Life Travel

New Orleans: City buildings have amazing stories to tell

By Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun

NEW ORLEANS -- There is ... a house ... in New Orleans, just like the song says.

Quite a few actually, in every size and architectural style under the rising sun. Shotgun cottages in the Garden District, Creole townhouses fronted by iron-lattice balconies, the Sugar Palace at Houmas Plantation, and Preservation Hall with its cracked plaster, loosened by the verve of nightly jazz.

And when actor Nicolas Cage goes to his eternal rest, he'll do so beneath a personally designed pyramid mausoleum in historic St. Louis Cemetery, near a Voodoo priestess.

Each edifice in the Big Easy and the surrounding bends of the Mississippi, be it French, Spanish, American or Creole, contain a story under the roof:

PRESERVATION HALL

Once a small art gallery in the heart of the French Quarter, it became a home for a rotating cast of 100-plus local jazz practitioners. Owner Larry Borenstein -- nicknamed The Father of Preservation Hall -- began inviting them to play so he could enjoy music and sell his paintings. Eventually, the gallery moved out and for 50 years since, the hall was given over to a nightly ensemble of stars, playing beneath faded wall murals of the genre's pioneers.

Three evening concerts of 45-minute duration begin at 8 p.m., seven days a week, with afficionados squeezed in on benches, pillows or standing room. See preservationhall.com.

ST. LOUIS CATHEDRAL

It's worth stepping inside for a few minutes -- before or after visiting Jackson Square, the French Market or gobbling white-powdered beignets at Cafe Du Monde. Parts of St. Louis date to 1727, making it the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States. The site has survived fires, construction damage and flooding, including having part of its roof torn off by Hurricane Katrina.

ST. LOUIS CEMETERY NO. 1

Behind its walls is a jumble of monuments of the city's famous denizens, most resting above ground to avoid the high water table. Watch your step as many sites are in stages of disrepair.

The most visited tombs include that of Marie Laveau, who combined Voodoo and Catholic services for high society in the 1800s, when not tending to her reputed 15 children, Many triple Xs mark her resting place, in respect of past favours granted by her or her spirit.

In the midst of strewn bricks and wall vaults, is Cage's quixotic 3-metre-high white pyramid. It's marked with the Latin phrase Omia Ab Uno (Everything From One). After losing a 2010 tax battle with the IRS, Cage built it, either in homage to his National Treasure movies or because the government can't seize burial property and he's testing the belief you can't take it with you. The actor didn't win many friends -- alive or dead -- when his new plot took up so much room.

The cemetery is next to the restored Basin St. train station, which has a small museum dedicated to the city's rail history.

GARDEN DISTRICT HOMES

Like the cemetery, the district is on the route of the convenient hop-on-hop-off double decker buses that loop the most famous sites in town. Stop at the corner of Magazine St. and Jackson Ave. for an hour-long guided tour of grand houses (included in bus ticket prices), or stroll through antique shops and a popular string of restaurants that are much cheaper than the Bourbon St. area.

Magnificent multi-million dollar Second Empire, Antebellum and Greek Revival homes of actor John Goodman, author Anne Rice and football's iconic Manning family are a few blocks apart. There's also the site where Confederate President Jefferson Davis died in 1889.

The 1,858-square-metre Buckner Mansion on Jackson was just featured in American Horror Story, and nearby locales were used in scenes of the movie JFK. On Coliseum St., look for the Seven Sisters, actually a row of eight cottages known as Shotgun Houses. A bullet fired through an open front door in hot weather would supposedly go right out the back, kept open for air circulation. Just take the guide's word rather than ask for a demo.

THE GUMBO SHOP

Before or after Bourbon St. favourites such as Fritzel's European Jazz Pub, give into the temptation of Southern culinary fare.

A meal at The Gumbo Shop on St. Peter St., next to Preservation Hall, never disappoints. The signature dish can be enjoyed in either seafood okra or chicken andouille, as a main course, or appetizer, with blackened fish nuggets. Entrees include catfish, filet mignon, po-boy sandwiches and New Orleans' classics jambalaya and crawfish etouffee.

A restaurant has been part of this Louisiana Colonial townhouse since the 1920s. One of the few remaining 18th-century houses standing in the Quarter, it was re-built after the 1794 fire started around the corner.

The old carriageway leads to a tropical courtyard for dining under the leaves of banana trees. The interior, once a woodworking shop, has 90-year-old murals depicting scenes from local history, painted in gold-brown tones on the burlap wrappings of cotton bales. John Watkins, the Mayor of New Orleans almost 200 years ago, once lived here.

HOUMAS HOUSE

Less than a hour from the din of Bourbon St., in Darrow, is a step back to the antebellum era of the Sugar Barons.

The Greek Revival-style Houmas House has been restored to its 19th-century grandeur. It's surrounded by 15.4-hectares of gardens, ponds, fountains and statues of the four seasons. An alley of mighty oaks forms an impressive entrance from the Mississippi.

With tour guides in fancy breeches or hoop-skirted ladies twirling parasols, there's a Gone With The Wind feel to the grounds, though it was actually the setting for the 1964 horror film Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Some of actress Bette Davis's costumes are on display in the bedroom she used during filming.

Every corner of the three-storey, 16-room estate has been restored and contains historical artifacts -- clothing, photos, maps, old kitchen utensils and a walking stick that doubled as a gun. A giant reproduction mural of sugar-cane fields dominates the main hallway, while a helix staircase reaches the top rooms, balconies and a sweeping view of the former plantation down to the river.

Two striking features are "garconniere" towers that housed the young men of the estate after they reached puberty. One has been turned into a bar, part of a popular inn/fine-dining/wedding/banquet facility on the lush greens. A pair of hounds were famously "married" here about 10 years ago, complete with wedding photos in gown and tuxedo.

French settlers in the early 1700s bought this land from the Houmas Indians. The sugar market began thriving after the Louisiana Purchase, and by the mid 1850s, the residence had undergone several expansions to become the centrepiece of a 121,000-hectare plantation.

It escaped damage during the Civil War when Irish-born owner John Burnside warded off Union soldiers at the door by declaring immunity as a British subject.

But there's no avoiding that a plantation this immense needed plenty of slave labour. Most cabins that housed the subjugated have long been demolished or are well away the main property. The staff will answer questions about this dark period, but as their expertise is the lifestyles of the owners, they will direct visitors to neighbouring plantations and nearby sites that delve into the topic of slavery in better detail.

NEED TO KNOW

-- Twelve airlines service New Orlean's Louis Armstrong Airport, including a daily direct flight from Toronto.

-- The double-decker bus, which includes St. Louis Cemetery and a guided tour of the Garden District, costs about $40 US per person. See CitySightseeingNewOrleans.com.

-- Houmas House is on River Rd. in Darrow, La. Old South Tours provides return transportation from many New Orleans hotels. Prices are $59 US for adults, $40 for children under 12. The toll free number is 1-877-303-1776.

-- The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau provides extensive tourist information at neworleanscvb.com.


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