Saturday, February 7, 2015

New Orleans

We find ourselves in New Orleans, not for one of our cruise adventures (which I know many of you are pretty much done with), but for our daughter's wedding. Some of you may know Nicole and Rob Orbe had already tied the knot here in Texas but wanted a more formal ceremony where Rob's family could easily travel to. And, coincidentally, in  a place they found special at a bakery in New Orleans which also had a an area behind the store which could become a neat wedding venue. Now that their 13 month old, Rob Jr., was more able to travel (and is now making those first furtive steps walking) it was a good time to make it happen.

Loaded up with festive decorations, wedding dresses and the smallest luggage bag I have ever seen Dianna use in the 40 years we've been together. This is the woman who had to bring four bags of her own on our first trip to Hawaii. Recalling all we ended up wearing were shorts, T shirts and bathing suits for five days but we were prepared for the possibility of winter snows, tsunamis and an unannounced invitation to dinner on Air Force One if the the President called. We did a midweek run out the I-20 to the I-49 descending to the I-10 almost running into the Mississippi and lodging at the Bienville House on Decatur, a short walk to Canal St and some of my favorite people watching in my small world.

The boutique Hotel is pretty cool, typical of the small footprint Pensiones in other lands, but very clean and on-site parking in a town where parking is at a premium if you don't park in the large pay-lots. Originally occupied by Planters Rice Mills, the space became home to Thompson’s Rice Mill and Southern Syrup Manufacturing. By 1835, the building had been completely transformed and the North American Hotel opened. However, by 1837, the hotel’s owners had parted company, and the building was split into a small French Quarter hotel for boarders and a Fire House. Eventually the building would become the Royal Bienville, 20 luxury apartments that marked the revival of Decatur Street. By the early 1970’s the building was once again a New Orleans hotel and after surviving a fire that destroyed a warehouse across the street, the 82 room “motor hotel” was purchased by the Monteleone family in 1972. The Bienville House hotel is still family-owned and operated by the Monteleone family.

A quick walk west and you hit Canal St. Just down the street is the House of Blues where we passed a bevy of blacked out motorhomes parked and fenced off from the public. Rumor had it they belonged to the NCIS New Orleans crew taping episodes in the French Quarter.

The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in the city of New Orleans. After New Orleans (La Nouvelle-Orléans in French) was founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the city developed around the Vieux Carré ("Old Square" in English). The district is more commonly called the French Quarter today, or simply "The Quarter," related to changes in the city with American immigration after the Louisiana Purchase.

Most of the French Quarter's architecture was built during the late 18th century and the period of Spanish rule over the city, which is reflected in the architecture of the neighborhood. The Great New Orleans Fire (1788) and another great fire in 1794 destroyed most of the Quarter's old French colonial architecture (and a law placing the building facades closer to the streets to be used as fire breaks for future fires creating the French Quarters very narrow sidewalks), leaving the colony's new Spanish landlords to rebuild it according to more modern tastes.

Many of the buildings date from 1803, when New Orleans was acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, although some late 19th century and early 20th century buildings were added to the area. Since the 1920s the historic buildings have been protected by law and cannot be demolished, and any renovations or new construction in the neighborhood must be done according to city regulations to preserve the period historic architectural style.

When Americans began to move in after the Louisiana Purchase, they mostly built on available land upriver, across modern-day Canal Street. This thoroughfare became the meeting place of two cultures, one Creole and the other American. The median of the wide boulevard (Canal St) became a place where the two contentious cultures could meet and do business in both French and English. As such, it became known as the "neutral ground", and this name is used for medians in the New Orleans area.

Our first night, we dropped into the Palace Cafe for dinner. I had the Pecan Crusted Catfish and Dianna had the Rotisserie Chicken. We followed up with the White Chocolate Creme Brulee for Dianna and I got the Cheesecake. Oh,

The following morning, in an attempt to mix business with pleasure, I had set us up for a tour of two plantations. I have always wondered how they worked and how the slave workers conducted their lives. We booked with Old River Road Plantation Adventures. A cool feature was that they pick you up at your hotel so no driving and parking. Our guide, Richard, was very informative and reminded Dianna of me if I became a tour guide, you know, the perky bearer of all useless information about anything.

The first plantation was the famous Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie (pronounced Vashery), Louisiana along the Old River Road. In the early days of French occupation, the area was all dairy farms thus the French name for cow is Vache (pronouned Vash) so the place where the cows are. Richard said there had been some 160 major plantation homes prior to the Civil War (The War of Northern Aggression in the South) and there were probably 20 left, all Antebellum homes, that is, built in the period prior to the Civil War. Most were formed facing the east and west banks of the Mississippi. Today we would be visiting properties on the west bank along the original "Old River Road" which is now LA 18 with the east bank road the LA 44. The road didn't exist until the 1930s because the Plantations mostly used the River for transportation since La Salle "discovered" (let's not forget the place was crawling with Native Americans when he arrived) the Mississippi in 1682. Most suffered destruction during the last months of the Civil War or stopped operating because of the collapse of the Southern Economy mostly due to freeing of the free labor force of slaves.

