I didn’t research Abraham Shwartz too deeply when I wrote the Maison Blanche book. His son, Simon, was the main character there, being the founder of the department store chain. So, I made a few notes, wrote out the family tree, and got on with telling the story of MB.
A few years after the MB book, which came out in 2012, I developed an idea for a fiction project. It’s set in the 1860s in New Orleans. That idea came from an illustration I came across while researching the BOSH book. My fictional main character has encounters with fictional versions of real-life folks, and he told me that Abraham Shwartz was one of them.
Researching the shopkeeper
Child’s coat, sold by A. Shwartz and Son, 1858. (Courtesy Civil War Talk user “RobertP”)
So, I needed to learn more about Abraham. I knew he was proprietor of the store that bore his name, in the 700 block of Canal Street. I knew he passed away in 1892, after that store burned in a massive fire that took out many of the shops in the Touro buildings. I needed to learn more about Abraham in 1860.
Off to the Internet I went! I still haven’t found a decent photo or portrait of Abraham. I found interesting things about the store, though. This girl’s coat was one of them. I found it on the site, Civil War Talk. Here’s the original post:
18thVa., several posts back I posted a picture of a g-g grandmother taken about 1868. Her daughter was my g-grandmother and I have a coat she wore as a child before the CW. The tie to this thread is that is was purchased by her father on a trip to New Orleans (their place was in N. La.) according to the label from A. Shwartz and Son, 161 Canal Street, NOLA, and a card pinned inside reads that she wore it in 1858 when she would have been 7 years old. The only reference to Abraham Schwartz Dry goods was after the war when he was located in the 700 block of Canal, and that it burned, he died, and his son reopened the mercantile business across the street that became Maison Blanche.
700 Block – Touro Buildings
The original poster has the addresses confused, which is not uncommon. Until 1900, Canal Street addresses started with “1” and went by building. After 1900, the addressed followed traditional block numbers. Therefore, 161 Canal Street became part of the 700 block.
Back to the coat! While this isn’t an image of Mr. Abraham, it’s still something from the time frame of the fiction project. You just know it’ll end up in the writing.
Maison Blanche Department Stores, by Edward J. Branley
On October 30, 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.
St. Louis Cathedral, 1819. Drawing by Benjamin Latrobe (public domain image via THNOC)
St. Louis Cathedral, 1819
I’m working on a scene that’s a bit of a flashback to 1820 New Orleans, for my next novel. As usual, I looked around for some contemporary illustrations of the Quarter, and found two interesting drawings of the St. Louis Cathedral.
The first (top) is a drawing by architect Benjamin Latrobe. This is the 1794 construction. The original parish church burned in the fire of 1794. Andres Almonaster y Rojas, notary for the Spanish Colonial government (and father of the Baroness Pontalba), financed the construction of the church. With the appointment of the first Bishop of Louisiana in 1792, this was the first cathedral on the site.
Unknown Illustrator, 1819
Scene showing the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral, and the Presbytere, before 1820. (Public domain image courtesy THNOC)
The illustrator of this second drawing is unknown, but it’s from the same period. While Latrobe’s drawing has the precision of an architect, this sketch captures the church’s surroundings. The Cabildo is on the left. Pirate’s Alley is between the Cabildo and the St Louis Cathedral, 1819. That name for the alley wouldn’t come into common use for decades. Therefore, the cathedral is center, then another alley (to later become Pere Antoine Alley). Trees obscure the Presbytere on the right.
The square in front of cathedral was not yet Jackson Square. It was the parade ground, the Place d’Armes, or Plaza das Armas, in Spanish. So, the Cabildo was the seat of the Spanish Colonial government. When the Americans took ownership of Louisiana in 1803, the building remained the seat of government. W.C.C. Claiborne kept his office as Territorial Governor. He also stayed there as governor of the State of Louisiana.
The cathedral chapter and the diocese decided the church needed to be more prominent. So, it was expanded in the 1830s. Unfortunately, the extensions to the towers put too much pressure on the structure. By late 1840s, the building was in danger of collapse. The diocese re-built the cathedral into the building we know today.
