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The Pied Piper of Preservation

August 14, 2002

Ann Green
Michael DeMocker

It's a tranquil day in the historic town of Trinidad, Cuba. As a lone motorcyclist clatters down a narrow, cobbled street, Tulane University architecture professor Eugene Cizek strolls past colorful Creole-style cottages.

Dressed casually in a straw hat, jeans and boots, Cizek stops at a yellow house that needs "tender-loving care." "This house is under restoration," says Cizek, G '78. "The railing needs fixing. The roof is collapsing. You can see light through the ceiling. The shutters are deteriorating."

After leaving this house, Cizek heads across the street to the restored 18th-century Palacio Cantero. While standing in front of the home's faded blue exterior, he chats about his favorite house in Trinidad. "The interior was painted by artists from Florence," says Cizek. "The chandeliers were by Cornelius Baker of Philadelphia. The house is a picture-book imprint of rich folks."

Cizek continues down the street past several low-lying cottages with wooden and wrought-iron grilled windows. Then he turns the corner to Trinidad's perfectly preserved main square, which includes a central park enclosed with wrought-iron fencing. Several pastel mansions and a large yellow church surround the square.

A slightly built man with a fair complexion, Cizek pauses in front of the canary yellow Palacio de Brunet that was once owned by a wealthy family. Cizek steps inside the restored two-story home, followed by Tulane alumni participating in the first tour of Cuba sponsored by Tulane Alumni Affairs. While heading up the ma-hogany stairs to the second floor, Cizek points out the home's unusual featuresfrom dark cedar ceilings with a Moroccan pattern to a holy water fountain.

He also makes many comparisons to Louisiana. He says a pair of thick, green shutters over the windows are like ones in early Louisiana. The handsome furnishings, including a Victorian rocking chair and green and white Paris vases, could have been in homes in Natchez, New Orleans or Mobile. "What is wonderful is that the people who lived here were related to people in New Orleans," he adds.

Throughout the tour, Cizek seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the home's architectural features and furnishings. Mild-mannered and patient, he stops often to answer questions.

As director of Tulane's Historic Preservation Program, Cizek has shown the palace and other gems in Trinidad to numerous student groups. "I like to take students to Trinidad because it is one of the most intact 18th- and 19th-century built environments in the world," he says. You can experience the architecture as well as the decorative arts and interior furnishings, he adds. "There is a long bond between Trinidad and New Orleans based primarily on sugar," he says. "We share many family names and relationships. I also think that it is one of the most beautiful sites in the world."

He also praises the city's exceptional historic preservation program. Cizek initiated the first Tulane Summer in Cuba Program for students in 1998. "Something about Cuba makes young people talk," he says. "It is a good place for them to see the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly." Although many of Havana's buildings are deteriorating, he says the old city has "one of the best collections of turn-of-the-century architecture in the world and some of the best examples of classical and neo-classical architecture in the world."

Many other diverse architectural styles also grace the cityfrom art nouveau and art deco to fortresses that go back as far as the 16th century, says Cizek. Modern architectural gems include five schools for the arts that were built in the early 1960s in an affluent Havana suburb. Because of the revolutionary style of architecture, the schools were deemed ideologically incorrect. Some, including the School of Ballet, remain unfinished. The dome-shaped School of Modern Danceovergrown with plants and grassis among those needing a facelift.

With African-Cuban music pulsating through the complex, Cizek almost dances along a floor in an open area that leads to a dance studio. A flat, ancient-style arch covers the area. "The arch replicates the freedom of movement," he says. "There are no masonry buildings in the United States that have the conceptual feeling of these schools." Cizek says the Cuban government has started renovating the School of Dance and Plastic Arts. "Both of these were finished but need repairs," he says. 

After 16 visits to Cuba, Cizek still vividly remembers his first trip in 1979 with an all-female Tulane group. "Several students were Cuban-Americans," he says. "A lot of the women were from Latin America. It was so organized. We had to write tons of letters to get to go." When they arrived at the Havana airport, Cizek says there was nobody around "except some disgruntled Russians who were leaving paradise to go back to the cold country. I soon learned there was little exchange between the Cuban and the Russian cultures."

Brownouts were so frequent on the first trip that he often viewed the city by moonlight. He and his students also saw many crumbling buildings during a walking tour of Old Havana. "About 80 percent of the buildings needed repair," he says. "It used to be that 80 buildings a year collapsed. However, historic preservation is cheaper here than in the U.S. because of inexpensive labor." On that first trip, Cizek and his students stayed in university housing.

Before leaving, they celebrated with a party in an old convent. "The band started playing," he says. "The party went on and on. I cried. We danced until the sun came up." Cizek did not receive a warm welcome from everyone when the group got back. In fact, he got several phone calls threatening his life. "I knew people were anti-Castro, but I didn't expect death threats," he says. "Dr. Richard Greenleaf (then executive director of the Stone Center for Latin American Studies) said he would take care of the problem. I never got another phone call."

