Monday, May 24, 2010

Touring New Orleans With Nellie Watson

This post is about a tour that we took of the French Quarter in New Orleans, a city where we spent a most enjoyable and absorbing long weekend in mid-April.  I highly encourage my readers to consider a visit to New Orleans, a hauntingly beautiful place with a vibrant authenticity, justifiable pride in its history, stunning architecture, deep-rooted culture, and delicious cuisine.  We visited New Orleans shortly before the BP oil spill began its heinous pollution of the Gulf of Mexico, the environmental and economic consequences of which are too horrific to imagine or comprehend.  Our prayers go out to the citizenry and wildlife of the affected region.

Louisiana State Map, showing New Orleans, 1850
Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Print Shop

Shortly after arriving in New Orleans Reggie carelessly dropped his camera down a flight of stairs (!), thus throwing a wrench into his ability to document the city's architecture and sights.  But there is a silver lining to this cloud, and I found a (more) creative alternate means of illustrating this series: vintage postcards of New Orleans dating from the first half of the 20th century.  Remarkably, much of the city remains virtually unchanged from when the images on these postcards were printed.

Finding A Tour Guide

Because we only had a few days to take in New Orleans, I decided that the best way to do so would be to engage a knowledgeable guide to show us around the city and give us a crash course on its history, material culture, architecture, and neighborhoods.  As I wrote in my "Pursuit of Authenticity" post on April 21st, we are very interested in learning the whys and wherefores of the places we visit, and my goal was to find someone to help us achieve that in the all-too-short time we had available to see the city.  Ideally our guide would be academic and encyclopedic in his or her knowledge, articulate and thoughtful in delivery, able to share wisdom with grace and humor, and do so with the absence of pedantry.  I knew this would be a tall order to fill, but I hoped that I would be successful in finding such a professor.  Imagine my great good fortune that I did!

New Orleans Bird's Eye View, 1851
J. Bachman, artist
Image courtesy of the New York Public Library

A dear friend of ours in the country, who once lived in New Orleans and still visits there regularly, knew of such a person.  And it turned out to be a remarkable lady marvelously named Nellie Watson, with whom we were extremely fortunate to spend the better part of two days touring the city, the experience of which exceeded our wildest dreams.  Not only is Nellie an amazing font of information about New Orleans and its history and architecture, but she is a lovely person, and a very pleasant and amusing companion with whom to explore the city.  An architect by training and experience, Nellie has a business building architectural models for developers and construction firms and is deeply immersed in the architecture, material culture, and history of New Orleans, the city in which she was born and has spent the better part of her life.  On the side, she both teaches courses on the city's architecture and leads tours of it.  For any of my readers who are considering a trip to New Orleans or know someone who is, I highly recommend that you seek out Nellie Watson to show you the town.  She is a great host for New Orleans, a city that she loves and knows intimately.  I am listing her contact information at the end of this post.

The lovely and engaging Nellie Watson, tour guide extraordinaire
photo by Boy Fenwick

Touring the Vieux Carre

Prior to meeting up with Nellie in New Orleans I spoke with her several times on the telephone, discussing our interests and objectives for the tour.  We met her in the morning of our first full day in New Orleans at our Hotel, the Soniat House, on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, where we sat and drank coffee and discussed the day's agenda.  Before we headed out the door to start our tour on foot, Nellie gave us a brief history of the city, starting with its original settlement by the French, subsequent period under Spanish rule, and ultimate acquisition by the American government.  She also explained the different architectural styles favored by builders under each of these successive governments.

The Soniat House Hotel, where we stayed during our visit
photo by Boy Fenwick

The first portion of our tour focused on the French Quarter, or Vieux Carre, the seventeen-by-six-block nucleus of the city colonized by the French in 1722.  Our first stop was across the street from our hotel, where we briefly peeked through the iron fence of the Old Ursuline Convent.  Built in 1752, it is the oldest building in the Mississippi valley and the only building of the original colony still standing.

