Our third installment of NOLA History Guy December features one of the Legendary Locals of New Orleans.
NOLA History Guy December – Wendell Pierce
This book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is a different concept than the “Images of America books.” Arcadia asked me to pitch for the New Orleans entry in this series. I loved the idea–essentially a Who’s Who of notables from the city’s 300-year history. The folks featured in the book range from the 18th Century origins of the city to modern actors, musicians, and sports heroes.
How far back does the book go? From the Introduction:
Pierre LeMoyne left a man named Sauvolle, along with his brother, Jean Baptiste, at this encampment. Sauvolle died in 1701, leaving Jean Baptiste (who is better known by his title, Sieur d’Bienville) as temporary governor of the Louisiana colony. Bienville returned to Mobile when a replacement for Sauvolle was sent, but found himself in charge again in 1717, when John Law’s Company of the Indies took control of Louisiana. Bienville convinced the directors of the company that the crescent in the Mississippi by Bayou St. John would be a better site for a permanent settlement than Mobile, and he was authorized to go forward with the plan. He founded Nouvelle Orleans in 1718. By 1720, Bienville had transferred enough materials, men, and supplies from Mobile to truly start development of the city. He tasked an engineer, Adrien de Pauger, to develop a plan for the city. That plan became the grid of streets we now know as the Vieux Carre, the French Quarter.
Our first “Legend” for NOLA History Guy December is actor and philanthropist Wendell Pierce.
At publication time, I’m sure more people knew Pierce as “Bunk Moreland,” from David Simon’s TV series, “The Wire.” I titled his caption “Antoine,” however, because Bunk was a Baltimore copy. Antoine Baptiste was a New Orleans trombone player from the Sixth Ward in “Treme.” Simon nailed it, casting Pierce for his HBO series about New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Here’s the caption:
“Antoine.” Wendell Pierce, was Detective Bunk Moreland in HBO’s The Wire. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and Julliard’s Drama Division, Pierce’s first on-screen role was in the 1986 film “The Money Pit.” He earned critical acclaim in Spike Lee’s 1996 Get on the Bus, and had a recurring role in the television drama NUMB3RS. In 2010, producer/writer David Simon once again turned to Pierce (who grew up in Gentilly) for his HBO drama, Treme, where he plays “Antoine Batiste, a journeyman trombone player who makes his way through post-Katrina New Orleans. In addition to being one of the dramatic faces of modern New Orleans, Pierce is working to give back to his community, financing and promoting a chain of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods.
Of course, Wendell’s grown way past Antoine by now, earning a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Willy Loman in the revival of “Death of a Salesman” to crushing it as James Greer in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Check out his extensive Wikipedia entry.
Legendary Locals of New Orleans
As mentioned earlier, Legendary Locals of New Orleans differs from the IoA books. A few years ago, a local group of school librarians invited me to speak at one of their meetings. I told them, of the books I’ve written, the one that really should be on their shelves was Legendary Locals. Think about it–a teacher assigns a project for social studies, write a report about someone notable in the city’s history. What’s the kid likely to do? Go to the school library and lay the assignment out for the librarian. Rather than simply suggest a name or two, hand the student my books. Tell them to flip through the short (100-150 word) entries on each Legendary Local. Some may pick an athlete, others a musician. There’s a wide range of personalities.
(NOTE: this book is a great gift for the library at your kid’s school. If you do that, order the hardcover edition of the book. It costs a bit more, but the librarian will appreciate it.
From the back cover:
Since its founding in 1718 by the LeMoyne brothers, New Orleans has cemented its status as one of the busiest ports on the continent. Producing many unique and fascinating individuals, Colonial New Orleans was a true gumbo of personalities. The city lays claim to many nationalities, including Spaniards Baron Carondelet, Don Andres Almonester, and French sailors and privateers Jean Lafitte and Dominique Youx. Businessmen like Daniel Henry Holmes and Isidore Newman contributed to local flavor, as did musicians Buddy Bolden, Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Louis Prima. War heroes include P.G.T. Beauregard and Andrew Jackson Higgins. Avery Alexander, A.P. Tureaud, and Ernest Morial paved the way for African Americans to lead the city. Kate Chopin, Lafcadio Hearn, Ellen DeGeneres, Mel Ott, Archie Manning, and Drew Brees have kept the world entertained, while chefs and restaurateurs like Leah Chase and the Brennans sharpened the city’s culinary chops. Legendary Locals of New Orleans pays homage to the notables that put spice in that gumbo.
