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Days and Nights at the French Quarter Museums

Days and Nights at the French Quarter Museums

A dive into what makes them so special—and ghost stories!

by Sue Strachan

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you took a stroll through the French Quarter, but looked at it through the lens of history and culture? OK, that probably doesn’t make sense, because this New Orleans neighborhood is world- famous for showcasing these elements — and depending on where you go, it’s more ribald side — almost every moment of the day and night.

Instead of dining, shopping, dancing or enjoying libations (which you should do anyway!) take some time to immerse yourself even more via museums where you can learn about the French Quarter’s architecture, culture, art, music, Carnival, and religion, including voodoo.

Because these museums have a vast array of items of interest, I asked them to highlight some notable objects or an exhibition coming up. I am also throwing in some ghost stories for fun! Where else in the U.S. can you see a real estate sign outside a building that says it’s “Haunted” or “Not Haunted”? For the haunting tales, I turned to Toast Korozsia, a tour guide with Haunted History Tours.

LOUISIANA STATE MUSEUM: ENGAGING THE SENSES OF HISTORY

The Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans encompasses the Cabildo, Presbytere, 1850 House, New Orleans Jazz Museum at Old U.S. Mint, and Madame John’s Legacy, which is currently closed due to renovations. While the buildings on their own are integral to the city’s history — the Cabildo was where the Louisiana Purchase was finalized — the exhibitions expand our understanding of what made New Orleans what it is today.

I contacted Music Curator David Kunian at the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint, who said one of the most important pieces is the cornet Louis Armstrong played when he was in the Colored Waif’s Home. This is an important artifact as the cornet was the start of him becoming a serious musician. It is currently on view in New Orleans Music Observed: The Art of Noel Rockmore & Emilie Rhys and will stay on display after.

Museum Historian Joyce A. Miller chose a few things visitors should look for while visiting the Cabildo, Presbytere and 1850 House.

At the Cabildo, Miller highlighted Napoleon’s death mask, made from a mold of Napoleon’s face 40 hours after he died on May 5, 1821. Dr. Francesco Antommarchi presented it to the city shortly after he arrived in 1834. Though it is attributed to Antommarchi, some believe Francis Burton, a surgeon with the British army, cast it.

And, don’t forget to see “The Battle of New Orleans” painting by Eugène Louis Lami, painted in 1839 and in the exhibition, From “Dirty Shirts” to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture exhibition.

At the Presbytere is the model of Mississippi River- Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), part of the Living with Hurricanes: Katrina & Beyond exhibition. The model was created by Charles “Pete” Savoye in 1994 to demonstrate the effects it could have on St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward. Savoye campaigned to close the navigational pathway but failed. His prediction of mass flooding due to a storm came true when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed it in 2009.

Mardi Gras Indians tell stories through their costumes, and in the exhibition, Mystery in Motion: African American Masking and Spirituality in Mardi Gras, it is the suit, “The Last Supper and Crucifixion,” designed, made and worn by Alfred Doucette, Big Chief of the Flaming Arrows, ca. 2000, that depicts the final hours of Jesus.

The 1850 House, also located like the Cabildo and Presbytere in Jackson Square, has installed an immersive soundscape, which plays inside the museum. Visitors
can “earwitness” fictional conversations amongst the Cammack family and their enslaved laborers, who actually occupied the house from 1850 to 1853. The production is collaboration between the museum and Goat in the Road Productions.

Ghost Story: Neither Kunian or Miller have seen them. But Trout Korozsia recounts that the Cabildo, which was once a jail, has a ghost of a hanged British soldier, as well as ghosts who tug on visitors’ clothing while they are

walking around. At the Presbytere, he said there is a janitor who hangs out. The Old U.S. Mint has ghosts of soldiers who were stationed there when it was originally a fort in the late 18th, early 19th centuries. (The current building was constructed in 1835.)

Sazerac Museum, Trapolin Peer Architects. (photo courtesy: The Sazerac House)

SAZERAC HOUSE: WHERE COCKTAIL CULTURE IS A MAIN INGREDIENT

The Sazerac House is a great place to add to your museum tour, located just across the street to the entrance of the French Quarter. The museum, which opened in 2019, is in a three-story building originally constructed in the 1860s. The displays tell the story of New Orleans through cocktails, including elements such as the most Southern of liquors and ingredients — rye whiskey and Peychaud’s bitters — and how they were was an integral part to the creation of the the Sazerac, as well as other cocktails.

What visitors don’t want to miss are the museum’s virtual bartenders, who represent the four types of bars you might find in New Orleans and show step-by-step the process of making different cocktails. Another unique element of the museum is that it is the first to legally distill whiskey in the New Orleans’ Central Business District, offering guests a chance to not only sample, but alsobe a part of the distilling process for Sazerac Rye Whiskey.

The museum also hosts special events each month, with one that includes bottling your own Sazerac Rye Whiskey. (It’s not too early to think about holiday gifts!)

Ghost story: Quite possibly. Because the building is more than 150 years old, there are bound to be some wandering around – plus what New Orleans ghost can resist a spirited place?

