The Rivergate

The battle to save the Rivergate, an irreplaceable landmark of design and engineering, was one of the first efforts to preserve a mid-century modern building in New Orleans.

In January 1995, demolition crews began to dismantle the Rivergate, an exhibition hall on Poydras Street in downtown New Orleans, to clear the site for a new Harrah’s hotel and casino. It marked the end of a bitter preservation battle fought by an alliance of architects, planners, and preservationists against Governor Edwin Edwards, Mayors Sydney Barthelemy and Marc Morial, the New Orleans City Council, gambling interests, and a number of local business leaders.

Designed by the local architectural firm of Curtis and Davis Architects and Planners, in collaboration with Edward B. Silverstein and Associates and Mathes Bergman and Associates, the 1968 Rivergate was one of New Orleans’ most innovative and modern structures. Its cantilevered roof, comprising six gently curving barrel vaults, gave the Expressionist-style building a sculptural quality comparable to the St. Louis Arch or the Sydney Opera House.¹ Its thin-shell, post-tensioned concrete roof was designed to span a record-setting 253 feet over the main exhibit hall, allowing for a column-free interior space.² Nathaniel Curtis, FAIA, the architect responsible for the innovative design, considered it his most significant work.³

With 130,000 square feet of exhibit space, a seating capacity of approximately 17,500, additional meeting rooms, a cafeteria, and parking for 800 cars, the Rivergate positioned New Orleans as a prime convention and tourism destination.The exhibition hall was intended to complement the adjacent 33-story International Trade Mart (1966) by architect Edward Durrell Stone, together creating a world trade center to serve as an economic engine for the city.

By the mid-1980s, the economic and physical landscape of the city had changed. A new convention center, along with the Superdome, offered a larger and more modern exhibit and event space. The oil industry boom had faltered, downtown vacancies were rising, and like many struggling cities, New Orleans looked to gambling for economic relief. A land-based casino proposed for the Rivergate site had both state and local political support. Following a protracted and controversial bidding process, Harrah’s of Nevada was chosen by the state-controlled Louisiana Economic Development and Gaming Corporation as the casino operator. Harrah’s had initially planned to adapt and reuse the Rivergate, but that proposal was scuttled by city officials and the local construction lobby who favored demolition.

Architects, preservationists, and planners advocated for the building’s reuse. Letters were sent to The Times-Picayune by Donna Robertson (then dean of the Tulane School of Architecture), Samuel Wilson Jr., Bernard Lemann, Mary Louise Christovich, and others, but did little to sway the outcome. Many questioned the wisdom of replacing the Rivergate with a consumer-driven, post-modern, Mediterranean-style design which one commenter called “as compromised a building as the one being demolished is idealistic.” Efforts by the Historic District Landmarks Commission to protect the Rivergate from demolition were consistently overruled by the city council. A National Register of Historic Places nomination made a strong case for the building’s architectural significance, but the National Park Service determined that it did not meet the criteria for listing a building under 50 years of age.¹

The Rivergate’s complicated engineering made demolition difficult, and engineers had to carefully stage its deconstruction.¹¹ While much of the concrete structure was crushed and used as lakefront fill, one unusual component of the building was integrated into the design of Harrah’s new casino (1999) and remains today: a 60-by-750-foot tunnel intended to accommodate part of the planned, but unrealized, six-lane Riverfront Expressway.¹²

 

1. Mary Powers, “Politics Claims Historic Hall,” Engineering-News Record 234 no. 16 (April 24, 1995): 18.

2. “Architecture, Engineering, and Construction,” in The Rivergate: Architecture and Politics No Strangers in Pair-A-Dice (New Orleans: Tulane University Library, 1995).

3. Elizabeth Mullener, “Requiem for the Rivergate – Architectural Landmark Reflects Its Era,” The Times-Picayune, December 11, 1994; and Abbye A. Gorin, “The Design Architect: Nathaniel Curtis, FAIA,” in The Rivergate: Architecture and Politics No Strangers in Pair-A-Dice.

4. Warren C. Ogden, “For Big Events – A Huge Hall,” The Times-Picayune, September 18, 1966; and Arthur C. Roane, “Thousands Visit the Rivergate,” The Times-Picayune, January 25, 1969.  

5. “International Trade Mart,” The Times-Picayune, May 1, 1966.  

6. Jane S. Brooks and Alma H. Young, “Revitalising the Central Business District in the Face of Decline: The Case of New Orleans, 1973–1993,” The Town Planning Review 64 no. 3 (July 1993): 264-68. 

7. Abbye A. Gorin and Wilbur E. Meneray, “Louisiana Politics of Destruction,” in The Rivergate: Architecture and Politics No Strangers in Pair-A-Dice (New Orleans: Tulane University Library, 1995).

8. “Selected Letters to the Editor,” in The Rivergate: Architecture and Politics No Strangers in Pair-A-Dice.

9. Errol Barron, “Trouble in River City,” Architectural Record 183 no. 3 (March 1995): 22.

10. Gorin and Meneray, “Louisiana Politics of Destruction.”

11. Tyler Bridges, “Delicate Touch Needed for Roof,” The Times-Picayune, January 14, 1995.

 

12. Richard O. Baumbach and William E. Borah, The Second Battle of New Orleans: A History of the Vieux Carré Riverfront Expressway Controversy (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1980), 200; and Douglas MacCash, “Bricks and Mortality – A Close-up and Some Speculation about the Harrah’s Structure,” The Times-Picayune, October 30, 1999.

 

Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research 

Curtis and Davis Office Records. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane University. 

Curtis, Nathaniel C., Jr. My Life in Modern Architecture. New Orleans: University of New Orleans, 2002.

Davis, Arthur Q. It Happened by Design: The Life and Work of Arthur Q. Davis. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi in association with the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, University of New Orleans, 2009. 

Edward B. Silverstein and Associates Office Records. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Tulane University. 

Kingsley, Karen. Buildings of Louisiana. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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