February 21, 2024

Building a Legacy: The Transformation of McDonogh 19 into the TEP Center

An innovative partnership between the Leona Tate Foundation for Change, Inc. and Alembic Community Development.

Alembic Community Development is a corecipient of the 2023 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award to the Tate Etienne and Prevost Center (TEP Center). The Driehaus Awards are the highest national recognition bestowed upon a preservation project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Award recipients represent the best of the best in historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and the re-imagining of historic buildings for the future.

In the heart of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward stands the transformative TEP Center, a symbol of resilience and collaboration. Born from a visionary partnership between the Leona Tate Foundation for Change Inc. (LTFC) and Alembic Community Development, the project has breathed new life into the historic McDonogh 19 school building.

The following Q&A is with representatives from the New Orleans office of Alembic Community Development: Director Jonathan Leit, Director Mike Grote, and Project Manager Nicole Nelson. Learn more about the full slate of 2023 awardees here.

Exterior Tep Center

photo by: Neil Alexander

Exterior of the TEP Center in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The transformation of the McDonogh 19 school building into the TEP Center began with a partnership between the Leona Tate Foundation for Change Inc. (LTFC) and Alembic Community Development. How did this relationship form and lead to other successful collaborations?

Alembic’s founder, Benjamin Warnke, was introduced to Leona Tate in 2015, and as she describes their initial meeting, he was the first developer to say that her vision for redeveloping McDonogh 19 was possible. Soon thereafter, Alembic’s New Orleans staff met Leona and her colleague, Tremaine Knighten-Riley, and started planning the project at a folding table in the midst of visitors to the Lower 9th Ward Living Museum. After several years of collaboration, Alembic and LTFC formed a joint venture partnership to acquire, develop, own and operate the TEP Center. We’re extremely proud to be 50-50 co-owners, which is truly representative of our close relationships as individuals and organizations.

What motivated Alembic Community Development to take on this project?

Have you met Leona? It’s impossible not to be inspired by her personal history and deep dedication to her vision over decades. She and Tremaine accomplished a lot before Alembic’s involvement, and we just needed to bring our knowledge, experience with community development real estate, and commitment to partnership. An important aspect of our process was knowing that the TEP Center couldn’t only be about the past: the desegregation of McDonogh 19 by Leona, Gail and Tessie was the entry point and North Star, while the property’s operational model was the key to a redevelopment project that was financeable by generating sufficient revenue to cover expenses and debt service for years to come.

Can you explain the adaptive reuse of the site and the decision-making behind these renovations?

Leona originally wanted to bring a school back to the Lower 9th Ward post-Katrina, but the McDonogh 19 property didn’t meet the School Board’s criteria for new facilities. Given that, she wanted to see the building redeveloped as a place of education that served community. We helped to steward her vision and figure out appropriate new uses, including nonprofit office and programming space along with housing on the upper floors. The TEP Center is now home to LTFC’s interpretive center on the history of school desegregation, three other nonprofit organizations working in racial equity, and 25 affordable apartments for seniors.

The second floor is particularly important to highlight: the main hallway, which is the character-defining space of a school building per the Department of Interior Standards, is also the locus of historical events from November 14, 1960: the center of the hallway was right outside the principal’s office, where Leona, Gail and Tessie sat and played hopscotch while their parents met with the principal and white families poured down the side stairwells in protest. Our redevelopment enclosed this area of the hallway with glass partitions so that it could be integrated into the interpretive center and visitors could experience this critical history. We knew this type of treatment wouldn’t typically be permissible, so we worked closely with the Louisiana SHPO and NPS to create what we think is an appropriate and powerful design.

Even though the McDonogh 19 school was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2016, the building remained vacant and deteriorating for 15 years. What were the biggest challenges you encountered?

McDonogh 19 was closed in 2004, and then the Katrina levee failures devastated the Lower 9th Ward in 2005, so there were overwhelming community needs far beyond saving the school. The challenges we all overcame specific to the project are too many to recount! Threading the needle between the Department of Interior Standards, the school’s seminal history in the Civil Rights Movement, and the property’s future operational needs posed a series of design obstacles to navigate.

The School Board owned the property and had limited mechanisms for disposition to nonprofits and private developers, so we brought in another governmental agency to help facilitate the acquisition of the campus. We pulled together $16+ million of financing from about 16 different public and private funding sources, all with their own criteria and regulations. Then after celebrating construction closing at the end of January 2020, we broke ground six weeks later in mid-March, i.e. just as the Covid pandemic shut down the country. Already facing high construction pricing and limited building supplies, the 2020 storm season came through and badly damaged the school building’s roof; following a long insurance claim, we had to fully replace the historic clay tile roof. Adaptive reuse community development projects are always challenging, but this one definitely set a new standard for us.

Three people looking over plans for the TEP Center.

photo by: Diedre Meredith

From Left, Michael Grove, Leona Tate, and Jonathan Leit review architectural plans on the second floor of the McDonogh 19 building.

How have you seen the project impact the community?

We haven’t seen the direct impacts yet that people usually think of: there hasn’t been additional investment on nearby properties, and a tremendous amount of blight and vacancy remain near TEP. But we think of community impact in other ways. This significant property, encompassing an entire city block on a major thoroughfare, is owned by a community-based and highly engaged nonprofit organization. The interpretive center attracts thousands of visitors who likely would not have otherwise come to the Lower 9th Ward and experienced or learned about the community. Four nonprofit organizations working to combat racial inequities have a home for their staff, programs and constituencies. Providing 25 deeply affordable apartments for low-income seniors is also very impactful, not only for the residents themselves but also for their families and caretakers.

What legacy do you hope this award-winning project will leave behind for future generations?

We hope that our partnership with LTFC serves as a model. In a truly remarkable historical arc, a school that was originally funded by and named after a slaveholder, and then became a battleground of court-ordered integration with vitriolic racism directed at three African American six-year-old girls, is now renamed after them, is co-owned by one of them through her nonprofit, and is a space centered on anti-racism, education and reconciliation. Alembic has been able to utilize our knowledge of and access to the community development real estate sector to facilitate this effort.

Ribbon cutting for the new TEP Center in New Orleans where three women in pink and one man in a white shirt cut a ribbon in front of a white building.

photo by: US Bank

Gail Etienne, Leona Tate, and Tessie Prevost standing outside the TEP Center during the ribbon cutting ceremony.

We’re also strong advocates for shifting preservation’s traditional focus from a building’s architecture towards a greater prioritization of the diverse historic narratives and community members who have created our shared history. In order to advance this effort, the Department of Interior Standards as well as their application through the federal and state historic credit programs need to evolve. We hope the TEP Center is a model of the magic that can happen when preservation practitioners, community members and developers are all aligned.

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Catherine Killough is the manager of grants and awards at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

This May, our Preservation Month theme is “People Saving Places” to shine the spotlight on everyone doing the work of saving places—in big ways and small—and inspiring others to do the same!