For almost one hundred years, generations of New Orleans shoppers flocked to Krauss. The Canal Street store was hailed for its vast merchandise selection and quality customer service. In its early days, it sold lace and fabric to the ladies of the notorious red-light district of Storyville. The store’s renowned lunch counter, Eddie’s at Krauss, served Eddie Baquet’s authentic New Orleans cuisine to customers and celebrities such as Julia Child. Although the beloved store finally closed its doors in 1997, Krauss is still fondly remembered as a retail haven. With vintage photographs, interviews with store insiders and a wealth of research, historian Edward J. Branley brings the story of New Orleans’ Creole department store back to life.
House at the corner of Elysian Fields Avenue and Levee Street, from an 1842 Plan Book. (Courtesy New Orleans Notarial Archives)
Elysian Fields House 1842
This is a house on Elysian Fields Avenue, between Levee and Victory Streets. “Levee Street” was the earlier name of Decatur Street. “Victory Street” is now Chartres Street. The house is in the French Colonial style. The property is fenced-in, with out-buildings surrounding a formal garden. The block is now a light industrial facility.
The train tracks in front of the house were part of the Pontchartrain Railroad. The railroad ran from a station at Elysian Fields and Chartres, out to Milneburg, at Lake Pontchartrain. So, the Pontchartrain Railroad depot is just behind where the artist stood for this illustration.
This image is a great example of the rabbit holes I fall into when researching something for a fiction project. I’m writing two stories that are set in 19th Century New Orleans. While one takes place in 1820, the other at the outbreak of the Civil War, I’m always browsing various sources for inspiration. There’s a version of this image in the Commons. It’s a photo reproduction from the book, New Orleans Architecture, Volume IV, the Creole Faubourgs (Pelican Publishing Company, 2006). I own a copy of the ebook, so I used the image from that source, enhancing it a bit with GIMP.
The illustration is part of a “Plan Book,” a set of drawings done as a legal record of a piece of property at the time of a sale. So, Plan Books were a part of real estate transactions going into the 1890s. After that, photographs were used. Nowadays, an appraiser photographs the property with a smartphone. In addition to documenting legal transactions, the Plan Books give us great insight into life in 19th Century New Orleans.
The surveyor for this plan book was Benjamin Buisson. The illustrator was Charles A. de Armas, The New Orleans Notorial Archives, maintain the plan books. The Archives are part of the Clerk of Civil Clerk’s office. This item is Plan Book 21, Folio 23.
Milneburg, Alexander Milne’s port on Lake Pontchartrain.
‘Winter in the South’ – Article from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, December 1858. Woodcut engraving ‘The Light-House-Lake Pontchartrain’. (h/t Pontchartrain.net)
Milneburg – Port village on Lake Pontchartrain
A short drive or bus ride from downtown out to the campus of the University of New Orleans brings you back to one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, Milneburg. The area is all commercial-use now, but it began as port area, then resort, then an important part of the city’s contribution to the war effort in the 1940s.
The area at Elysian Fields and the Lakefront was swampland when the French established New Orleans near the Mississippi River. The Spanish colonial government, seeing little value in the land, sold it to a Scottish businessman, Alexander Milne. Milne came to New Orleans in 1776, where he started a brick making business. That business became quite profitable after the great fires of 1788 and 1794, when the Spanish ordered the city be rebuilt with brick structures, rather than the wooden ones built by the French. Milne worked to develop his lakefront property, particularly on the eastern side of the city. By 1830, he had encouraged a group of businessmen to form the Pontchartrain Rail-Road Company, which built a five-mile right-of-way, connecting Faubourg Marigny with Milneburg.
Bypassing the Mississippi River
Fishing camps along the lake in Milneburg, 1923 (photo: public domain)
Milne constructed a small port on the lakefront, building a pier which extended out into the lake far enough that ocean-going ships could dock there, and their cargo could be taken by rail to the city. The path from the Gulf of Mexico, through Lake Borgne, to the Rigolets Pass, into Lake Pontchartrain and finally to Milneburg, was attractive to ship captains, since it was faster than coming up to New Orleans from the mouth of the river. To improve safety at the port, the Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse was constructed in 1834.
