Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The French Quarter and the Faubourg St. John

The 2013 joint annual meeting of the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) ended on Saturday afternoon, and I left New Orleans for my parents' house in Ohio the next morning. Now that I've had the chance to catch up on a few things, I can say a few things about the sightseeing I did after the meeting ended. I injured my knee a few weeks ago and have to be careful about overtaxing it, so I decided to take the streetcar over to the French Quarter and explore a couple of historic houses.

My first stop was the Beauregard-Keyes House at 1113 Chartres Street, which was built in 1826 and is named for its two most famous inhabitants: Confederate General Beauregard, who resided there in 1860 and in 1866-1868, and Keyes, a writer of historical fiction who bought the house in 1943 and restored it.  The house is an elevated center hall colonial -- a distinctively "American" design -- and as a result it's something of an oddity for the French Quarter, which remained solidly French and Spanish well into the 19th century. Its design is the result of its architect's rather unusual background: his parents were French colonists who fled a slave revolt in the Caribbean and made the unusual choice to go to Baltimore instead of one of the other French colonies.  As a result, he received his architectural training on the East Coast, where neoclassical center hall buildings were common.

The building behind the Beauregard-Keyes House resembles those situated behind many grand French Quarter homes.  The first floor housed the kitchen, which was kept away from the main house in order to reduce the risk of fire, and the second floor was inhabited by slaves; in some instances, French Quarter inhabitants also installed their teenaged sons in these rough quarters.

I then headed to Madame John's Legacy, a French colonial home built in 1788. This home, which is one of the few French Quarter structures to survive the devastating fire of 1794. Homes resembling Madame John's Legacy once filled the city, but changing tastes and laws intended to reduce the risk of future conflagrations led the city's inhabitants to rebuild their homes in the Spanish colonial, not the French Colonial, style.

Madame John's Legacy, which was named for a George Washington Cable short story and not a former inhabitant, is now owned by the Louisiana State Museum, which uses it as exhibit space. At the moment, the house features an exhibit devoted to Newcomb Pottery, the New Orleans art pottery firm initially established to employ young women who had majored in fine arts at Newcomb College.

Today, Newcomb Pottery's wares are highly collectible.

I spent a little time walking around and admiring the lavish plantings hanging from the balconies of many of the French Quarter's townhomes, many of which feature Spanish-inspired balcony railings, but I have to be honest: the French Quarter attracts more than its share of idiots, and after a few hours of witnessing the various acts of rudeness, cluelessness, and poor reading comprehension committed by some of my fellow tourists, I had had enough.

My knee was holding up pretty well, so I decided to return to Faubourg St. John, a Mid-City neighborhood I visited in 2010 and which attracts far fewer tourists than the French Quarter.

While waiting for the streetcar, I had a little time to ponder the fate of the World Trade Center, which was designed by Edward Durrell Stone and has been vacant since 2011.  The city wants to tear it down, but historic preservationists are campaigning to save it.  I'm not overly fond of Stone's Albany masterwork, but the World Trade Center has a 1960s, Men in Black vibe that I like.

 Once I boarded the streetcar, I had ample opportunity to contemplate the weirdness that is the French Quarter on a Saturday evening. While we were at a stop, we were passed by this bus, which had a powerful sound system that was blasting bounce, a distinctive form of hip-hop that developed in New Orleans. I assumed that it was some sort of chartered bus for adult revelers and was stunned when I realized that it was full of very small children. A few minutes later, a grown man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume drunkenly curtseyed to the streetcar . . . or to the passengers in the streetcar. I couldn't tell, and he probably doesn't remember.

The French established a small settlement in the Faubourg St. John area in 1708, ten years before the city of New Orleans was founded. Travelers who came to New Orleans from the north entered the city via Bayou St. John, which drains into Lake Ponchartrain was connected to the Mississippi River via canal in 1803. The canal was filled in during the early 20th century, and at present the bayou forms the centerpiece of a pleasant residential neighborhood.

The Pitot House, a West Indies-style Creole colonial plantation house built in 1799, is one of the neighborhood's most noteworthy homes.  However, it was not always at 1440 Moss Street: in 1970, it was moved approximately 200 feet to accommodate the expansion of nearby Cabrini High School.  The house is named for James Pitot, the first "American" mayor of New Orleans; Pitot had been born in France, but he became a naturalized American citizen before he took up residence in the city. Other owners of note include Madame Rillieux, the great-grandmother of French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas (who in 1872-73 stayed with his New Orleans cousins in an Esplanade Avenue house located a few blocks away) and Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church.  The house is currently the headquarters of the Louisiana Landmarks Society and is open for tours during the day, but staff close the shutters during the evening.

Faubourg St. John is home to a wide array of vernacular New Orleans architecture. Shotgun homes, which are long, narrow, and rectangular dwellings in which all of the rooms are arranged in a straight line, and double shotgun homes, which look like two shotgun homes pushed together, are extremely common.  The colorful home above is a classic Eastlake double shotgun built during the Victorian era; the "Eastlake" in question is British architect Charles Locke Eastlake, whose ideas about furniture design influenced many American architects and builders. 

Next door to the double shotgun pictured above is this bracket single shotgun home; the style takes its name from the fancy brackets supporting the roof over the front porch.  This home is currently unoccupied, and a close look at it reveals why:  this section of Faubourg St. John was flooded when the city's levees failed in August 2005.  Most of the flood-damaged homes have since been restored, but this one is still awaiting refurbishment.

One of the oldest extant houses in the neighborhood is popularly known as the Spanish Custom House; however, there is no evidence that this building was ever used as a customs house. It was built in 1784 and is situated at 1300 Moss Street, and it is a stunning example of Creole plantation architecture. When you look at it from across Bayou St. John, you can sense just how stately it must have seemed to the men and women who traveled on the bayou in the 18th and 19th centuries . . . and are forced to ponder the slave economy that propelled its construction.  The domed structure behind it is the Church of the Holy Rosary, which plays an important role in the neighborhood's social, cultural, and religious life.

No amount of time spent in New Orleans is ever quite long enough.  I really wanted to spend more time exploring the neighborhood -- and other neighborhoods I have yet to see -- but it was getting dark, it started to rain, and I needed to return to my hotel and pack my things in preparation for my morning flight to Ohio.  However, I'm already starting to sketch out the itinerary for my next trip to the Crescent City, and I hope that the Society of American Archivists returns to New Orleans sooner -- much sooner -- rather than later.

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