Available at local bookstores, Walgreens stores, other local shops, Bookshop, and other online outlets. Give history! Support NOLA History Guy December.
Our second installment of NOLA History Guy December features Maison Blanche.
Maison Blanche Department Stores – NOLA History Guy December
Simon J. Shwartz was an experienced realtor. He grew up in the family business, A. Shwartz and Son. Simon was the third son of Abraham Shwartz. With two older brothers working with their dad to run the shop in the Touro Buildings, S.J. went up to New York City. He became the store’s buyer. He came home to work in the store in the late 1880s, and married the daughter of Isidore Newman, a successful banker.
After the devastating fire in the Touro Buildings (the 701 block of Canal Street) on February 14, 1892, S.J. moved the family business up the street to the Mercier Building at 901 Canal Street (corner Dauphine). The family then re-built the 701-block store. S.J. was at a crossroads.
Creating Maison Blanche
Shwartz restored the success of A. Shwartz and Son after the fire, but his brother wanted to bring the store back down the street. So, S.J. pitched an idea to his father-in-law. He wanted to open the first true “department store” in New Orleans. Up until this point, “dry goods” stores like his family’s, the Fellman’s, and Daniel Henry Holmes’ store, serviced the city. They were joined by boutiques, like the Krausz Brothers shop at 811 Canal Street. Shwartz wanted to acquire the entire Mercier building, and he needed an investor.
Newman liked S.J.’s concept and backed it. Shwartz purchased the building, evicting Leon Fellman (who moved his store to the Pickwick Hotel Building at 800 Canal). Shwartz remodeled his building’s interior. By the Fall of 1897, he was ready to open.
The “Brain Trust”
Newman’s investment had strings attached. He had Shwartz hire Gus Gus Schullhoefer, Newmman’s brother-in-law, and Hartwig D. Newman, his son. They were smart guys, and gave Newman some eyes loyal to him inside the business. When Maison Blanche opened on October 31, 1897, the Daily Picayune gave over most of their front page to the store’s opening. In addition to details on the store, they profiled the three top executives. Here’s the caption for the image in the paper from the book:
The Maison Blanche Brain Trust. Isidore Newman’s son-in-law, S.J. Shwartz, his brother-in-law, Gus Schulhoefer, and his son, Hartwig Newman, were the first management team of Maison Blanche, from a profile piece in the New Orleans Picayune in 1897.
Into the 20th century
The was a success from the start. While it would be another fifty years until their precious Christmas Mascot, Mister Bingle, made his debut, Maison Blanche quickly earned their tagline, “Greatest Store South.”
Maison Blanche Department Stores
Maison Blanche Department Stores, by Edward J. Branley
From the back cover:
On October 31, 1897, S.J. Shwartz, Gus Schullhoefer, and Hartwig D. Newman–with financial backing from banker Isidore Newman–opened the Maison Blanche at the corner of Canal Street and Rue Dauphine in New Orleans. Converting Shwartz’s dry goods store into the city’s first department store, the trio created a retail brand whose name lasted over a century. In 1908, Shwartz tore his store down and built what was the city’s largest building–13 stories, with his Maison Blanche occupying the first five floors. The MB Building became, and still is, a New Orleans icon, and Maison Blanche was a retail leader in the city, attracting some of the best and brightest people in the business. One of those employees, display manager Emile Alline, created the store’s second icon, the Christmas character “Mr. Bingle,” in 1947. Mr. Bingle continues to spark the imagination of New Orleans children of all ages. Even though Maison Blanche has become part of New Orleans’s past, the landmark Canal Street store lives on as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Available at local bookstores, Walgreens stores, other local shops, Bookshop, and other online outlets. Give history! Support NOLA History Guy December.
Barthélémy Lafon drew this map of English Turn in 1814.
English Turn 1814
“Plan of the English Turn” by Barthélémy Lafon, 1769-1820. This section of Mississippi River is just south of its connection with the Intracoastal Waterway.