Theresa Gallagher and her husband, Conrad Freese, at Milneburg, New Orleans c. 1880 – 1890 (Photo: public domain)
Milneburg was the terminus of the Pontchartrain Railroad. The trains ran down what is now Elysian Fields Avenue, to the company’s station at Elysian Fields and Chartres, in the Marigny. The Pontchartrain Railroad operated for over a century.
Quarella’s Restaurant, Mlineburg, 1914 (photo: public domain)
Commercial use of Milneburg boomed during the antebellum years, and continued through the Civil War. The U.S. Navy so totally dominated the Confederate forces in 1862 that New Orleans surrendered without a land battle. Milneburg’s use as a commercial port waned in the late 1800s, but the area continued to be a popular day trip from the city. Saloons, clubs, and restaurants popped up in Milneburg as early as the 1840s. By the 1900s, the area was a network of fishing camps, resorts, and restaurants.
Milneburg also became known for its music. In his biography of Edward “Kid” Ory, Creole Trombone, John McCusker writes of Ory’s memories of busking for tips in Milneburg. Ory and his band would come into the city from LaPlace, and would head out to Milneburg during the day, going from fishing camp to fishing camp, playing for tips. Perhaps it was Ory and his band that influenced a number of Italian-American boys like Sharkey Bonano, who lived in Milneburg to play Jazz. Either way, Jazz stayed in Milneburg even after Ory’s band became well-known and played paying gigs uptown and in Storyville. Younger musicians would ride the “Smokey Mary” (as the Pontchartrain Rail-Road was known locally) out to the resort area, hang out, and play.
Milneburg in 1921 (photo: public domain)
Food and music kept Milneburg popular long after its usefulness as a port had diminished. The railroad continued passenger operations until 1932. When land reclamation projects around Bayou St. John and Spanish Fort pushed Pontchartrain Beach further back from the the lake shore, Harry Batt persuaded the city and the WPA to build bath houses and a beach area at Milneburg. He re-opened Pontchartrain Beach at the end of Elysian Fields in 1939.
NAS New Orleans, Pontchartrain Beach, and Camp Leroy Johnson, 1947. (Photo: courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Milneburg at war
World War II changed the character of Milneburg and the overall lakefront dramatically. The War Department appropriate the land on either side of the amusement park. Naval Air Station New Orleans opened on the western side of Pontchartrain Beach. On the other side, the Army built Camp Leroy Johnson, a supply depot. The aircraft manufacturer, Consolidated Vultee, built an aircraft factory at the end of Franklin Avenue. Consolidated built PBY seaplanes there. The assembly line ended at the lake. The planes rolled right out into the lake for testing.
After the war, the Navy moved the air station down to Belle Chasse. They returned the Lakefront base to the Orleans Levee Board. The OLB leased it to LSU. The school opened Louisiana State University in New Orleans, now UNO. The Army gave back the western section of Camp Leroy Johnson to the OLB. The board developed that parcel into what is now the Lake Oaks subdivision. The Consolidated Vultee aircraft plant on Franklin Avenue became an American Standard factory. The Army also gave the eastern portion of Camp Leroy Johnson back to the state. That area became the University of New Orleans “East Campus.” That parcel is now home to the UNO Lakefront Arena and the Privateer Park baseball stadium. The Department of Defense retained the eastern section of the Army base. It’s now home to the Army and Navy Reserve centers, and the local FBI headquarters.
Milneburg the port was long gone by the end of the 19th Century. Milneburg the resort vanished by World War II. Pontchartrain Beach closed in 1983, so now all that’s left of the original town is the lighthouse. Well, that and “Milneburg Joys.”
