The Great Days of the Garden District and the Old City of Lafayette
THE GREAT DAYS OF THE
And the Old City of Lafayette
Martha Ann Brett Samuel
Published and Copyrighted 1961
Fifth Printing 1974
By the Parents’ League of the Louise S. McGehee School
Library of Congress Catalogue Card No. 61-18748
The city of Lafayette, during its 19 years of life, was proud andindependent. Map shows its location and that of its “back”residential area, the Garden District. (Drawn by Gilbert Tasso.)
There has long been a need for the factual story of the old City ofLafayette and its fine residential area, the Garden District. What betteropportunity to attempt to fill this need than to benefit the Louise S.McGehee School! This venerable institution now approaches its fiftiethyear, a memorable half century of leadership in education.
Therefore, the Parents’ League of McGehee’s, as the school is affectionatelyknown to three generations of students, considered it fitting toput its members to work on this project with a three-fold purpose: tomemorialize the half century of growth of McGehee’s as it continues toexpand its facilities to serve the community; to develop an extra sourceof income for the League’s contributions to the school; and to satisfythe continuous requests made by the hundreds of visitors who take theLeague-sponsored Garden District home tours.
The authors, who were asked to undertake the research and writingproject, are gratefully indebted to many for their kind advice and consent.Old maps, documents, rare books and family records have beengenerously offered for examination. Illustrations have been lent fromprivate and other collections. Patient understanding and careful correctionof the manuscript were invaluable. We would like to thank particularlythe following: Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Wilson, Jr., Mr. Cecil J.Murphy, Mr. Leonard V. Huber, The Waldo-Burton Memorial Home,Miss Margaret Ruckert, Mrs. Sue Bauman, Mr. Richard Koch, Mrs.William J. Griffith, Mrs. Dorothy Whittemore and others in the archivesdepartment of the Howard-Tilton Library of Tulane University, theLouisiana State Museum Library, the Notarial Archives, Mrs. BenjaminCromwell Gore, Mrs. Robert Lee Emery, Jr., Miss Barbara Gessner, MissLily Gauche, Mr. Frank Boatner, Mrs. Keith Temple, Dr. BernardLemann, Mr. Albert Lieutaud, Mr. Harold Leisure, Mr. Carleton King,Mr. Errol E. Kelly, Mrs. John Prados, and Dr. Virgil L. Bedsole.
From the McGehee faculty and the Parents’ League inestimableassistance was received. Mrs. Edmund McIlhenny, Parents’ League President,and Miss Elise McGehee, Headmistress, were extremely generouswith their time and counsel. Our thanks to Mrs. Andrew W. Dykersfor reading the manuscript; Mrs. Leslie Bowling, who designed andexecuted the cover picture; Leon Trice, Jr., who took the majority ofthe interior photographs; Mrs. Bernard Wolfe, capable business managerof the project; and very special gratitude to Mrs. Dallam O’Brien, whodesigned the book, and to Mr. O’Brien for his help.
Particular appreciation is given, of course, to the present ownersof the great houses selected for inclusion in this work, for their graciouspermission and cooperation.
MARTHA ANN BRETT SAMUEL
The Parents’ League of the Louise S. McGehee School acknowledgeswith appreciation the work of Mr. and Mrs. Ray Samuel in writing thisbook on the Garden District in New Orleans. We are indeed gratefulto them for devoting their time and talent to this school project.
Italianate villa of James Robb, millionaire railroad man, was showplace of Garden District in the early 1850’s.It occupied entire blockof Washington Avenue, Camp, Chestnut, and Sixth Streets. Rare works of art embellished its ornate rooms, landscaped gardens.
A LAFAYETTE CITY STORY
It was February 23, in the year 1852; the place, Lafayette City, theindependent municipality on the Mississippi River, just above thethriving city of New Orleans. The hazy sun was turning a chilly morninginto one of the unseasonably warm late winter afternoons typicalof the semi-tropical climate. Throughout the spacious back residentialsection of Lafayette City, known as the Garden District, the azaleabushes were covered with swollen buds, ready to burst into theirannual blaze of glory.
A morning rain had sent a tiny fresher gurgling along the deep,weed-lined gutters, carefully retained between street and banquette bystout “gunwales”, long planks from broken up flatboats. The neatherringbone pattern of the red brick banquettes was set off by thedoily-like border of the white pickets fencing the fine mansion ofJohn Layton on Jackson Street.
Tall jalousies guarded the front door of the Layton home. Suddenlythey parted, and John Layton, Esquire, himself, walked out, followed byJohn, Junior, a lad of 12 years. Emerging from the darkened interior,they both squinted at the afternoon haze. Obviously, from their winterfinery, hats and light topcoats, this was a more-important-than-usualsortie.
“There she comes, John, c’mon!” shouted Father, grabbing Johnby the arm and hustling him down the wooden stairs of the gallery, outthe swinging gate and into the street to hail the passing omnibus mulecar, bound in Jackson Street toward the lively commercial center ofLafayette City, near the river front.
Father physically scooped son aboard the double-decker omnibus“Governor Johnson”, the pride of Lafayette and product of its ownHart, Thomas and Company. It was crowded this day, top to bottom,and all passengers were dressed in unaccustomed finery.
“But, Father...,” panted young John, “... why are we ...where are we...?”
Both struggled into the packed lower section of the “GovernorJohnson” and sandwiched into seats. Blowing hard, the elder Laytonwithdrew a large linen handkerchief and mopped his brow. In February!Then he answered his son.
“It is a day in history, lad. You’ll see. ’Tis a memory of it I wantyou to have. Whew!” It was close inside the “Governor Johnson”.
The rocky ride on the mule car compounded the effort of JohnLayton, Sr., to regain composure. Someone opened a window, but littlebreeze was generated by the four-mile-per-hour clop, clop, clop of thetwo scrawny mules. Father knew he still owed son an explanation.