We then walked by the Beauregard-Keyes House, built in 1826, on the same block.  Named after the Confederate Army General P. G. T. Beauregard (1819-1893), an early occupant, it is open to the public but was closed when we passed it.

We walked by several interesting examples of the Vieux Carre's buildings, covered with amazing iron work.

photo by Boy Fenwick

We were, frankly, bowled over by the Quarter's architecture and iron work.  We learned that much of the iron one sees in New Orleans today was added after the houses were built, and that the more ornate cast iron in many cases replaced earlier wrought iron that once adorned the buildings.

Our first stop was the Gallier House, named after James Gallier, Jr. (1829-1870), the architect who designed and built it as his own house in 1857.  The Gallier House is open to the public, and we took a tour of its high-style, fully restored ante bellum interiors.  If you take a tour, be sure to request Loretta Clark as your docent.  She was marvelous--smart, highly knowledgeable, and charming.

The Gallier House Museum
photo by Boy Fenwick

After leaving the Gallier House we continued our walking tour of the French Quarter, passing more buildings covered with incredible iron work.

We then stood across from one of the city's earliest houses, known as Madame John's Legacy.  Built in 1788, after a fire destroyed the neighborhood, it was constructed in the older French West Indian colonial style, rather than the then prevailing Spanish style.  Owned by the Louisiana State Museum, it was closed that day.

Madame John's Legacy Museum
photo by Boy Fenwick

We then admired one of the Quarter's many houses whose facade is covered with flower boxes and hanging baskets of cascading plants.  Don't be surprised when visiting the Vieux Carre on a sunny day to find yourself dripped on by water from the containers of plants found on many of the balconies.  It's actually rather pleasant.

photo by Boy Fenwick

We stopped and admired a recently restored Greek Revival mansion.  As can be seen from this and other photographs, people use their shutters in New Orleans, just as we do at Darlington House.

photo by Boy Fenwick

We then looked down Madison Street, which was known as Orleans Alley when this postcard was printed.

We then strolled down Royal Street . . .

. . . where we came upon this remarkable cast-iron fence in the form of corn stalks and ears of corn.

And looked into the courtyard of adjoining townhouses known as "the Two Sisters," which is now full of seating and tables for the restaurant that occupies it today.

We then found our way into the Quarter's business district of shops.  The tracks seen in the surface of the street in the postcard shown below are from the defunct streetcar line to Desire, immortalized in Tennessee Williams' play.

Here is another view down Royal Street, taken several decades later.  The cobblestones and streetcar tracks are today paved over with asphalt.

Then on to Jackson Square, the center of the Vieux Carre, and arguably one of the most famous squares in all of America.

We stopped and discussed the famous facade of the much rebuilt St. Louis Cathedral.  Although some portions of the cathedral remain from when the current one was constructed in 1789 (the third house of worship on the site), St. Louis Cathedral today is almost entirely the result of a massive rebuilding in 1850.

We stepped inside and took in the interior of the cathedral.  We didn't think it was all that, um, tasteful.

Beating a hasty retreat, we walked back outside and into Jackson Square.  Also known as Place d'Armes, we learned that its original design was as an open parade ground modeled after the Place des Vosges in Paris.  It was remade in the 1840s into the handsome park that it is today.

In the middle of the square stands the Jackson Monument, a statue of General Andrew Jackson (1824-1863) before he became president.  Erected in 1856, the statue commemorates Jackson's victorious leadership of American forces during the Battle of New Orleans in the final days of the War of 1812.  We learned that New Orleans spent much of the Civil War occupied by the Union Army, which is when "The Union Must And Shall Be Preserved" was carved into the statue's base at the orders of the occupying army's general, much to the fury of the local Confederate-sympathizing citizenry. 

Jackson Square is book-ended on either side by two block-long, four-storey rows of handsome townhouses known as the Pontalba Apartments.  Built in the 1840s by the colorful Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba, a local heiress who married a French Baron with near-disastrous consequences, the buildings have commercial operations on the ground floor and much-coveted apartments above, overlooking the square.

