Karrie Jacobs


April 1, 2008

The Ledner Legacy

The Ledner House, New Orleans, December 2006

Sounding suspiciously like an “acolyte of urbanist Jane Jacobs,” New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff today argues against a plan by St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village to demolish several of its buildings and replace them with luxury highrise apartments and a new hospital.

You know, it would be difficult for St. Vincent’s to build a more hideous set of buildings than those it currently owns. The Seventh Avenue intersection dominated by the hospital is perhaps the least appealing spot in the Greenwich Village. But there’s one exception: the O’Toole building, an example of oddball 1960s modernism by New Orleans architect Albert Ledner, also responsible for the much maligned dormitory tower that re-emerged a few years ago as the stylish Maritime Hotel.

I visited Ledner, now in his 80s, and his wife Judy, in late 2006, as they were finishing up the restoration of their idiosyncratic New Orleans home that had been, after Katrina, largely under water. And what I discovered was one of those quirky modernist architects who, influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, has a passion for design that transforms structure into ornament. Ledner’s buildings, including his own house and backyard studio, are repositories of his ideas and inventions.

The Maritime Hotel and the building that St. Vincent’s wishes to demolish are the legacy of Ledner’s long tenure as the in-house architect of the National Maritime Union, and his attempts to find a modernist language that would somehow forge a connection between landlocked urban buildings and the sea. I haven’t been inside the O’Toole building, so I don’t know how much of Ledner’s unique style has survived the hospital’s renovations, but judging by what I’ve seen of Ledner’s work, I suspect we’re on the verge of losing an unsung treasure. It would be nice if St. Vincent’s could somehow rejigger its plans — using the O’Toole’s air rights while preserving the building — so that the building could find a new owner who would cherish and reuse it as Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson did the disused maritime dormitory.

For more on Albert Ledner, read Christopher Gray’s Streetscapes column from last November, or my article on Ledner’s house (the Times did a nice slideshow). Or just take a look at the photos below:

Albert Ledner by the portion of the 17th St. Canal that runs behind his house. (The levee breach occurred a mile or two further north.)

Ledner’s backyard studio. (Its big windows were blown out by Katrina’s winds and, at the time of my visit, hadn’t been replaced.)

The studio’s innovative poured concrete ceiling.

The unusual spoke-and-hub structure supporting the Ledners’ roof.