Garden District Historic Homes in New Orleans, Louisiana
Yesterday’s weather was such a gift that I decided to partake on an activity I see tourists doing on a daily basis; follow Frommer’s self-guided walking tour of the Garden DIstrict Historic Homes. The Garden District is a neighborhood located west of the French Quarter/Downtown New Orleans that is perfect for a day’s walk around in town, not only to enjoy the scene and historic value, but also the variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and galleries available.
Start: Prytania Street and Washington Avenue
Time: 1 – 1 1/2 hours
End: Lafayette Cemetery No.1
To reach the Garden District: Take the street car St. Charles Avenue line, get off on Washington Avenue (stop 16), and walk toward the river for 1 block to the corner of Prytania Street and Washington Avenue.
1. 2727 Prytania St., The Garden District Book Shop
2. 1448 Fourth St., Colonel Short’s Villa
This house was built by architect Henry Howard for Kentucky Colonel Robert Short. The story goes that Short’s wife complained of missing the cornfields in her native Iowa, so he bought her the cornstalk fence. But a recent owner’s revisionist explanation is that the wife requested it because it was the most expensive fence in the building catalog. Second Civil War occupational governor Nathaniel Banks was quartered here.
Continuing down Prytania, you’ll find the:
3. 2605 Prytania St., Briggs-Staub House
This is the Garden District’s only example of Gothic Revival architecture (unpopular among Protestant Americans because it reminded them of their Roman Catholic Creole antagonists). Original owner Charles Briggs did not hold African slaves but did employ Irish servants, for whom he built the relatively large adjacent servant quarters. Irish immigration was then starting to create the Irish Channel neighborhood across Magazine Street from the Garden District.
4. 2523 Prytania St., Our Mother of Perpetual Help
Once an active Catholic chapel, this site was one of several in the area owned by Anne Rice and the setting for her novel Violin. The author’s childhood home is down the street at 2301 St. Charles Ave.
5. 2504 Prytania St., Women’s Opera Guild Home
Some of the Garden District’s most memorable homes incorporate more than one style. Designed by William Freret in 1858, this building combines Greek Revival and Queen Anne styles. Now owned by the Women’s Opera Guild, the home can be toured on Mondays from 10am to noon and 1 to 4pm for $7, or by advance arrangements for groups (tel.504/899-1945).
6. 2340 Prytania St., Toby’s Corner
The Garden District’s oldest known home dates to at least 1838. Built for Philadelphia wheelwright Thomas Toby, it is in the then-popular Greek Revival style. Although it represents an Anglicized attempt at non-Creole identity, this style required Creole building techniques such as raising the house up on brick piers to combat flooding and encourage air circulation.
7. 2343 Prytania St., Bradish Johnson House & Louise S. McGehee School
Paris-trained architect James Freret designed this French Second Empire-style mansion, built for sugar factor Bradish Johnson in 1872 at a cost of $100,000 ($1.6-plus million today). Contrast this house’s awesome detail with the stark classical simplicity of Toby’s Corner across the street — a visual indication of the effect that one generation of outrageous fortune had on Garden District architecture. Since 1929 it has been the private Louise S. McGehee School for girls.
Turn down First Street (away from St. Charles) and it’s less than a block to the:
8. 1420 First St., Archie Manning House
Home of former New Orleans Saints superstar quarterback Archie Manning and the childhood home of his sons, also familiar to football fans: Peyton, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, and Eli, New York Giants quarterback.
9. 1407 First St., Pritchard-Pigott House
This Greek Revival double-galleried town house shows how, as fortunes grew, so did Garden District home sizes. Americans introduced two house forms: the cottage (as in Toby’s Corner) and this grander town house.
10. 1331 First St., Morris-Israel House
As time passed, the simplicity of Greek Revival style moved toward more playful design styles. By the 1860s, Italianate was popular, as seen in this (reputedly haunted) double-galleried town house. Architect Samuel Jamison designed this house and the Carroll-Crawford House on the next corner (1315 First St.); note the identical ornate cast-iron galleries.
Follow Coliseum Street to the left less than half a block to:
11. 2329-2305 Coliseum St., The Seven Sisters
This row of “shotgun” houses gets its nickname from a (false) story that a 19th-century Garden District resident built these homes as wedding gifts for his seven daughters. Actually, there are eight “Seven Sisters,” and they were built on speculation.
“Shotgun” style homes are so named because, theoretically, if one fired a gun through the front door, the bullet would pass unhindered out the back. Also, a West African word for this native African house form sounds like “shotgun.” The shotgun house effectively circulates air and is commonly found in hot climates. The relatively small shotguns are rare along the imposing Garden District streets, but they are extremely popular throughout the rest of New Orleans.
