New Orleans architect Allen Eskew dead at 65

Allen Eskew, an architect who for 30 years designed signature public spaces around New Orleans, including some that reintroduced the city to the Mississippi River, died unexpectedly at his home Tuesday. He was 65.

In the early 1980s, Eskew helped design the 82-acre riverfront site for the 1984 World’s Fair. In later years, he and his firm, which became Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, designed the Aquarium of the Americas, Woldenberg Park and Champions Square next to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

He was also involved in a $50 million renovation of the New Orleans Arena.

Eskew’s most ambitious recent work is another riverfront green space called Crescent Park, which stretches more than a mile from Elysian Fields Avenue to Bartholomew Street in Bywater. The linear park, which the city expects to open soon, was conceived as the first phase of a larger master plan that envisioned redeveloping the riverfront well upriver as well.

Ironically, on Thursday, the American Institute of Architects named Eskew+Dumez+Ripple the recipient of its 2014 Architecture Firm Award, the highest honor the AIA bestows on the 25,000 or so architecture practices in the United States.

“Allen worked as hard on building the firm as he did on his projects,” said Ray Manning, a frequent colleague though with another firm, Manning Architects. “If there’s a higher power with a sense of humor, his firm winning ‘firm of the year’ two days after his death — the irony of that is such an emotional thing for me. In that, he achieved the thing I know he worked most for in his professional life.”

Robert Ivy, chief executive officer of the American Institute of Architects, said Eskew represented “the best of architects and architecture.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who knew Eskew through his public work, said the architect “helped remake the very landscape of our beautiful city, boldly breaking new ground, while also reconnecting us to our unique heritage.”

A source close to both men said Eskew was helping Landrieu with conceptual plans to convert the abandoned Charity Hospital building on Tulane Avenue into a new civic center.

Eskew’s firm grew substantially after Hurricane Katrina as it and other firms plunged into rebuilding New Orleans.

“One thing he and I talked about, we made a commitment that the redesign would be undertaken by folks like us, though we’d welcome help from those who came, but we would do it as local practitioners,” Manning said.

“We organized neighborhood planning processes. The theme was local practitioners doing plans with local input. Allen was committed to rebuilding New Orleans using forward thinking, but through that prism of collaboration, so that we made the decision that was best for New Orleans, not for one group or another.”

Eskew’s firm took collaboration so seriously that when it built a new Catholic church in Harvey, it hosted sessions in which scores of parishioners broke into teams and brainstormed and sketched their own ideas. Many were later incorporated into St. Martha Church.

Eskew also had a special reputation as a teacher and mentor for students and young architects.

“He had a commitment to mentoring the next generation in ways that are very unusual,” said Paul Mankins, a Des Moines architect who presented the case for the Eskew+Dumez+Ripple firm before the American Institute of Architects.

“He was very generous in terms of time and knowledge. I don’t know if he ever taught in an academic situation, but I bet he taught every day.”

Eskew is survived by his companion, Babette Beaulieu; two sons, John Eskew of New Orleans and Christopher Eskew of Los Angeles; a daughter, Alison, of New Orleans; the mother of his children, Nancy Eskew; two brothers, Eddie Eskew of Jennings and Bill Eskew of Baton Rouge: three sisters, Mary Ann Lacy of Atlanta, Sue Ellen Bordelon of Lafayette and Becky Lou Bausewine of Alexandria; and a grandchild.

Eskew’s firm said private family services will be at Lake Lawn Funeral Home.

A public memorial will be held after Jan. 1.