Prytania and Fourth in the Garden District. WPA photo from the 1930s. The entry in the LOUIS database is amusing for the Lafitte reference:
B&W photo, date unknown. An Antebellum mansion in the New Orleans, Louisiana Garden District. Also known as the “cornstalk fence” house. Written on photo: This antebellum mansion is a grand example of the opulence of the sugar boon before the Civil War. This wrought-iron fence is famous for its corn stalk design. Local legend says that Jean Lafitte forged this iron work in his blacksmith shop which was located on the corner of Prytania and Fourth Streets.
The contrast between the architecture of the French Quarter and the Garden District is stark. The Quarter has lovely houses whose courtyards and interiors rise to the same level of opulence as these large homes in the Garden District. The Spanish/Moorish design hides that opulence behind large walls facing the streets. You have to get past the wall and gatehouse and enter the courtyard, then you realize you’ve stepped into a place of elegance. The walls conceal the beauty from passersby on the street.
There were many reasons the Anglo-Irish chose to settle into neighborhoods upriver from Canal Street. House design was one of them. The neighborhood is very British. Big front lawns, Most of the houses have low fences that allow those walking by to admire the lawn and garden. The homes display the owner’s tastes for all to see. There is a good mix of house types in this area. Some shotguns and creole cottages pop up on the smaller lots, but the big houses are, for the most part, English-influenced.
There so many wonderful stories about these homes. A guided tour of the Garden District is great, so you can learn some of the stories behind the houses. Grey or Loki can tell you all about it if you book one of their tours.
1841 New Orleans color engraving. “New Orleans. – Taken from the Opposite Side a Short Distance above the Middle or Picayune Ferry.”
1841 New Orleans – The nation’s second city
I spent Sunday researching Krauss stuff, and came across an engraving that was used by an author writing about the Jewish community in New Orleans. It was a lovely scene of 1841 New Orleans, drawn from across the river in Algiers. Since some of the buildings on the other side of the river are fuzzy, I put the article up on the “Ain’t There No More” group on Facebook. It’s a great group of folks, who like to help out. I received a great response. My friend Carlos “Froggy” May came right back with a link to the Commons. It was a link to a color engraving of a similar scene.
So, it turns out that the black and white sketch I found was drawn by someone named A. Mondelli. Then the sketch was then turned into a color engraving by William J. Bennet, and published by Henry I. Megarey of New York.
Here’s Froggy’s entry in the Commons for this engraving:
View looking from Algiers (probably about where Mardi Gras World is now) looking across the Mississippi River. On river are a variety of sailing ships, steam ships, row-boats, and a flatboat. Across the river is the skyline of the “American Quarter” of New Orleans, with the dome of the first St. Charles Hotel prominent just left of center. The French Quarter to the right is mostly obscured by ships, but the towers of St. Louis Cathedral can be recognized behind ships’ rigging near the right edge. In the foreground along the river batture are seen, left to right: two men in top-hats and prosperous outfits of the time with a dog; a small group of African Americans (likely slaves), both men and women, working taking soil from the river edge and putting it in wheel-barrows (presumably building up the high-water levee a short distance inland); two white men in working garb seated on a log with barrels; two large metal anchors; and two men moving a small sailboat which is tied to a post on the bature (presumably either about to put it back in the water or almost finished dragging it on land).
The original sketch
the original A. Mondelli sketch
Here’s the original sketch. While the color engraving keeps the spirit of the orginal, I love that Mr. Bennett did not simply colorize the sketch. He let a bit of time lapse. Notice that the flatboat in the river is now past the domed building on the east bank. The artist stands a bit to the left, which reveals the robust shipping traffic along the river at this time.
New Orleans before the Civil War
This scene depicts typical river traffic from the antebellum period. Most coastal and trans-Atlantic ships still used wind power. We start to see larger steam-powered ships in the 1840s. New Orleans at this time was a bustling port, tying the South to Baltimore and New York City, as well as Havana and Europe. Ocean-going ships docked at New Orleans, then steamboats took the cargo from Europe into the center of the United States. The need to transfer cargo, first to riverboats, later to trains, was critical, and it’s why the Union took seriously the capture of the city at the beginning of the Civil War.