The Maison Blanche Building – Since 1907
The Maison Blanche Building on Canal Street, now the Ritz-Carlton Hotel New Orleans.
Greatest Store South
In 1906, S.J. Shwartz’s department store, Maison Blanche, felt growing pains. The Mercier Building, in the 900 block of Canal Street, was home to MB, but Shwartz envisioned something grander. He decided to demolish the Mercier building and build a larger building. The plan was to have five floors of retail space, and seven floors above that for offices. Shwartz demolished the Mercier building in stages, tearing down the back of the building first, so the office tower closer to Iberville Street went up first. With the back finished, they moved the store into the new space. The front of the old building then came down. The facade generations knew as Maison Blanche on Canal went up. Maison Blanche truly lived up to its motto, “Greatest Store South.”
The two towers above the retail floors contained offices for various small businesses. Many doctors and dentists opened offices in the “Maison Blanche Office Building.” A set of elevators and a separate entrance took folks up to the office floors. So many doctors leased space in the MB building, the store opened a pharmacy, so patients could get prescriptions filled before leaving the building. This concerned the Katz and Besthoff drugstore so much, they opened a K&B directly across the street, in the 800 block of Canal.
Maison Blanche operated on Canal Street until 1982. The company closed the original store, but continued to operate the suburban locations. The Canal Street store re-opened in 1984, but Dillard’s closed it permanently when they acquired MB in 1997. The building was sold and re-developed (along with the S. H. Kress building next door) as the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans. The hotel opened in 2000.
After the original building was completed in 1909, the company continued to expand the store. The company acquired the property facing Iberville Street, joining that to the store. During the renovations to turn the store into a hotel, the Iberville side became a separate Marriott hotel. Now, the entire property operates as the Ritz.
Ashton Theater – neighborhood news and entertainment
Ashton Theater, on Apple Street in Hollygrove (courtesy Infrogmation)
A friend asked me yesterday what I knew about a theater in her new neighborhood, The Ashton. Hollygrove/Leonidas isn’t my ‘hood. So my answer was, not much. My curiosity was piqued, though. I did some basic research. It’s not all that unique but interesting. The building was a typical neighborhood theater. You found these all around the United States in the days before television. It opened in 1927, a time when radio was just coming on the scene. The average American got their news from the local paper, and radio was speeding up that process. Movies made it possible to add visuals to that knowlege base. Theaters would show “newsreels” before the feature film. The news in those newsreels was way dated by the current standards of the 24/7 media beast we feed today, but they satisfied the public’s need to see what was going on.
Ferdinand Rousseve – The Ashton Theater’s architect
The Ashton Theater was designed by Ferdinand L. Rousseve. Rousseve was a New Orleans native who was a descendant of a Battle of New Orleans veteran. He attended Xavier University, as well as Coyne Trade and Engineering School in Chicago. Rousseve received an engineering degree from Coyne in 1924. So, the Ashton was one of his first design jobs. He went on to have a distinguished career, both as an architect and a civil rights leader. In 1947, Rousseve became the provisional chairman of the Urban League of New Orleans. Upon moving to Boston, Rousseve remained active with the Urban League. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1948. Rousseve became chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Boston University in 1958. He died in 1965.
The Ashton is located at 8437 Apple Street, which is one block off Leonidas, two blocks off Claiborne, in Hollygrove. Hollygrove is an “uptown backatown” neighborhood. It’s close to both S. Carrollton and S. Claiborne Avenuses. So, that makes the area easily accessible by bus and streetcar. Hollygrove endured some tough times economically, with crime being problematic. As gentrification hits other neighborhoods, it’s naturally spreading into Hollygrove as well.
Ashton Theater had a Reproduco pipe organ installed. I don’t know if the organ is still in the building. It closed in 1958. The building is now privately owned. While this neighborhood got a good bit of flood water during Hurricane Katrina, it survived. It’s now an artist’s studio.
Mortgage executed by Bernard Marigny, 1836 (courtesy LaRC at Tulane)
Bernard Marigny de Mandeville and Faubourg Marigny
Bernard is the man the neighborhood is named after. He inherited Marigny Plantation in 1806. Almost immediately he subdivided it, turning the plantation into New Orleans’ first neighborhood outside the French Quarter. He was still selling lots into the 1820s,
Marigny was quite the rake, and that lifestyle isn’t cheap. Property owners have it easier than a lot of folks in terms of financing an extravagant lifestyle. It’s easy for them to pay the bills, because all they have to do is sell off something, like lots in a subdivision. He took an interest in horse racing in the 1830s. Marigny founded the Louisiana Race Course, located on what now is the Fair Grounds Race Course. The first races at his track were held in 1839. Borrowing money in 1836 fits with the timeline for this project.
