Architect and developer Gerald Billes builds up New Orleans.
Early in his architectural career, Gerald Billes was an employee of locally based Curtis and Davis Architects — the firm that designed the Superdome. He was assigned to a completely different project at the time, but he recalls walking around the construction site and thinking, “I’d like to work on something like this someday.”
Three decades later, Billes’ own firm was one of three chosen to work on the renovation of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. “It was pretty interesting to think about how that came full-circle for me,” he says.
Through this project and many others, Billes has left his stamp on New Orleans. His architectural vision has become part of the fabric of the city. He had a hand in the House of Blues, where locals often go to see music; in the renovation of the French Market, the place to buy souvenirs and take out-of-town guests; and the Whole Foods stores both Uptown and in Mid-City, where many health-conscious shoppers buy groceries. Then there are the schools, city offices and places of worship he’s designed or renovated. In addition, Billes has been involved in several planning projects with government agencies that have served to make neighborhoods and communities more livable, vibrant and prosperous.
Billes started his current firm, Billes Partners, in 2003, after he and his former partner dissolved their company and decided to go in different directions. As a young company, Billes Partners was finding its footing when Hurricane Katrina flooded its offices. Billes and his staff decamped to Baton Rouge for many months.
“We were sustained by some work we had in Mississippi at the time,” Billes says. “Everyone was eager to come back New Orleans, so [we] worked out of my home in Algiers until we moved into our current office.”
Katrina also had the effect of shifting the firm’s project portfolio toward urban-planning work commissioned by public clients with federal funds. As the rebuilding push wound down, Billes Partners’ work shifted back toward a mix of private and institutional projects. With this range of experience, Billes feels buoyed by his firm’s ability to tackle all sorts of projects and building types.
People want to see their cities grow and prosper, but development often creates controversy. It’s not uncommon in New Orleans for neighborhood groups to oppose upcoming projects on various grounds. “I’ve been involved in the design of some controversial buildings myself, like the conversion of the bus barn on Arabella to a Whole Foods, where people were upset about parking issues,” he says. “I think it’s important to listen to neighborhood concerns. I think that’s part of my attitude for success. I look to take a real, not superficial, interest in the state of my community.”
As part of his focus on livable communities, Billes also looks to sustainable environmental practices. A house he designed for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is certified LEED Platinum, the highest rating for environmental design. He also listened to what area residents wanted, such as a porch and usable area beneath the structure. The foundation has used Billes’ design more than any other when building houses.
While he listens to clients’ input on projects, Billes also appreciates clients with open and creative minds that will entertain suggestions. “We’re working on the Audubon [Louisiana] Nature Center in the East, and, for various reasons, we determined the site they gave us wasn’t quite right,” he says. “We recommended moving the building to a spot 600 feet away, and they agreed.”
Billes grew up in Tuskegee, Ala. It’s a small town, but one that’s well known for its historical black university founded by Booker T. Washington. His father was a hospital administrator, not an educator, but Billes credits his parents’ devotion to education and their general encouragement for laying the foundation of his success. When he was in high school, Billes took a personal-interest test designed to gauge potential careers. His results fell on the continuum between engineer and artist, and architect was somewhere in the middle, requiring both critical thinking and artistry.
He had occasionally visited New Orleans because of family connections. He decided to enroll in Tulane’s architecture school in 1964, making him the first African-American to desegregate the school. “It wasn’t that difficult,” he says, “because many of the other students were from out-of-state, from places where desegregation was already the norm.” He continued his architectural education at MIT in Boston — where he earned a master’s degree — and returned to Tulane to teach, encouraged toward this possibility again by his father.
For the future, Billes foresees his company surging in growth. Billes Partners has about 20 employees now, and Billes expects to grow to 50 over the next several years. As part of this growth phase, Billes has become the creative director of Strategic Development Partners, a company created in collaboration with ValueSpark Capital and housed in an office space adjacent to Billes Partners. This new development company works on putting deals together, securing financing and managing properties. When construction is green-lighted, Billes Partners is perfectly positioned to step in and develop the architectural designs.