Ten places in New Orleans that contributes to a unique time in New Orleans history. Anyone who visits them comes away with a much broader knowledge of New Orleans.
1. St. Roch’s Cemetery
St. Roch’s Cemetery is one of the most unique cemeteries in a city filled with unusual cemeteries. Father Peter Leonard Thevis (a German priest at Holy Trinity Church) arrived in New Orleans at the height of the yellow fever epidemic in 1867.
Yellow fever caused the highest death rate among Irish, German, Italian and other poorer emigrants who were flooding into the city. Long time residents had acquired immunity to Bronze John as the fever was called here.
Deaths were high in New Orleans during these epidemics. “Dead Wagons” traveled down the streets and bodies were put in the back and hauled to cemeteries for a quick burial.
Father Thevis prayed to St. Roch, Catholics’ patron saint of plague victims and promised that if his congregation escaped the dread fever, he would build a cemetery and chapel to honor St. Roch. Supposedly, none of the Holy Trinity parishioners died in the epidemic, and Father Theves was true to his word. A sign above the cemetery chapel reads, “Erected by Vow 1875.”
You will be amazed at the tombs that look like small homes of the living; others are more ornate. The mausoleums are like large rooms filled with bodies.
The small Gothic revival chapel at the rear of the cemetery is the most unusual feature. It is open to the public, and one small room inside is filled with offerings of thanks to St. Roch for cures or favors granted. They are not the typical flowers or Mardi Gras beads you see at other New Orleans cemeteries. These are life-like limbs, hands, feet, locks of hair, prosthetics, crutches, and other objects related to the terrible afflictions.
If you see this as odd, remember you are in New Orleans.
2. Historic Voodoo Museum
The Historic Voodoo Museum is one of the most authentic collections of voodoo memorabilia in the country. It was founded in 1972 by Charles Massicot Gandolfo. Charles was a remarkable person: he was the most expert I ever met about voodoo, its most well-known queen, Marie Laveau, and the history of New Orleans in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Charles–the “Voodoo Charley” nickname evolved later from a story about him—was a talented artist and hairdresser in the French Quarter. I remember him always wearing an alligator tooth gris-gris. His interest in voodoo stemmed from family history. His family on his mother’s side were French aristocrats in Haiti when the 1791 Slave Revolt broke out. A family servant who was a Voodoo priestess smuggled his family out of the country safely. They settled in New Orleans.
Voodoo evolved from the religion early Africans brought from their homeland and mingled with Catholicism that was forced upon them in this country as part of their enslavement. What makes this two-room museum so important is its authenticity. This is no tourist trap. The artifacts are real. It is a place where you can find actual knowledge of a religion that had been defamed over the years and shrouded in mystery.
When you enter the museum, one of the first things that catch your eye is a painting of Marie Laveau by Charles Gandolfo. There is an example of a voodoo altar, a clay govi jar for storing souls, some skeletons, some mummified animals, and a lot of unusual gris grises.
Charles passed away on Mardi Gras day in 2001. His brother, Jerry, also an expert on voodoo, runs the museum today and offers cemetery tours and readings.
No visitor to New Orleans can ever understand the city without knowledge of what Voodoo is and how it works.
3. Pharmacy Museum
The Pharmacy Museum is on the site of America’s First Licensed Pharmacy dating back to when opium, cocaine, and whiskey were regularly prescribed as medicine. Early in United States history, a person could apprentice for a few months, then call themselves a pharmacist and sell “medicinal” concoctions.
You probably heard the old song, “Love Portion Number Nine?” Jerry Gandolfo from the Voodoo Museum told me, “The pharmacy sold potions as well as medicine, and some people didn’t want it known what they were purchasing. So the potions were all designated by a number. The love portion was number nine.”
To protect the citizens, Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne, passed a law in 1804 requiring pharmacists to pass a licensing examination. This building was the site of Louisiana’s first licensed pharmacist, Louis J. Dufilho, Jr., who successfully passed the three-hour exam at the Cabildo.
It feels like you stepped into a time warp here. The Pharmacy Museum is filled with old medicine bottles sitting on counters protected by curved glass covers. You’ll see other interesting “medical” items like leeches and little metal cups to collect blood from bloodletting. Some of the hypodermic needles are huge. Bleeding was commonly prescribed as a remedy. Germs were unknown.