Jackson Square has beautiful iron fencing and gates, which can be seen in the postcard shown above.  Here's a photograph that we took of the same gates.  Check out the tour group wearing helmets and riding on Segways.

photo by Boy Fenwick

Exiting the Square we crossed Decatur Street and headed towards the Mississippi River.  Before we got there, though, I took this photograph of a Lucky Dogs hot dog wagon.  Anyone who has read A Confederacy of Dunces will recall that such a wagon figures prominently in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Kennedy O'Toole.

photo by Reggie Darling

Moving on we climbed stairs to what is known as the Moonwalk, named after a former New Orleans mayor, from where we had the perfect vantage point to take in the majesty of the great Mississippi River, which is at its widest and deepest at New Orleans.

For New Orleans is, and always will be, a city defined by its relationship with the mighty Mississippi.  And it is at the river's edge that one comes to appreciate why New Orleans is also known as the "Crescent City".

One also appreciates the vibrancy of New Orleans as this country's second largest port.

For much of its history New Orleans has been a clearing point for a substantial portion of this nation's agricultural output, including the sugar that was the foundation of many fortunes in the area.

But did you know that New Orleans was also the principal entry point to this country for bananas from South America, at least until the advent of air freight?

After leaving the shores of the Mississippi, we got into Nellie's car and drove by the French Market, which is now largely occupied by shops catering to tourists rather than full of the food purveyors that once inhabited it.

The French Market in the 1940s

The French Market in the early 1900s

We drove by the old U.S. Mint.  Built in 1835 and designed by the Philadelphia-based architect William Strickland, the mint was decommissioned in 1911 and is currently a branch of the Louisiana State Museum.

We then crossed through Jackson Square, passing the Presbytere and the Cabildo, formerly cathedral and government buildings, and now museums.

And wended our way along Chartres Street, passing several of the city's elegant antiques stores.

At that point we came across the handsome Louisiana State Court of Appeals building.  Constructed in the first decade of the 20th century in the "City Beautiful" style, it stands in stark contrast to the smaller, older building that surround it.  It was the first major urban renewal project in the Quarter, and an entire block of buildings was razed to make way for it.  Today the Court House is surrounded by beautiful, mature Magnolia trees.

And with that, we concluded our absorbing tour of the Vieux Carre with the delightful, knowledgable, funny, and charming Nellie Watson.

Nellie Watson can be reached to discuss arranging a tour at (504) 669-0080 and also via email at


  1. Bravo for such a fascinating tour, made even more interesting by the vintage postcards. Some of the lovely iron work you saw may have originated in Richmond. When 1970s remuddlers were stripping the iron work off porches here, it was being shipped to New Orleans for use in restoration projects there.

  2. Fascinating, but I agree it's the postcards that make it unique.

    I'm glad you got a private guide. After my first experience with one in Prague, 6 months after the wall came down (they were not organized yet), I realized it is the only way to go when you visit a city so rich in history, culture, architecture and heritage. Imagine, Spanish, French and American. I read that the Spanish Ursulines who founded that convent in the early 1700's beat it to Havana when Spain ceded the city to Napoleon, leaving only 7 sisters behind. So did the pirates Lafitte, but they only went a few miles south to the bay!

    Hope you went to some marvelous restaurants....

  3. Wonderful tour, can't wait for the next installment - thank you!

  4. How fabulous is that Gallier House? Its modest exterior hiding something quite decadent inside.

  5. Excellent post. Wouldn't you love to have that fabulous vintage map? Wonderful photos and delightful old postcards. Thanks for the tour!

  6. You might like this book by Julia Reed....a Vogue contributor and the Nora Ephron of New Orleans:

  7. Hello Sister and Lindaraxa: Thank you, I have had great fun searching for and selecting the vintage postcards I used in this post, and the two subsequent ones I'm working on. I was quite surprised to find, as I said in my essay, that the images taken for many of them remain remarkably intact today in New Orleans. Living in New York where it seems that everything is always being torn down, I found this to be striking.