The Turn gets its name from what Mike Scott, in his article for Da Paper, called “the single biggest con in New Orleans history.” While that sounds like a bold claim, he’s right:
THEN: For months, they had seen only native Americans. So French explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne — better known as Bienville, the man who would go on to found New Orleans — was understandably piqued when, in late summer 1699, he and his men rounded a bend in the Mississippi River just below present-day New Orleans to find moored there an English corvette, the Carolina Galley, loaded with 10 cannons and dozens of settlers. Bienville, with five men in two bark canoes, paddled over and informed the English captain, Louis Bond, that the area already had been claimed for France, which he said was ready to defend it with fortifications established upstream. It was a total and absolute lie, but Bond bought Bienville’s bluff, turned around and sailed away. From that moment, that bend in the river became known as “English Turn.”
And we all know, the English were rarely popular in New Orleans until maybe World War I.
Barthélémy Lafon was a Frenchmen who came to New Orleans around 1790. With skills as an architect, surveyor, and urban planner, Lafon found employment in the then-Spanish colony. English Turn, as Scott notes, got its name ninety years earlier. So, Lafon merely documented the settlements downriver. He didn’t play a role in the legend. Lafon was responsible for many developments in early-American New Orleans, including plans for what is now the Lower Garden District. He served as Deputy Surveyor under Claiborne’s territorial government from 1806-180i.
One of Lafon’s most-recognized designs is the Vincent Rillieux house on Rue Royale. That house became the residence of chess champion Paul Morphy, and is now Brennan’s Restaurant.
This watercolor map is a public domain document in the THNOC collection.
Gap Bridge was also known as the Bucktown Bridge.
“The Gap Bridge” by Jeanette Boutall Ouest, via THNOC
West End from Bucktown
The “Gap Bridge,” captured in a watercolor painting by Jeanette Boutall Woest, 17-November-1968. Here’s the record entry from THNOC”
View of the wooden Gap Bridge in about 1915 bordered by Bruning’s (labeled John C. Bruning above sign) on the left, Martin’s Green House in the background on the right, and the White House (labeled Theodore Bruning above sign) in the foreground on the right.
By the time I was a kid in the 1960s, the Gap Bridge was known colloquially as the “Bucktown Bridge” It was the path of access to the West End restaurant/entertainment area from the East Jefferson side. Coming from Orleans Parish, one went up the start of Lakeshore Drive to Lake Marina Drive to W. Roadway.
West End offered an escape from the heat of the city for over a century. Beginning in the 1860s, locals and visitors alike headed out to Lake Pontchartrain. There were three main entertainment districts along the lake: Milneburg (at the end of the Pontchartrain Railroad), Spanish Fort (at the mouth of Bayou St. John), and West End (at the end of the New Canal). Hotels, restaurants, casinos, and music venues opened in all three locations. They were great overnight/weekend getaway possibilities.
Getting to West End
The New Orleans City Railroad Company (operators of the mule-drawn incarnations of the Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue streetcar lines) provided steam train service from Canal and Rampart Streets out to West End. When streetcars switched to electric operation in the 1890s, so did the West End line.
As “Bucktown” in Jefferson Parish grew, the parish constructed the bridge to cover the “gap” between West End and Bucktown. While the present “gap” is the 17th Street Canal, things were different in the early 1900s. The “Metairie Pumping Station,” also known as Station 6, stood near Metairie Road. The canal extended north from there, but it fizzled out into swampy land from there. So, the “gap” was more marsh than a real waterway. The bridge crossed that marsh. Later, as the parish and USACE modernized the lake end of the canal, the bridge still connected the parish.
Three restaurants are visible in Ouest’s painting. On the left stands Bruning’s, operated by John C. Bruning. On the right are the Green House and White House. The restaurants on the right were long gone by the 1960s, but Bruning’s remained until the 1990s.