Over the years, Cizek has seen hundreds of buildings restored in Havana. One of the largest is the majestic Iglesia de San Francisco de Assisi convent and church in old Havana. "When I first saw it, you could barely walk on the floor," he says while touring the immense barrel-vaulted interior. "The windows were deteriorating. It looked like it might have been bombed." With the large number of buildings that have undergone facelifts, Cizek has developed a lot of respect for Cuban preservation efforts.

"One reason that I like Cuba is that the government has a strong preservation policy as opposed to the U.S., where we throw away old buildings like we throw away old people," he says.

Cizek also has developed friendships with a number of Cuban architects and preservationists. "Eugene is amazing," says Cynthia Steward '92, who went on a Tulane trip to Cuba and Mexico in 2000. "He knows people everywhere. You get to go places where you would not get to go with other people." Cizek also makes the trips fun. "Learning new information doesn't seem like a chore," she adds. "It is like being with a friend."

In addition to Cuba, Cizek has led numerous student trips to Guatemala, Costa Rica and other places in Central America. In Guatemala, which Cizek has visited about 20 times, the students have focused on Antigua and the independent Mayan culture. "Antigua had its first preservation development project about the same time as the (New Orleans) French Quarter," he says. "The French Quarter is the second-oldest preservation project in the U.S. Charleston is older by a year."

In Costa Rica, Cizek worked with the city of Limon to save old structures. "They didn't have a lot of luck," he says. "An earthquake wrecked the place. We stopped going to Costa Rica because there wasn't a real commitment to historic preservation. They tore down the last coffee hacienda for a shopping center."

This summer, Cizek is leading a group to Panama to consider the possibility of initiating a student and faculty exchange between that country and the Tulane Preservation Studies Program. "Panama has a long history with New Orleans and Louisiana," he says. "This relationship will be explored. There is an old section of Panama City that is very much like the French Quarter."

Cizek says other historic sites in Panama could be used to develop cultural tourism. "The ecological resources also provide rich opportunities for possible studios and joint ventures with the Tulane Environmental Law Center."

This spring, three Panamanian architects taught at Tulane. Cizek's passion for preserving old buildings dates back to his childhood in the tiny Louisiana communities of Libuse, near Marksville, and Tioga, outside Alexandria. "When someone would tear down an old house, my mom, dad and I would tell it goodbye and look at it for the last time," he says. "There was a wonderful row of turn-of-the-century mansions in Alexandria. One by one, they were demolished to build Piggly Wigglys, fast-food places and Sears & Roebuck."

From his grandfather, who was an architect, Cizek developed an interest in design and a love for Cuba. "My grandfather said there were two civilized placesone was New Orleans and the other was Cuba." As a child, Cizek visited New Orleans numerous times. His first memory of New Orleans was sitting on a bar eating shrimp as his father drank beer. He also went on numerous cross-country journeys with his parents, who were from Eastern Europe. "We would take different routes," he says. "The only place we didn't visit was the East Coast."

His parents died before Cizek finished high school. His sister came to live with him, and he helped run the family's two general stores. In 1959the year that Castro led the Cuban revolutionCizek started at Louisiana State University as an architecture student. "It was an interesting time to see and hear the transition," he says. Cizek made friends with many Cuban students. "When the revolution took place," he says, "I saw the looks on my Cuban friends' faces."

He also had contact with Cuban students as a proctor in the engineering dorm. Since Cizek respected students' privacy, he didn't check their lockers. One day, he heard a commotion. The dean of men conducted an unannounced inspection of the students' lockers, finding stashes of guns and ammunition. "Neither the students nor I were suspended," adds Cizek. "The whole deal was kept pretty quiet. Soon thereafter, the Bay of Pigs happened. We all know that many LSU students were involved in that fiasco."

After graduating, Cizek headed north to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a master's in city planning and urban design. While in Boston, he noted that old areas of the city such as Beacon Hill remained intact. After MIT, Cizek went to Holland as a Fulbright Scholar. There, he delved in the artsfrom filmmaking to playing the piano and trumpet. He also "solidified his feeling of a country with the longest history of urban planning."

After a long period away from Louisiana, Cizek went back in 1967 to teach architecture at LSU. In Baton Rouge, Cizek took on his first preservation drive, saving the 18th-century Magnolia Mound Plantation on Nicholson Drive. Armed with a set of his own drawings, he convinced officials not to tear down the mansion to make way for a six-story hotel. "As a student, I had become familiar with the site," he says. "It had beautiful live oaks. An ancient lady who owned it had made a deal with me and other students. She would let us sketch there if we would do odd jobs. I fell in love with the place."

Motivated by his success at Magnolia Mound, Cizek helped stop federal highway authorities from building the Riverfront Expressway in the New Orleans French Quarter. "It was an interesting time to be involved in historic preservation," he says. "Martha Gilmore Robinson, a Newcomb graduate, was very involved."