The building itself is worth the admission. Be sure to go upstairs and into the back courtyard.
4. Blain Kern Mardi Gras World
Everyone relates Mardi Gras to New Orleans, Louisiana, but not many people think of the work that goes into making floats for this event each year. Since 1947, Blaine Kern Studios has built parade floats for Mardi Gras and some other events also.
Mardi Gras World is a combination of a living museum and a workshop. When you enter the building, you step into a fantasy world. Costumed mannequins are representing many of the past Mardi Gras maskers along the walls. In the prop shop you might find an artist working sculpting details for a float figure.
There are three primary stages to creating the props, sculpting where they do Styrofoam sculpt, then the paper mache station where they mix flour, water, and brown paper and cover the Styrofoam and next painting station where the decorating is done.
You see a lot of basic upper bodies in the prop shop. They use paper mache because it lets them turn a prop into a whole new creation by covering it with different paper mache.
In the fiber-optic area, work is so detailed that it requires multiple workers. One float I saw, Leviathan, has 50,000 fiber optic lights on it. It’s a signature float, so possibly about 50 people will work on it: 30 artists and 20 builders. Many of the floats even have bathrooms on them or are double and triple decks. Floats could go 15 miles per hour, but on parade routes, they typically go about three or four. A new float average cost is about $50,000, but by revamping an older one, the price goes down to about $10,000.
This is like being in the delivery room where Mardi Gras is born.
5. Irish Cultural Museum
The Irish were a big part of New Orleans treasures since the mid-1800s. Luke Ahearn, the museum director, explains how the museum came into existence. “It’s been a lifelong dream of my father (Mathew Ahern) who is passionate about his Irish heritage.”
He was shocked when he tried to open the museum in the French Quarter and was told by a bureaucrat, “I don’t see that the Irish had any influence on the Vieux Carre.” Fortunately, the bureaucrat was overruled, and the museum opened in October 2012. The Irish Cultural Museum has incorporated the latest technology with interactive kiosks among the static displays and exhibitions like archival photos, maps, and newspaper clippings. There’s a portrait collection of famous New Orleans’ Irish and a library for research.
The museum tells the story of how during the potato famine years in Ireland, many Irish emigrated to the United States. Many of them landed and stayed in New Orleans. As a means of preservation and possibly because of their nature, many of the Irish became involved in local politics.
Be sure to watch their award-winning documentary “Irish New Orleans.” It’s a real eye-opener for those who are unfamiliar with the tremendous influence the Irish had on New Orleans, especially in politics, New Orleans own unique sport.
A bonus is St. Patrick’s Coffee Shop, located in the back courtyard, serving great coffee, tea, and homemade ginger tea. You can also try one of many different Irish whiskeys here.
6. Confederate Memorial Hall Museum
The Confederate Memorial Hall Museum, built in 1891, is the oldest continuously operating museum in Louisiana. It’s just across the street from the WWII Museum.
The museum is filled with all kinds of Civil War artifacts from a simple private’s uniform to a large number of Jefferson Davis’s possessions. Although most people associate Davis with Mississippi, he died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889. His widow, Varina, donated many of her husband’s possessions to the museum.
The guns and swords are impressive. There is a display of medicine that was practiced during the Civil War, including a set of surgeon’s tools. The one that looks like a hack saw gets to me. You will find personal papers and photographs of prominent Confederates and the most interesting stories. This museum is a must for history buffs.
7. National WWII Museum
The huge National WWII Museum houses tons of material; 1940s newspaper articles, letters from those impacted by the war, documents about military strategy, and recordings of soldiers and civilians experiences.
One impressive exhibit shows General Eisenhower’s letter taking full responsibility for D-Day, which could easily have gone wrong. Many of his advisors said to postpone the landing due to poor weather conditions.
Two exhibits reflecting on little known facts of the war are so important. There was the Enigma Machine, a precursor to a computer. The Germans developed it shortly after WWI and it encrypted information. They believed it uncrackable, but the Poles were able to break the code by 1932. The NAZIs improved Enigma, so the Poles were unable to continue deciphering. British and French Intelligence finally broke the new codes. Had they not been able to crack those codes, the war could have gone a different way.
Another exhibit I found interesting was the contribution of an Irishman with a shipyard in New Orleans, Andrew Jackson Higgins, whom General Dwight Eisenhower claimed, “is the man who won the war for us.”.
