The former home of Blue Plate mayonnaise has been repurposed as stylish live/work units designed for those with an artistic bent
All photos below of Blue Plate residents are by Greg Miles. Click the photos for a brief summary of the artists' work.
I live where they used to make the mayonnaise. Literally. My place is located on the uppermost of three floors where the actual production of Blue Plate mayonnaise took place and where Blue Plate Fine Foods was once headquartered.
No longer the iconic New Orleans production facility, this historically recognized industrial structure has been reincarnated as the Blue Plate Artist Lofts and is the site of a singular urban-redevelopment experiment conceived in the “creative economy” age.
With locally based JCH Development leading the redesign in partnership with HRI Properties, a nationally prominent redeveloper which now owns and operates the building, Blue Plate Artist Lofts was conceived as a full-fledged urban-redevelopment project, the product of a careful strategy that would not only ensure its successful transformation into inhabitable real estate, but also ensure its role in the reincarnation of the surrounding urban landscape.
A year in, it is difficult to parse out how the highly designed environment and proximity to other creative individuals has affected either the neighborhood or the work of the artists that live within its walls. But my initial reflections and those of my neighbors reveal the promise, tentative though it must be so early in the game, of the whole endeavor.
Located at the central, triangular intersection of three major New Orleans thoroughfares—Earhart Boulevard, Washington Avenue, and Jefferson Davis Parkway—the Blue Plate is surrounded by a formally designated Louisiana Cultural District (eliminating retail taxes on all art sales) and sits within the boundaries of BioDistrict New Orleans.
The $25 million makeover of the Blue Plate was made possible by drawing on an array of funding sources, including both low-income tax credits designated specifically for projects targeting artists and tax credits for historic preservation made possible by the facility’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.
The artist-related tax credits stem from the recognition that artists, attracted by low rents and often by abandoned industrial spaces, frequently represent the vanguard in repopulating declining urban centers. JCH Development President Tara Hernandez explained, “The pioneers in urban redevelopment are almost always the artists. But as the neighborhood begins to recover, residents with higher incomes begin to move in and the artists eventually get priced out. The tax-credit program provides for subsidies that allow these same artists to stay where they are and subsequently become part of the neighborhood redevelopment they helped to create in the first place.”
Since the spring of 2012, the Lofts have been attracting tenants galore as well as rampant curiosity among the local populace. Managers have fielded a constant stream of phone calls inquiring about a waiting list for prospective residents, a list that almost instantly mushroomed to one thousand people and has since been officially closed.
The building’s 1940s architectural design and stylishly appointed spaces attract the giant’s share of attention and serve as the building’s indelible signature. Bare concrete floors sealed with a medium-gloss finish are the norm in both public and private spaces, while individual units benefit from the character of sand-blasted, twelve-foot ceilings and concrete columns.
Forty-four one-bedroom units are complemented by twenty-eight two-bedroom layouts—all of which follow a basic template but many of which also incorporate improvisations on the basic theme—with larger two-bedroom spaces tending to occupy the spaces distinguished by the signature, rounded exterior walls built floor-to-ceiling with industrial glass blocks. These fancier spaces, which comprise approximately thirty percent of all units, tend to be the ones rented at market-determined rates, while the remaining seventy percent make up those benefiting from rent subsidies.
The principle of industrial preservation defining contemporary design is announced on the building’s front lawn by a backlit, glass-block sculpture created by artist Madeleine Faust and reconfirmed by a central, gurgling fountain in the building’s rear courtyard, created by the same artist and constructed entirely from the building’s original pipes and fittings.
The building’s residents are generally free spirits of one sort or another, involved in a surprisingly wide variety of art-related activities—from pigment-on-canvas painting to jewelry making, photography, filmmaking, music of all kinds, movement and dance, interior design, cultural and community engagement, writing, and internet-related projects. Just as the typical image of the artist’s loft has changed dramatically since the late twentieth century so, too, has our understanding of art, what defines it, and what role it plays in society.
In that sense, the Blue Plate building serves as a kind of “experimental community,” as Building Manager Jennifer Kirtlan described it, where “everyone has their own story,” to use a phrase provided by the building’s rental agent, Ashley Kyle. With inviting public spaces (including a roof deck) and a pet-friendly attitude, there’s plenty of outdoor human activity, creating the opportunity for random encounters that may or may not become more intentional.
Conceived as a high-design concept meant to lead a post-disaster urban-renewal effort as well as provide stimulating, stable housing for the artistically-minded, it is tempting, but a little premature, to pass judgement on the Blue Plate’s success.
While my own work opportunities have seemed to improve, new collaborations with fellow Blue Plate residents have developed, and long-established themes I’ve wanted to pursue seem to be emerging almost on their own, I must allow for the possibility of some sort of “placebo effect.” In other words, does the possibility of raising one’s horizons accomplish just that; or has the actual experience of a new living situation brought about the positive changes?
Destiny, fate, the Blue Plate effect, the Blue Plate placebo effect, just plain coincidence or some combination of them all?
What I can say for certain is that I’m beginning to fall in love with living here, partly for the aesthetically pleasing surroundings, partly for the concentrated, random, and often-stimulating social environment, and partly because having affordable, subsidized rent provides a little extra breathing room and a little more freedom.
I am likewise falling in love with my own work/live space, which I’ve now seen through a full year of changing seasons and light. The space itself is beautiful and functional, with enough care taken in the design details to remind me that this is someplace special. The most prominent of those details is a partition wall defining my bedroom area that is broadly curved at what would normally be a sharp, right angle corner. A twelve-foot concrete exposed ceiling imparts a sense of grandeur to the tidy, 625-square-foot concrete cube I call home; while the unified, earth-toned color palette that prevails throughout the building (the lease specifies no painting of apartment walls) contributes a sense of wholeness. The designers were even careful to paint the tiny, front grill of the industrially exposed air duct hanging from my ceiling—all confirming a sense that the entire space is its own work of art.
Living at the Blue Plate is honestly to be living within art, and that sense of living in a work of art has not only served to raise my own expectations for creativity, it has also enhanced my general sense of the potential of what may be possible, at any moment and in any phase of life, and what may be possible, now, on a sustainable basis.
Details. Details. Details.
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