Fate of the Gap Bridge
The USACE demolished the bridge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The well-known Brulatour Courtyard stands at 520 Royal Street. #watercolorwednesday
The main courtyard of the Seignouret-Brulatour Mansion, 520 Royal Street in the Vieux Carré. Many New Orleanians remember the mansion as the offices and studios of WDSU-TV. The station used photos of the courtyard in its “station ID” spots for decades. The artist is Anthony B. “Ben” Suhor, longtime local high school teacher. From WDSU’s history of the mansion:
Although the courtyard bore the name of its second owner, Pierre Brulatour, the splendid mansion was built in 1816 by Francois Seignouret, a native of Bordeaux, France. Seignouret came to New Orleans just before the Battle of New Orleans and fought in the battle on the fields of Chalmette. His dream was to establish a winery. He replaced the century-old wines imported by the late Spanish masters considered the “Poison of Catalogne” with the mellowed sweetness of Bordeaux wines.
So, Mr. Suhor captured the courtyard as it was in 1952. It’s undergone a number of transformations.
Seignouret to Brulatour to Television
M. Seignouret built the house in 1816, after the Battle of New Orleans and the end of the War of 1812. When Francois passed, his brother Emile, inherited it. Emile sold the mansion to Pierre Brulatour. Both owners were wine merchants. Many debutante balls took place in the mansion’s upstairs ballroom. So, it was well-known long before television.
Carriages with visitors entered the main gate on Royal Street. The carriage circled the courtyard fountain, dropped off their passengers, and exited.
Businessman and civic leader Edgar Stern purchased the mansion in 1949. Stern acquired WDSU radio in 1947. He formed WDSU-TV in 1949. Stern moved the offices and studios into the mansion and the building next door. The station was an outstanding steward of the mansion. They sold it to THNOC in 1998, when WDSU moved to a larger, more modern studio on Howard Avenue.
Mr. Anthony B. Suhor taught at local high schools for 52 years. He taught at Redemptorist, Redeemer, and Rummel high schools. I was privileged to be one of Benny’s colleagues at Redeemer, in the early 1980s.
All the downtown railroads shifted to Loyola Avenue in 1954.
Downtown Railroads in 1961
Aerial photo of Union Passenger Terminal (UPT), Illinois Central (IC) rail yards, and buildings in the vicinity, 1961. Charles Franck Studios photo via The Historic New Orleans Collection.
The highway at the top is the Pontchartrain Expressway (US90 Business). The expressway leads across the river in 1961, with the opening of the (now-named) Crescent City Connection bridge in 1958. Below the highway are UPT and its tracks, then the Post Office and railroad tracks for that facility. Then other commercial buildings stand at the bottom of the photo. The Illinois Central service yard is below those buildings.
The old Federal Building on Loyola Avenue, with the big weather radar tower on the roof, is visible on the left.
Union Station to UPT
Union Passenger Terminal, Loyola Avenue
This photo shows no real trace of old Union Station, seven years after UPT opened. The city centralized passenger rail operations at UPT in 1954. They quickly demolished the five passenger terminals operating prior to 1954. Mayor Chep Morrison implemented a “burn the boats” strategy. So, the railroads had little choice but to go along. Prior to UPT, Illinois Central and Southern Pacific operated from old Union Station. Amtrak presently operates UPT, station name NOL. Greyhound Bus also uses UPT.
US Post Office
The Post Office facility originally stood next to Union Station. Since passenger railroads carried the mail from city to city, the main post office was next to the train station. The cars on tracks below UPT carried the mail. They’re parked at the back of the post office. The Post Office (now the US Postal Service) canceled transportation contracts with the railroads in the 1960s. The downturn in passenger rail service is sort of a chicken-and-egg story. The railroads cut back passenger trains. The Post Office shifted to trucks and air mail. Which killed the trains? A little of both.
Additional rail facilities
The Illinois Central RR operated the yard near the bottom of the photo. They staged both passenger and freight cars there. An IC train arrived at the station, then IC switchers pulled the cars out of UPT. They crossed over to the service track for the yard, then parked them.
The city razed much of the land visible here below the Post Office. This made room for construction of the Louisiana Superdome in the 1970s. While the downtown site was one of several proposed locations for the stadium, any changes to the area were just on paper in 1961. The city performed a number of land swaps in the area. This avoided having to buy property outright.
While the USPS facility remains, all of its railroad tracks were torn up during Dome construction. Compare the roof of the Post Office here with the current configuration in a map/satellite program and you’ll see the evolution.