This is mortgage document is written in French, so I don’t know the details. I’m quite curious to see what he was borrowing against. Marigny would have been fifty-one in 1836 (he died in 1868, at the age of eighty-one).
One of the cool things about primary sources such as this is that they bring larger-than-life characters like Marigny down to earth. Here’s the guy who had connecitons to the Battle of New Orleans, brought the dice game Hazard to the New World, where it morphed into what we now know as “craps”, and expanded the city’s footprint. Did he run out of property to sell by 1836? What did he own that he could borrow against? Analyzing antebellum mortgage documents is an interesting twist on forensic accounting.
If any of y’all can read the French here (and the script it’s written in), please, please let me know! Will pay in beer or burgers for some insight into Marigny. 🙂
Pops in 1919
Louis Armstrong’s Birthday, he claimed, was the Fourth of July, but many records say otherwise. James Karst of Da Paper shared an interesting article from last year on the blog, The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. The blogger is Ricky Riccardi, who is Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens.
The article explores the research done by various folks on Pops’ birthday. Was he born in 1900 or 1901? Was the date really 4-July, or was it 4-August? Riccardi explores the issue, looking into research done by Tad Jones, along with John McCusker’s comments/defense of Jones’ work. He also cites a 2014 article by Karst, documenting Pops’ first trip to the Colored Waifs’ Home, at age 9.
The conclusion? Jones’ research into Armstrong’s baptismal records appears at face value to document the 4-August-1901 date. Karst’s find of the arrest record when Pops was nine tends to confirm 1901 as the year.
Here’s my only quibble with the baptismal record; while the date of the administration of the sacrament is not in doubt, the recording of the date of birth could be. Here’s Riccardi’s remarks on this:
Okay, it starts with baptism number 69, done on August 25 of a child born on August 15, ten days after. Next, number 70 is Louis Armstrong, baptized on August 25 and given the birthday of August 4. Now we’re 21 days away. Next, baptism number 71, done on August 25 is for a child born on JUNE 30! Nearly two months before. McCusker says August 4 has to be true because “those notations in the register happen in real time.” They were indeed happening in real time on August 25 but the birthdays of the kids being conceived varied from 10 days before until almost two months earlier. When I mistakenly wrote on Facebook that a “clerk” wrote the above, McCusker corrected me and said it was the priest and insinuated the priest is the most reliable source. But that priest wasn’t there when Mayann delivered Louis and if she remembered it being July 4, I don’t know why she gets discounted entirely.
The baptismal register at Sacred Heart Church on Canal Street would indeed be in “real time” – for baptisms. When a family brings the baby to the church for that baptism, however can vary. It’s not surprising to see babies ranging from two weeks to three months in age receiving the sacrament. So, to have one kid born on 15-August and another born on 30-June being baptized on the same day would be business as usual. The priest administers the sacrament, and records that act in the register. Louis Armstrong’s birthday would be secondary to his baptismal date in those records.
Is the priest a reliable source? Certainly for the date of baptism, but for the date of birth? What makes the priest’s recording of 4-August for DOB authoritative? Consider that this is 1901. The priest would be white, and Pops was listed in the register as “niger, illegitimus”. In other words, just how seriously did the priest take this record? Certainly he took the sacrament seriously. He brought a soul into the Church. But exactly when that soul’s mother gave birth would not be as important to him., given that he was African-American and illegitimate. All this research is done now because of what baby Louis became; on 25-August-1901, he was just another black baby. Jim Crow was in full force by 1901, essentially making African-Americans second class citizens. Without more info on the priest, it’s hard to tell here.
Go read the article, see what you think Louis Armstrong’s birthday is!
Fitzgerald’s Restaurant at West End, New Orleans, 1995 (Edward Branley photo)
The craziest day at West End was always Good Friday! After the solemn aspects of Good Friday were observed, many New Orleans families headed out to West End for seafood. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t exactly as solemn as perhaps the Church wanted, but the food was good. Two of the popular restaurants were Brunings (top) and Fitzgerald’s. Both of these photos are from 1995. My family always preferred Brunings; their whole stuffed flounder is still the standard by which that dish is judged.
The Bucktown Bridge, connecting Orpheum Street in Metairie to West End in New Orleans, 1995 (Edward Branley photo)
We would come from the Metairie side of West End, crossing the old Bucktown Bridge, which, alas, ATNM, between storms and the enhanced flood protection/controls on the 17th Street Canal.
Hurricanes during the 1990s all but obliterated the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs at West End. Even before Katrina, it was impossible for the property owners to re-build, because of wind and flood issues. No insurance company would underwrite reconstruction or new development.
West End for dining and entertainment is a thing of the past, but many folks still have fond memories of fun evenings looking out on the water.