  8. I was quite surprised to find myself falling in love with New Orleans on a business trip in 1996. I've been back several times, although not since Katrina or the current oil spill. Hope to be there for a meeting next spring. I look forward to the remaining posts.

  9. You two are such a welcome voice of civilized living and proof that good manners are the great equalizer that allow us all to have a better day. I feel like I have been to New Orleans. Thanks for the effort you put into each post.

  10. Oh Reggie Darling, I just left the longest comment to this stellar post,and lost it. what did I say? Firstly, a beauteous post- You mean there's more? Then I said- a companionable guide is the only way to go, love NOLA so much, I can not believe the troubles they have had, such a truly unique and special place and to think some wanted to wipe it clean and get rid of it. I hope Mitch Landrieu can get it going there. Gaye

  11. A masterfully curated portrait of a place that needs and requires our constantly divided attentions. Not only is the scholarship of your research and guide wonderfully evident, but the vintage postcards are sui generis. I cannot imagine a finer imagery choice.

    I enthusiastically await the next installment.

  12. What a delightful tour of New Orleans! I thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the vintage postcards. I suddenly have a taste for a bit of bourbon;)
    all the best,

  13. I have been an avid "lurker" for months! Love your blog! Had to respond... I have a larger, framed version of the Court of Two Sisters courtyard postcard! My husband's grandparents purchased it in New Orleans - probably in the '50's. For now, we have it hanging in the elevator of our c. 1902 St. Louis mansion, built just before the 1904 World's Fair. When I am having a lazy day, I take the elevator to our third floor - ballroom. St. Louis has some remarkable deserves to be on your "weekend places to visit" list. You could meet a pair of fabulous Jack Russells - Miss Peabody and Sherman!

  14. I have become a fan of yours from the first post. When you talked about shutters
    at Darling Place, I thought of my son's double
    shotgun he rented for 4 years in the Garden District of New Orleans. Over a 100 years old and with the shutters closed his "home" survived Katrina with only a minor leak. Glad you love New Orleans. It really gets in your blood. Waiting for the next post !!
    BSue in Georgia

  15. Janet: Indeed the Gallier House is sublime. Well worth a visit when in New Orleans.

    Willow: Yes the map (and also the bird's eye view) are quite marvelous, and were a great find for me when researching this post.

    Pimm's: I must look into Julia Reed's writings, thank you for the recommendation.

    DocP: Thank you, I urge you to consider a return visit to New Orleans, soon, and please look up Nellie Watson!

    Anon 8:52: Thank you, that was a lovely comment, greatly appreciated.

  16. LA: Dear One, thank you so much -- coming from such as you I am honored.

    Errant Aesthete: Thank you for your comment, I am all astonishment at your approbation. I am a fan of your blog, and exceedingly gratified that you have commented so favorably here, I shall try to live up to your approval in my future postings . . .

    For the Love . . .
    Thank you, there is nothing quite like a stiff snort of Bourbon to bring one back to New Orleans, wherever one might be.

    Dear Ginger: I am a great fan of St. Louis, and long to know it better. I would be charmed to meet you and your doggies should I ever be so lucky as to find myself in your fair city.

    BSue: Thank you, I blush. Your son was fortunate, indeed. I am horribly upset that New Orleans (and the region) are suffering yet again another great calamity, with the oil spill. God speed to all that are affected.

  17. Nellie has a rival tour guide in you, Reggie! Happy to be reminded of New Orleans which I visited a few years back. You have given me an idea..

  18. great post and what a thorough tour you experienced. but i think there's one small error. you said that madison street was previously known as orleans alley. in fact the postcard shown is pirates alley (maybe known as orleans alley-not sure.) it's not madison street, i'm sure of that!

  19. Dang, wish I had read this before my visit, back in August. They I could have made a bee line to some of these streets from the Canal street Sheraton. but, My what a view from the 18th floor. However, riding the crowded street car on a day all manner of humanity were clad in red dresses that Sat for a Red dress Heart walk run it perhaps reflected the madness that is the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras was another facet of that vibrant city. It is a city of people and I saw many, all creatures great and small.


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