop had been destroyed by fire in 1894, and he had quickly resumed work.

"He is our inspiration," she said.

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Much of the vast archive of Mississippi artist Walter Anderson (1903-1965) was underwater at the family compound, Shearwater Pottery, in Ocean Springs. Anderson had painted the people, plant life and animals of the Gulf Coast, spending months on a barrier island whose shape Katrina has transformed.

His son, John, who is curator of the estate, found buildings reduced to sticks and watercolors submerged.

"I was devastated at first," he said by phone on Thursday. "It was a surreal experience, as if I had walked into a ground zero nuclear blast."

The hurricane destroyed an 1820 main house and the pottery studio containing works dating back to the 1920s. A bunker holding never-exhibited and uncatalogued watercolors flooded six feet deep. By chance, 17 paintings from a series of 500 "mystical landscapes" were being framed for exhibition at Mississippi State University. The rest of the 1960s cache was submerged.

"It's broken my heart," said Brent Funderburk, professor of art at the university. "This is so akin to Vincent van Gogh's work being destroyed," he said. "This was a major American artist."

In drying out the masses of soggy paper, John Anderson has found an upside.

"To see your childhood swept away is pretty devastating, but in the process of trying to save my father's art, I have been given new hope," he said. "Each piece of art that is recovered and saved is like a beautiful memory incarnate. It gives your spirit a lift. The power of art has made me feel much more optimistic and much more inspired."

* * *

Reports from New Orleans are tentative and mixed. Cultural institutions tended to be built on the higher ground, as was the French Quarter.

"New Orleans was founded in 1718," said Martin Moeller, the National Building Museum's senior vice president for special projects, who studied at Tulane University. "Back in those days, they didn't have the luxury of building on marginal land. The city had to be reasonably defensible from natural disasters and enemies."

The New Orleans Museum of Art avoided flooding, but not by much. The surrounding City Park has a foot of water, according to an online flood map ( http://mapper.cctechnol.com ). In the sculpture garden, a 45-foot metal "Virlane Tower" by Kenneth Snelson was mangled and dumped in a lagoon.

French Quarter properties owned by the Louisiana State Museum, including the Presbytere, the Cabildo and the Old U.S. Mint, escaped serious initial damage, as did Preservation Hall, the National D-Day Museum, Confederate Memorial Hall and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, according to the AAM report. But the condition of Longue Vue House & Gardens, next to the 17th Street Canal, was murky.

The National Park Service reported that its jazz museum and archives at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve were not flooded. The Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery was. Officials were hoping to move sensitive materials to a climate-controlled space by the end of the week.

"The problem is that these institutions made it through the storm, but the worst may be yet to come," Able said. "The issues now are: Will we be allowed to keep people in our institutions to protect and secure the collections, and how do we physically support them to live there with no infrastructure?"

No one really knows how long it will be before veneer starts popping off furniture, or paper mildews. But, says Eryl Wentworth, executive director of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, "The longer things go, the greater the chance there will be total devastation."

At the AAM office at 1575 I St. NW, Janet Vaughan has been logging reports of ruin or salvation since the levees were breached in New Orleans. As of yesterday, there were 53 listings, from the Alabama Historical Commission to the Walter Anderson Museum, which, despite the destruction at the family compound, survived intact. The museum was exhibiting the Smithsonian's 2003 survey "Walter Inglis Anderson: Everything I See Is New and Strange," and those masterworks are safe.

Vaughan has received no reports of looting.

Meg Lousteau, director of the Louisiana Landmarks Society, scoured satellite photos to check on the society's Pitot House Museum in New Orleans, which is not on AAM's list.

"The most important thing that I saw was green -- the grass in our side yard," she said by phone from Baton Rouge. That meant there was no standing water at the 1799 country house, which preserves the memory and lifestyle of a Creole family.

"Serious questions about heat and humidity" remain, and Lousteau said she is "terrified of fire."

The Landmarks Society intends to press for a world-class restoration, she said, on par with war-torn Dubrovnik in Croatia. "The whole city is the culture," she said. "This could be wonderful."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is already "deeply into" resurrection of the region, according to President Richard Moe. It is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send survey teams to assess the structural soundness of buildings.

"I think this could represent the greatest cultural disaster in the history of the country," he said. "It's not just the architecture, it's the culture, the music, the food. You can't have any of it without the architecture."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company