The brilliant geographer/author Rich Campanella has shed so much light on many facets of New Orleans physical space that it is hard to separate what we knew before he began to teach us about our place and what we now know. Search his name on this blog and find the many pieces that have inspired me.
His latest in The Advocate on the ironwork that has become a signature of the city separates fiction (mythology may be more apt) from fact and is a good example of his gently musing writing style that is eminently approachable and therefore useful to a wide number of people.
I have begun to photograph and map the different ironwork designs around the Quarter, relying on his map from my favorite book of his, “Geographies of New Orleans” which has maps galore of structure styles, ethnographic clusters and much more.
One of those maps is recreated in The Advocate piece, a “heat map” of the many styles of ironwork found in the old quarter.
I’d like to ask him if he thinks this house was Pontalba’s home during the construction of the Jackson Square apartments and if that is why the same signature ironwork can be found on it.
“Why is New Orleans alone among American cities in its association with iron-lace galleries? To be sure, other 19th-century coastal and river cities also expressed their wealth through ornamental iron, oftentimes flamboyantly. Examples may be found in Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, Baton Rouge, Natchez, Vicksburg, St. Louis, Natchitoches and Galveston, among others.
But New Orleans is the only American city where iron-lace galleries dominate entire streetscapes. At play are a number of variables. This city has long had an outdoor culture, not to mention a spectacle culture, and both are abetted by galleries and balconies, especially in a climate of hot summers and balmy winters.
The city’s Franco-Hispanic Afro-Caribbean heritage imparted it with a legacy of ironworking and ironworkers. Starting in the late 1700s, its many multistory brick edifices were structurally conducive to balcony and gallery installation, particularly in high-density urban environments.
Port activity made imports of pig iron cheap and available, and an abundance of local furnaces were in place to convert the metal into finished railings.”
Find my photographs using the ironwork search function on this blog.
“What I do for the Vieux Carre is prompted solely by my interest in saving this living museum by any means in my power.” — Elizebeth T. Werlein, in a 1943 letter to the editor of The Times-Picayune
- She was born in 1883 in Bay City, Michigan, the daughter of Henry Thomas and Marie Louise Felton Smith Thomas.
- Her father was a dynamite manufacturer.
- She was an accomplished soprano, having studied voice in Paris under famed Polish tenor Jean de Reszke.
- She loved adventure and was said to have been one of the first women to ride in a hot-air balloon, as well as one of the first women to ride in an airplane. She also took several big-game hunting trips in Africa. In 1917, she became chairwoman of a committee to establish airplane landing fields in Louisiana.
- From 1924 to 1930, she worked as the head of public relations for the Saenger company, the multi-state movie theater chain headquartered in New Orleans.
- She would go on to become head of the Louisiana Women’s Suffrage Party and the first president of the Louisiana League of Women Voters.
- Around 1916, she wrote and published a booklet titled “Wrought Iron Railings of the Le Vieux Carre in New Orleans.” She would later help found the Quartier Club, a group of women united in a desire to preserve the French Quarter.
- She pushed for the Legislature to grant regulatory power to the group that would become the Vieux Carre Commission and was a founder of the neighborhood watchdog group Vieux Carre Property Owners Association.
Other items about Werlein:
Mayor Robert A. Maestri called her the “mayor to the French Quarter.”
In 1938, when she became dissatisfied with what she considered to be the VCC’s indifference, Werlein became the founding president of a neighborhood watchdog group called the Vieux Carré Property Owners Association, now known as VCPORA. In that role she convinced Mayor Robert Maestri to strengthen VCC regulations and increase police enforcement of quality-of-life issues. According to fellow preservationist Martha Gilmore Robinson, Werlein “virtually policed the Quarter—urging property owners to restore their buildings, persuading others to remove trash and litter and inspiring many creative and influential people with her drive and spirit.”⁹
For all her successes she did encounter failure, “Werlein — and consequently the city — lost several skirmishes against businessmen whose encroachment caused gerrymandering of the French Quarter to exclude their project from the Vieux Carre Commission controls.” There were numerous demolitions in this vicinity before litigation took place declaring these exclusions unconstitutional.