“You see, my boy, we live—or have lived to this very day—inLafayette City, a distinct and separate city of our own people, ourown mayor, our own police, God bless ’em all. But this day, as I said,boy, is historic. The mayor and city fathers in their wisdom, have seenfit to join us to the city of New Orleans by law, as we have long beenin fact. Nothing but an imaginary line on the downtown side of FelicityRoad has divided us before. Now we will become one. You will see.2A wedding you will witness, a wedding of two cities.... ’Til deathus do part.” Layton père was warming up to the occasion and ratherenjoying the attention of the crowd which smiled benignly at hisefforts.
By this time the mule car had come to a stop at Magazine Streetwhere several people got on, further packing the omnibus until passengerswere hanging on the stairs outside. As the car started up again,faint sounds of music, a brass band, were heard, coming from thecenter of the city’s activity.
“It’s a great day, isn’t it, Mr. Layton?” said a red-faced man frombehind a well-starched collar, sitting next to them, “becoming thefourth district of New Orleans, and all that.”
“That it is, sir, now that we can be sure the new city governmentwill treat us properly. That’s why we held off before, you know. Theyassume our indebtedness, $504,800, I believe, and we share in theirexpenses and in the McDonogh fund—all in proportion, as it shouldbe. No one can complain now.”
As the omnibus crossed Laurel, young John glanced anxiously tothe right, looking up the street between Jackson and Philip at thequiescent Lafayette Public School building, making sure there was reallya holiday. No sign of life there relieved him immensely, for thePrincipal, Mr. Lewis Elkin, brooked no absentees without due cause,which usually meant near death.
The tired mules, knowing the end of the line and a well-earnedrest were imminent, slowed to scant mobility, just as the “GovernorJohnson” passed the Orphan Asylum buildings between Chippewa andRousseau. Young John steeled himself for the standard lecture fromLayton père on counting his blessings that he had loving parents, etcetera. Surprisingly, it didn’t come and then John realized that wasbecause everybody was getting ready to disembark.
The mule car stopped at the Jackson Market. Here the street partedto pass on each side of the two-story, whitewashed building whichextended almost across Rousseau Street. Passengers poured out of theomnibus, Laytons included, and all joined a large assemblage of noisycitizens, ready for a convivial occasion.
On Jackson, toward Levee Street, at their left, a big United Statesflag hung from the editorial offices of the Lafayette Statesman, whereJ. G. Fanning, its indomitable editor, was holding a sort of wake ashis days as “official city printer” came to an end.
Asylum for Destitute Orphan Boys, established in 1824, occupied siteon Jackson between Chippewa and Rousseau where hospital stands today.
Up Rousseau toward Philip, from where the Laytons stood, theycould see banners and bunting swathed all over the Lafayette Courthouse,for the city still would have its court, that of the Fourth District,and would still be the seat of Jefferson Parish, too.
In the next block between Philip and Soraparu, a drab note wasadded by the still uncleared ruins of the burned out Lafayette Theater,directly across the street from the equally charred remains of TerpsichoreHall, both victims of the same night’s conflagration. John hadmixed emotions about the loss of the hall. He had delighted at theantics of the remarkable General Tom Thumb there; but he had alsopaled before the saber tongue of Monsieur Pierre Clissey, dancingmaster who taught “the latest dances now in vogue, with special classesfor children”. His father had attended a fete for General Zachary Taylorin Terpsichore Hall; so, despite M. Clissey, its memory still held certaincharms for John’s young imagination. What he did remember vividlywas the great fire in March, 1850. Everybody in Lafayette, it seemed,had rushed to the scene. The fire began in the Lafayette Theater andtook the entire block with it. Sparks jumped across the street andclaimed Terpsichore Hall and several houses next door. A boy doesn’tforget a sight like that!
The crowd now gravitated around the towering flagpole at theriver end of Jackson Market. If there was any place the residents ofLafayette City instinctively considered the center of town, this spotwas it, under the 135 foot high flagpole. Although one block fromthe courthouse, it represented the heart of Lafayette out of pure sentiment.Within the memories of almost everyone, the seat of the cityfathers had been the rooms above the market stalls. To this day somecitizens still maintained that new quarters for the Council should befound further out on Jackson, mainly because of the ... well ...civic pride prevented use of the word ... “smell”.
Even though most of the slaughter houses had been moved toJefferson City landing, above Lafayette; and even though the breaking upof flatboats with their objectionable odors had several years before beenrelegated to comparatively secluded sections along the river, there stillwafted in from the water’s edge certain disagreeable olfactory assaults.These seemed to be at their worst whenever the city council was insession, giving rise, among the jocular Irish and German senses ofhumor, to all sorts of unfortunate jokes concerning the odor of theparticular politics under discussion.
The Southern Traveler, published by the Rust brothers, Richardand W. E., had moved into a new building just around the corner ofLevee Street, and that, some people felt, might help to sweeten theatmosphere. They were in the process of giving this a fair chancewhen the amalgamation of Lafayette and New Orleans was proposed.So now, it appeared, the matter was moot.
Anyway, on this particular day, at this particular hour, the twoLaytons’ attention was diverted by the arrival, from opposite directions,of two parades. One, headed by top-hatted horsemen, red bands acrosstheir chests, issued from lower Rousseau Street. The blasts of thefamiliar brass band were the unmistakable label of the merry Germans,who for this occasion were arm in arm with their neighbors of theIrish Channel section of Lafayette, the streets closest to the upper limitof New Orleans and nearest the river, Felicity, St. Mary, Adele and4Nuns. The German families congregated for excitement at the LafayetteBallroom, St. Mary corner of Bellechasse.