In 1970, he left LSU to begin work on his doctorate in the social psychology of urban design at Tulane, where he also worked as a visiting professor. He took up residence in a third-story walkup that was a half a block from the French Market in the French Quarter. Continuing his preservation efforts, Cizek made numerous trips to the Louisiana state capital to push for legislation enabling historic districts in cities. He was disappointed that no protection was accorded historic structures in rural areas.

"New Orleans and Louisiana have been on the forefront of historic preservation," he says. "It is the saddest thing that there is no legislation protecting historic plantations. Places along River Road have continued to deteriorate." Cizek's political activism led many to think that he would run for political office. "If I had wanted to have an early death, I would have run for office," he says. "I decided to stay on the other side of the fence." 

Over the years, Cizek has spearheaded many New Orleans preservation projects, including Destrehan Plantation on River Road. He founded the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association in 1972 to help preserve one of the French Quarter's "original suburbs." Two years later, the City of New Orleans instituted Historic Marigny Zoning that protects the neighborhood's mixed character. "My students and I developed the first historic zoning codes in New Orleans since the Vieux Carre Commission in 1971," he says. "Now, it is a model for other historic neighborhoods."

Over the years, Cizek has renovated two homes in that neighborhood. Now, he lives in Sun Oak, a Greek revival, galleried Creole-style cottage. The homewhich has a rusticated facade, a dogtrot and a color scheme of French red, Creole putty, indigo and Egyptian blueis now a bed and breakfast. It is filled with Louisiana artifacts, including a crucifix from St. Louis Cathedral. "I am in love and have a strong devotion for the City of New Orleans, the River Road and Louisiana culture," he says.

Cizek's newest project is restoring Laura Plantation on the River Road in St. James Parish. It is falling down, he says of the plantation consisting of a house and 20 outbuildings. As a personal project, Cizek also is trying to buy a tomb at St. Louis No. 1 cemetery. He plans to restore it and use it as a final resting place. Over the years, Cizek has taught a number of Tulane classesfrom urban design to environmental social psychology and preservation.

To show students the emotional experiences of different buildings, Cizek took his environmental social psychology class on a tour of the French Quarter at night, showing them the inside of St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter and then a disco.
"We looked at light and sound and how it affects you," he says. "It tended to be a fun class. A lot of people were turned on to historic preservation. My students called it a dining and dancing club." In all of his preservation classes, Cizek emphasizes hands-on experiences. He takes his students to a variety of historic sitesfrom small and mid- sized settings in Mobile, Ala., and Oceans Springs and Biloxi, Miss., to larger sites in New Orleans.

Elrhei Thibodeaux (A '78), who is executive director of the Historic District Landmarks Commission in New Orleans, was a student of Cizek's. "He is an excellent teacher," she says. "He is extremely preservation-oriented. He helped foster my ambition to take care of buildings in New Orleans."

Sometimes, Cizek's role goes beyond instilling a respect for historic buildings. "It is amazing what I have done for students," he says. "I have loaned them money. In preservation studies, you do a lot of counseling. So many people go into it and are not sure what they want to study."

Twenty-five years ago, Cizek and retired educator Lloyd Sensat initiated the Education Through Historical Preservation Program in the St. Charles Parish Public Schools. Still going strong, the program teaches youngsters to value historic structures. In 1981, Cizek was honored for his education efforts with a prestigious National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"The program takes the premise that without input from young people, historic preservation has no future," says Cizek. "You can't just involve old people in preservation. You need to reach all ages. All historic buildings have a story. These stories are part of the structure and provide a level of interest that bridges the gap for all kinds of students. A suburban child going to an old house has a different experience from an urban child." The students also are exposed to environmental conservation. "You don't throw away something just because it is old," he says. "People in the United State are fanatical about young, young, young and new, new, new."

Cizek's graduate students are now working with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students at Craig Elementary School in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Students take walking tours of their neighborhood, which has many Creole-style cottages, and field trips to St. Louis No. 1 cemetery and Jackson Square. After the tours, they draw, write or talk about the experience.

On the tours, Cizek is like a "pied piper," according to Sheila Young, principal at Craig Elementary. "The kids love him, and the parents love him." Tulane students have become mentors to the children. "We now have kids looking to go to Tulane," says Young. "This program gives kids an opportunity to interact with master's level students. It has broadened their choices." With the success of the program, Cizek would like to see a public school heritage program in all Louisiana public schools. "It has been approved by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as a program to be modeled and emulated," he says.

In his preservation crusades, Cizek likes to use the analogy of a brick. "To make a brick, it takes men and energy," he says. "There is a lot of energy used in firing a brick. If the brick is still in good shape and the building is in good shape, you probably should leave it intact."

Ann Green is a free-lance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.


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