Werlein’s front door today:
Elizabeth’s daughter was also impressive:
at the Frances Benjamin Johnston house on Bourbon. The 1940 era picture is from the Library of Congress archives and likely dates from soon after she purchased the property. She died in New Orleans in 1955.
Just attended the very excellent morning event at the Monteleone Hotel for the Making New Orleans Home: A Tricentennial Symposium.
This free set of events is happening today at the Monteleone, tomorrow at Xavier, and Sunday at UNO.
This morning’s talk, by Shannon Lee Dawdy, professor of anthropology at University of Chicago and D. Ryan Gray at University of New Orleans, was focused on the archaeological evidence found at a few sites in the French Quarter over the last 20 years, as well as those professors using the tricentennial spotlight to state the clear political need to getting New Orleans a designation as World Heritage Site or at least an ordinance established on excavating properly before a new development is begun. (Professor Dowdy’s comment about how dire this situation was before Katrina was illustrated by her estimation of having only “5 cubic meters” of excavated of Colonial-era material available before Katrina.)
The two speakers were both known to me previously; Dowdy through her brilliant book, Revisiting the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans – which is one of my top books on New Orleans history – and Gray through his digs, especially the one around the corner at 810 Royal, the details of which can be found here.
Dowdy’s focus has been on what she terms the “rogue colonialism” of the period from 1699-1769, and especially the years before the “administrative abandonment” of New Orleans by the French Crown in the 1730s. That abandonment was a result of the failure of Law’s Company of the West (more popularly known as The Mississippi Company) which ended in the economic failure known as The Mississippi Bubble.
(Of course, the French Crown retained control of the colony until the 1760s, but did little with it and so it was not until the Spanish rule that the infrastructure expanded along with the population.)
Professor Dowdy’s theory is that during the earlier Colonial period shipping and trade were actually more robust than official accounts of the time offer because so much of what was happening was technically illegal (as it was meant to be managed exclusively by Law and later by or through the Crown.) Even during and after the Bubble, locals amassed wealth which was indicated by findings on these digs analyzed as goods procured via smuggling routes, particularly with Cuba, Mexico and the Carribean islands. With her 2004-2005 dig at the Rising Sun Hotel on the Conti block between Chartres and Decatur, the 2009 St. Anthony’s Garden dig at the back of St. Louis Cathedral and the 2011 dig at the old Ursuline Convent, many of the artifacts date from the 1750s and include Mexican pottery, Spanish coins, gilded glass long before Spanish control. Her St. Anthony’s Garden dig gave material evidence to the idea of the Native American settlement, with huts that predate the 1726 gridlines of New Orleans as do a significant number of artifacts found at the Convent site.
The dig at the back of the Cathedral (Dowdy confesses this was her favorite New Orleans dig) indicates a robust market operating there from the 1740s to 1788, including extensive evidence of camping which suggests that many people came to town to sell or barter there.
After Dowdy presented, Professor Gray used the old St. Peter Cemetery as an excellent example of the lack of protection around our buried history. That cemetery was between Rampart and Burgundy and Toulouse and St. Peter and operated between 1725 and 1789 as a Catholic cemetery for both enslaved and free citizens. After it was no longer used, the ownership of the cemetery was tangled between the Cabildo and the Church so when the Cabildo sold off parcels of it, the Church refused to move the bodies.
Since then, it has been up to private developers and lot owners in that area to undertake an archaeological dig, as happened during the building of the Maison Dupuy in the 1970s, during condo development in the 1980s and most famously, during a potential swimming pool addition by homeowner Vincent Marcello who contacted UNO which resulted in the removal of 15 bodies to a vault in St. Louis #1.
The best comment of the morning was from Professor Gray summing up the current problem: “For a city that cares so much about its history, very few protections are in place to preserve the material past.”