Monday, March 22, 2010

Uptown in New Orleans

This morning, I took the St. Charles streetcar uptown, i.e., to the west of the French Quarter and Central Business District. This section of the city was settled by the ever-increasing number of Americans who came to the city in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase and got a chilly reception from the descendants of French and Spanish colonists who lived in the Vieux Carré.

I started out in the Garden District at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which was established in 1833 and is the third-oldest cemetery in New Orleans. A quick glance at the surnames on the tombs is testimony to the demographic changes that New Orleans has witnessed: most of the names on the tombs at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 are French or Spanish, but the tombs in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 bear English, German, Italian, Irish, and a smattering of French ones.

As is the practice in New Orleans, most of the dead in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 are in aboveground tombs or in wall vaults that line the walls of the cemetery. Although many of the tombs in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 are similar in style to those in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, there are also some fascinating differences. For example, there are several tombs in the above style at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 and none at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

Most of the tombs contain the remains of multiple family members. Approximately twenty members of the Schau family have been interred in the tomb above.

I went to the cemetery with the intent of exploring it by myself; although prospective visitors are commonly warned to be mindful of their surroundings, the surrounding neighborhood is safe and the cemetery itself attracts a substantial number of tourists. However, the cemetery's pro bono director, who gives tours whenever he has the time and inclination, gathered a group of visitors together and talked about the cemetery and his work for about twenty minutes. He emphasized that, unlike many other city cemeteries, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 has always been non-denominational: from its inception, the tombs of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish families have been built side by side.

He also asserted that, contrary to popular belief, New Orleans' aboveground cemeteries are the result of culture, not geography. The stony soil of the Mediterranean region led the Romans to inter their dead in caves or to build cairns, and to this day all of the societies that the Romans most heavily influenced (i.e., those that speak Romance languages) often inter their dead above ground. The French and Spanish colonists who settled New Orleans brought this cultural preference with them, and it remains to this day.

For those who preferred burial in the ground, coping graves such as those above were (and are) one way to avoid the problems posed by the city's geography. These graves consist of retaining walls that enable coffins to be placed roughly two to three feet below the earthen surface of the grave. The climate facilitates the breakdown of both wooden coffins and human remains, and as a result coping graves often house multiple remains. (NB: never walk on the earthen surface of a coping grave. Your weight might be just enough to break the lid of the coffin beneath you!)

He also discussed how he and his colleagues prepare for a burial: they verify that the tomb is in good enough shape for an interment, a sufficient amount of time has passed since the last interment, and the family has the appropriate paperwork. They then remove the plaque bearing the names of the people interred in the tomb (if there is one) and break the tomb's seal. Then they remove and bag any human remains and discard any remaining coffin pieces they find. After the interment ceremony, they place the bags containing removed remains back into the tomb, seal it, and replace the plaque.

Every tomb is owned by an individual, and deeds are commonly passed down through multiple generations. Each family is responsible for maintaining its own tomb, and some take this responsibility quite seriously. Although the sight of a brightly colored tomb may seem a bit unusual, many nineteenth-century tombs were decorated in this fashion. Save Our Cemeteries (which is not held in high regard by the executive director and others affiliated with the Lafayette Cemetery Research Project) decorated a number of tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in this fashion, but the cemetery was flooded in the wake of Katrina and its handiwork was undone.

Other family members show their respects in a more personal manner. Someone must have been a Saints fan.

After I left the cemetery, I spent a little time exploring the Garden District, which was settled by the largely Protestant, English-speaking Americans who made their fortunes in New Orleans. They were determined to build a residential district that outclassed that of the established Creole elite, and the Garden District remains one of the city's most elegant and exclusive neighborhoods; in recent years, the neighborhood has been home to writer Anne Rice, actors Nicolas Cage (whose home is being sold at auction but who still owns a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No 1) and John Goodman, and musician Trent Reznor.

Like the French Quarter, the Garden District and many other uptown neighborhoods are a few feet above sea level. Katrina's winds felled some trees and damaged some buildings, but the area was spared the horrific flooding that beset 80 percent of the city when the levees failed. As a result, some residents of neighborhoods that flooded in August 2005 refer to uptown as the "Isle of Denial."

The Americans who established the Garden District brought with them a host of architectural forms that were new to New Orleans. This stunning Victorian is a striking departure from the Creole cottages and townhomes of the French Quarter.

The Robinson House at 1415 Third Street was the first house in the district to have indoor plumbing. Its roof funneled rain water into a cistern, and gravity drew the water into the pipes.

A few homes in the Garden District do bear evidence of French influence. For example, this raised center hall villa emulates the grand plantation homes built by French colonists.

However, Gothic Revival -- a style that was extremely popular in many other U.S. cities -- was apparently a bit too much for the Protestants who initially settled the Garden District. The Briggs-Straub House at 2605 Prytania Street is the neighborhood's only Gothic Revival building.

Colonel Shorrt's Villa on the corner of Prytania and Fourth Street is renowned for its elaborate cornstalk-themed cast iron fence. Note the ears of corn atop the fence post.

As did their peers in many other American cities, Garden District residents embraced the Italianate style. However, most other cities lack the lush vegetation that complements the Carroll-Crawford House (1315 First Street) and the Garden District's other Italianate homes.

After spending some time at the Garden District Book Shop, I strolled down to Magazine Street, which is one of the city's prime retail areas. Most of the shops along Magazine are locally owned, giving the area a distinctive flavor that many other cities and the Canal Street area of New Orleans lack. I took a bus to the 5700 block, which is home to a couple of shops I wanted to visit, but before I went shopping I opted to spend a few minutes exploring the streets adjacent to Magazine.

I'm not sure about the name of the neighborhood that surrounds the 5700 block of Magazine -- as far as I can tell, it's called Audubon in honor of the adjacent Audubon Park -- but it obviously caters to the students and faculty at nearby Loyola and Tulane universities. Hip boutiques abound, college kids are on the buses, and the neighborhood is home to the city's only Whole Foods store (yes, I bought some stuff there). However, architecturally, the neighborhood is far more representative of New Orleans than the Garden District.

The streets just off Magazine are home to lots of shotgun homes, so named because they consist of three to five rooms that connect directly to one another and have doors at each end; the old saying is that if one stood in one doorway and fired a shotgun into the house, the pellets would fly unimpeded through the house and exit through the other door. Shotgun houses facilitate the circulation of air -- a necessity in New Orleans prior to the introduction of air conditioning.

There are also plenty of double shotgun homes, which were built as two-family houses. Given the apparent demographics of the neighborhood, I suspect that some of these homes have been converted to single-family dwellings.

Raised center hall cottages, which modestly echo the grand French plantation homes and center hall villas of the Garden District, are also common.


Tulane University Louisiana Research Collection said...

Feel free to stop by the Louisiana Research Collection at Tulane University and say hi!

Ray LaFever said...

Loving the cemetery pictures. Looks very much like the Pere Lachaise cemetery I saw in Paris in February.

Nail Polish said...

Very much genius pictures you have posted here.So excellent.Like to see some more ...

Kit carson said...

Here it is 2014 and just came across your post. You have presented an accurate portrayal of the neighborhood and of our cemetery 'director'. We still hold the deed to a plot there - a coping grave. Ancestors were Irish and Catholic and stayed in the neighborhood. I grew up in this area and still call it Home. Two interesting reads - Time & Place in New Orleans: past geographies in the present day by Richard Camponella and this