Now turn around and go back to First Street and turn left. At the corner of First and Chestnut, you’ll see the:
12. 1239 First St., Brevard-Mahat-Rice House
Designed in 1857 as a Greek Revival town house and later augmented with an Italianate bay, this house is a fine example of “transitional” architecture. It was called Rosegate for the rosette pattern on the fence. (The fence’s woven diamond pattern is believed to be the precursor to the chain-link fence.) This was the home of novelist Anne Rice and the setting for her Witching Hour novels.
13. 1134 First St., Payne-Strachan House
As the stone marker in front of the house notes, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, died in this classic Greek Revival antebellum home, that of his friend Judge Charles Fenner. Davis was buried in magnificent Metairie Cemetery for 2 years and then was disinterred and moved to Virginia. Note the sky-blue ceiling of the gallery — the color is believed to keep winged insects from nesting there and to ward off evil spirits. Many local homes adhere to this tradition.
Turn right on Camp and go less than a block to:
14. 2427 Camp St., Warwick Manor
An example of Georgian architecture, this house is a rare (for the vicinity) multifamily residence. Note the buzzers, which indicate rented apartments.
15. 1137 Second St.
This house exemplifies the type of Victorian architecture popularized in uptown New Orleans toward the end of the 19th century. Many who built such homes were from the Northeast and left New Orleans in the summer; otherwise, it would be odd to see this “cool climate” style of claustrophobic house in New Orleans. Note the exquisite stained glass and rounded railing on the gallery.
Turn right onto Second Street and go 2 blocks to the corner of Coliseum, where you’ll see the:
16. 2425 Coliseum St., Joseph Merrick Jones House
This house, now home to actor John Goodman, was previously owned by Nine Inch Nails singer Trent Reznor. When he moved in, more anti-noise ordinances were introduced into city council proceedings. His next-door neighbor was City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson. Coincidence?
Turn left onto Coliseum Street and go 1 block to Third Street. Turn left to get to the:
17. 1331 Third St., Musson-Bell House
This is the 1853 home of Michel Musson, one of the few French Creoles then living in the Garden District and the uncle of artist Edgar Degas, who lived with Musson on Esplanade Avenue during a visit to New Orleans. On the Coliseum Street side of the house is the foundation of a cistern. These water tanks were so common in the Garden District that Mark Twain once commented that it looked as if everybody in the neighborhood had a private brewery. Cisterns were destroyed at the turn of the 20th century when mosquitoes, which breed in standing water, were found to be carriers of yellow fever and malaria.
Turn around and cross Coliseum to see the:
18. 1415 Third St., Robinson House
This striking unusual home was built between 1859 and 1865 by architect Henry Howard for tobacco grower and merchant Walter Robinson. Walk past the house to appreciate its scale — the outbuildings, visible from the front, are actually connected to the side of the main house. The entire roof is a large vat that once collected water. Add gravity and water pressure, and thus begat the Garden District’s earliest indoor plumbing.
Continue down Coliseum Street 2 blocks to the corner of Washington Avenue. There you’ll find:
19. 2627 Coliseum St., Koch-Mays House
This picturesque chalet-style dollhouse (well, for a large family of dolls) was built in 1876 by noted architect William Freret for James Eustis, a U.S. senator and ambassador to France. Along with four other spec homes he built on the block, it was referred to as Freret’s Folly. No detail was left unfrilled, from the ironwork to the gables and finials. Actress Sandra Bullock and her adopted baby Louis (a native New Orleanian) moved here in 2010; wonder if he rides a Big Wheel around the full-size ballroom. Please enjoy the elaborate design, and respect the tenant’s privacy.
20. 1403 Washington Ave., Commander’s Palace
Established in 1883 by Emile Commander, this turreted Victorian structure (a bordello back in the 1920s) is now the pride of the Brennan family, the most visible and successful restaurateurs in New Orleans, and one of the city’s top restaurants. Rain damage after Katrina demanded a to-the-studs stripping inside and out, but the iconic turquoise and white manse looks as it always did!
21. 1400 Washington Ave., Lafayette Cemetery
Established in 1833, this “city of the dead” is one of New Orleans’s oldest cemeteries and a popular film location. It has examples of all the classic above-ground, multiple-burial techniques. These tombs typically house numerous corpses — one here lists 37 entrants, while several others are designated for members of specific fire departments. It’s often active with visitors (Commander’s Palace diners walking off the bread pudding soufflé?), and thus safe, but unfortunately there is much disrepair here. (The website http://www.SaveOurCemeteries.org accepts donations toward restoration and preservation efforts.)
Walk to St. Charles Avenue to pick up the streetcar (there is a stop right there) or flag down a cab to return to the French Quarter.
Now go back to your first stop, the Rink, where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and some light refreshments at Still Perkin’. Or head south on Washington to Magazine Street, where a po’ boy at Tracey’s, lunch at Coquette, or a sweet from Sucré will satisfy other appetites.