Another misnomer of that period was that cotton was grown on most plantations. Cotton was grown primarily in Northern Louisiana but here in Southern Louisiana, it was Sugar Cane. It required lots of water and thrived in the warmer (and more humid) South. Most plantations were constructed by slave labor from on-site materials. Still growing prolifically in this region are the famous Bald Cypress (taxodium distichum) trees seen everywhere. These were majestic trees wrapped in Spanish Moss. Ok...kind of useless information, it's called Moss but it's not a parasitic plant. Contrary to popular belief, it may appear to have roots growing within the host tree, but it is (big word alert!) an Epiphyte. Epiphytes grow on other plants without taking any water or nutrients from them, and use the host plant for support and protection. Little known factoid is the stuff was so plentiful, Henry Ford had the stuff collected, shipped to Detroit and used it to stuff his early car seats. Cypress proved to be a hardy material for the heat and humidity typical in this part of the world. Bricks were from mud and clay dredged from the River, molded, dried and kiln fired all within the plantation grounds.  

From the street (or River), these homes seemed large and spacious. They were all built in the Greek Revival style which was the rage during that period. What was surprising was how small the homes actually were. Recalling the cost of building the homes, they were built to impress passers-by as to the relative wealth of the owners. Because there was no air-conditioning, they had to build walls of deep brick up to 16 inches thick. Thus the interior spaces suffered and made the rooms small. They were usually two floors and generally had 6-10 rooms. Figure a Master bedroom, a children's bedroom, a guest room, dining room and a parlor and there wasn't a lot of free space. Many had faux columns and woodwork to look like marble to trick the uninformed into believing the owners were wealthier than they were. Because of the danger of fire and the heat generated by a 24/7 kitchen, it was located in a separate structure outside the main house. The outside wrap-around porches were actually the primary living spaces where people met, read, conducted business and even slept on during various times of the year. Oh yeah, no basements with such a high water table it would have always been flooded.

Our hoop-skirted guide walked us through the Bon Séjour Plantation, as Oak Alley was known then. It is a very well preserved example of an Antebellum Plantation home (anything built in the period before the Civil War) and has been used as a location for several movies and TV shows with it's most prominent feature being the 28 Virginia Oak trees (Quercus virginiana, also known as the southern live oak) lining what was the main approach to the mansion. No one knows who planted the trees but they were already there about 175 years before the house was built by Jacques and Celina Roman in 1839. Cool detail of the house was the signed door panel of Jacques and by some of the workers on the second floor. It was a tradition back then for owners to sign a feature of the house when it was completed. The trees are now ready to celebrate their 300th birthday.

During the question and answer period, there was a moment of high drama when our guide went to explain why she was missing her arm. It's a frequently asked question on the tour so she went on to give the sorted details of an innocent swim and a chance meeting with an alligator. At the end, there was a stunned silence broken by her laugh and further explaining she was actually the victim of an auto accident in her youth. It was quite the ice-breaker. What a hoot!

Success was short lived. Jacques Roman died in 1848 of tuberculosis (ridiculously common back then) and the estate began to be managed by his wife, Celina. She wasn’t very good at managing a sugar plantation and her heavy spending nearly bankrupted the estate. In 1859, her son, Henri, took control of the estate and tried to turn things around. The Civil War and the end of slavery made it no longer economically viable; Henri became severely in debt, mainly to his family. In 1866, his uncle put the plantation up for auction and it was sold for $32,800 to John Armstrong.

Successive owners could not afford the cost of upkeep and by the 1920s the buildings had fallen into disrepair. In 1925 the property was acquired by Andrew Stewart as a gift to his wife, Josephine, who supervised an extensive restoration and modernized the house. The Stewarts ran Oak Alley Plantation as a cattle ranch (Longhorns were often seen grazing in and around the beautiful oak trees lining the yard. Josephine had grown up on a cattle ranch in Texas and was familiar with this type of industry. Sugar cane cultivation was reintroduced at the plantation in the 1960s. The Stewarts were the last owners to live in residence. Josephine Stewart left the historic house and grounds to the Oak Alley Foundation when she died in 1972, which opened them to the public.

Thus we went down the road to the Evergreen Plantation in  Edgard, Louisiana originally built in 1790 as the Becnel Plantation. It's claim to fame is that it was originally a Creole style home which meant it was a raised home with an open ground floor like the stilt homes of the Caribbean in case of flood with the living spaces on the second floor.

The home was remodeled in 1832 where the ground floor was enclosed which added three more rooms making a total of six. It too went into disrepair after the Civil War and was purchased by the Songys in 1894. The depression hit in the 30's and the house remained vacant until 1947 when Matilda Geddings Gray from Lake Charles, took over. An oil heiress (yes, another Texas oil success story), Gray was the ruling matriarch of her family and its highly successful businesses. There was an extensive renovation in 1944 and today, it remains a private residence opened to the public when the owners are not occupying the residence. The property contains 37 original structures including 22 original slave quarter cabins which housed most of the 150 slaves the plantation needed to function. Even after the Civil War, many of the then freed slaves and their descendants, continued to work the plantation up until 1947 when it changed hands.

Original Slave quarters
It's considered the most complete example of plantation life in existence and thus was used by Quentin Tarrantino for the backdrop of the movie Django Unchained.

Very moving to walk along the Oak Lane of that plantation where slaves would have been scurrying to work the fields or service the house and tending to their own Cypress shacks in the humid shade of those trees...if they could only talk and speak of the 300 year history they witnessed, what would they tell us.

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