Higgins designed the Eureka boat, a shallow-draft craft originally made for oil well drillers and trappers in the shallow waters of the Gulf and Mississippi River. The Navy and Marine Corp. adopted the Eureka as a landing craft to deploy men and equipment to fortified beaches. Higgins improved the craft with a bow ramp to allow an exit through the front rather than over the sides as in the old version.
The D-Day invasion exhibit shows the ships, aircraft, and beaches where each would land, as well as war tanks and planes. Lastly, Victory Gardens showcases how the people on the home front contributed to the war effort.
8. Beauregard/Keys House
The Beauregard/Keys House stands out from its closed courtyard style French neighbors in the Vieux Carre. It’s a square American style home that was built in 1826 by Joseph Le Carpentier. It passed through many owners until author Francis Parkenson Keys purchased it in 1945. Upon her death, she passed it on to a foundation she founded to protect the historic home.
Its namesake and most famous resident, Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, never owned the home. He spent his honeymoon there with his second wife, Caroline Deslonde, in 1860 and returned to it after the Civil War from 1865 to 1868.
Keys’ book, “Madam Castel’s Lodger,” tells a fictionalized biography of Beauregard. Another of her books, “The Chess Players,” is a fictionalized biography of another resident. Paul Morphy, whose grandfather once owned the house, was a world chess champion who stayed in the home during his childhood.
Other residents contributed. There’s the parterre garden built by Anais Mearle, wife of a Swiss conciliate, who lived in the home in the 1830s. The museum’s furnishings reflect the period during which General Beauregard lived there and the mid-1900s when Ms. Keys resided in it. The back apartment where she spent her later years is preserved as it was at the time of her death. You will find artifacts from both Beauregard and Keys there. It is an excellent place to get acquainted with a lot of New Orleans history
It’s a must-see for many interests: historical, botanical, architectural, literary, and cultural.
9. Old Mint
The Old U.S. Mint is a national historical place not only in the content of New Orleans treasures and history but the entire country. Built in 1835, it was the only mint ever to produce American and Confederate coinage. After the Civil War, it resumed minting coinage for the United States until 1909. Architect William Strickland designed it in a typical Greek Revival style. Downstairs, the exhibits show the tools and techniques used to mint coins. The machines are massive to those of us used to the digital age.
The second floor, the New Orleans Jazz Museum, is dedicated to music and houses the world’s most extensive collection of jazz instruments. There are exhibits devoted to New Orleans jazz greats like Bix Beiderbecke, George Lewis, Sidney Bechet, Edward “Kid” Ory, and Dizzy Gillespie. Fats Domino’s piano and Louis Armstrong’s cornet are the highlights for me. The museum is also the site of several annual festivals, including the Satchmo Fest. Louis Armstrong was nicknamed “Satchel Mouth” and shortened to “Satchmo” as friends said his mouth looked like a satchel. The third floor is devoted to historical memorabilia and research.
10. Chalmette Battlefield
Remember the song “Battle of New Orleans?” The battle occurred on the outskirts of New Orleans in Chalmette on January 8, 1815. Looking on the actual battlefield, laid out as it was in 1815, you feel a part of history. There are rough wooden battlements and old cannons. To the back of the battlefield lies the Malus-Beauregard House built in 1830. It was owned by Rene Beauregard, the son of the Civil War Confederate General, P. G. T. Beauregard. It is typical of a Louisiana plantation style-wise but was never a working plantation. Today, it’s the visitor center and had several exhibits explaining the battle.
The Chalmette National Cemetery established in 1864 as a final resting place for Union Soldiers who died in the Civil War. The cemetery is located at the site of the British artillery position during the Battle of New Orleans. It is the final resting place of Union Soldier Rosetta Wakeman, who passed as a man calling herself Lyons Wakeman and enlisted in the New York Volunteer Infantry. She died of dysentery in 1865 at nearby Jackson Barracks.
The Battlefield is one of six sites that compose the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve. Each represents a different part of Louisiana history.
Each of these places contributes to a unique time in New Orleans history. Anyone who visits them comes away with a much broader knowledge of New Orleans. There is more there than Bourbon Street.
Article written by Kathleen Walls of American Roads and Global Highways.
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