BEAUREGARD-KEYES HISTORIC HOUSE & GARDEN: MAKING THE RIGHT MOVES

The house — with its beautiful exterior and garden — is a portal to so many stories that include chess champion Paul Morphy, who reputedly was born and learned chess here; former Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard briefly rented it post-Civil War; members of the Black Hand (early Mafia) lost a dispute; a World War II canteen entertained troops, and a noted author Frances Parkinson Keyes made it her preservation cause. And that is just scratching the surface.

The museum’s Executive Director Annie Irvin and her staff are working to preserve the house — built in 1826 — as well as open it up to new interpretations.

“We want to present a multi-faceted history in the stories that we tell,” says Irvin. “To be a reflection of the neighborhood, digging deep in a way to present the house, as it is a really interesting and unique example of American and Creole designs, and that it was owned by Creoles, Italians, Swiss, and Mrs. Keyes.”

Irvin, who was joined at the interview by House Manager and Program Director Chris Fountain, added that the museum also tells “the stories of the enslaved people and the free people of color…to talk about architecture and the people who built the French Quarter and why they are underrepresented in history,” she says, highlighting the artistry of plaster and millwork, brick masonry and ironwork. 

Ghost story: The staff at the museum keeps a “ghost” book of all of the sightings, with a woman in white who hangs out in the courtyard being mentioned a lot, as well as a man in the first floor who sits in a rocking chair. Keyes’ dog, Lucky, haunts her former office, while her cat Caroline— whose headstone is in the courtyard — has been known to brush up against people there. Irvin added there is even a considerate ghost: she said when she was “super pregnant,” the swinging door that is always shut was always open for her when she came to that part of the house.

Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum. (photo: BRIAN HUFF, COURTESY OF ARNAUD’S)

ARNAUD’S GERMAINE CAZENAVE WELLS MARDI GRAS MUSEUM: MORE RHINESTONES THAN IN DOLLY PARTON’S CLOSET

Arnaud’s restaurant founder Count Arnaud Cazenave — he was self-proclaimed royalty — passed along his love for royal trappings to his daughter, Germaine Cazenave Wells, who was the queen of more than 22 Carnival balls.

Unique items: In the restaurant’s Mardi Gras Museum, 13 of Wells’ gowns are joined by other regal regalia, including four king costumes worn by the Count, children’s costumes, krewe invitations and party favors, jewelry and historic photographs. The rarest ensembles are the 1939 Hermes King costume worn by the Count and a 1941 Iris Queen’s costume worn by Lady Irma Cazenave, the Count’s wife and Wells’ mother.

Ghost story: Our recommendation is to meander around the museum after dining or sipping cocktails at its adjacent bar, French 75. You might see the Wells’ ghost!

HERMANN-GRIMA + GALLIER HISTORIC HOUSES: TWO ERAS, DUAL IDENTITIES

These two 19th-century residences provide engaging glimpses into two different eras of New Orleans: Hermann-Grima was built in 1831 for Samuel Hermann, while Gallier House was completed in 1860 and was designed by noted architect, James Gallier, Jr. The architecture and interiors of the house museums are reflective of those eras, telling two different, though sometimes similar stories, of the city’s past.

Telling a tale: Part of the story is death and in October, Gallier House is hosting a Creole Death and Mourning tour, which focuses on the 19th-century customs surrounding mourning and death in New Orleans, and Saturdays in October will feature a Save Our Cemeteries guide who will talk about burial customs.

Another story is that of the enslaved in the French Quarter, and the new Urban Enslavement in New Orleans tour at the Hermann-Grima House will educate visitors about the experience of enslaved women, men and children in urban settings and how they differentiate from that of rural plantations.

Hermann-Grima House itself was part of a story: the residence in Anne Rice’s “The Feast of All Saints” was based on it.

Ghost story: While I was told there hasn’t been any ghost sightings, I can share that when I was an intern at Gallier House during college, a workman saw a woman dressed up in 19th-century attire go past him – and the museum was closed.

Over at Hermann-Grima house, Toast Korozsia says there have been sightings of an enslaved woman in the courtyard by the outdoor kitchen. And while in the house, most people have experienced an olfactory haunting, possibly smelling Mrs. Grima’s – or another female ghost’s – perfume.

HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION: A VALUABLE RESOURCE

The Historic New Orleans Collection focuses on the minutiae and broader historical and cultural themes of New Orleans and the Gulf South.

Founded in 1966, its complex of buildings encompass permanent and revolving exhibitions, as well as the Williams Resource Center — invaluable for anyone doing research on the city. The home of museum benefactors, Leila Moore Williams and General L. Kemper Williams, is not currently on view, but is an interesting glimpse to how a home would look in the 1940s and ‘50s. Also, don’t forget to check out its online publication, “First Draft: Stories from the Historic New Orleans Collection,” for articles by museum staff that give a dynamic new look at museum artifacts.

This Benjamin Henry Latrobe watercolor, perhaps ca. 1819, depicts his design for gates to adorn New Orleans’s Place d’Armes, now Jackson Square. The city council rejected the design as too expensive. The watercolor, a recent acquisition, is on view in The History of the French Quarter Galleries. (photo courtesy: THNOC, gift made possible by Krista and Mike Dumas, 2021.0049)

Unique Item: Everything is unique here, but let’s check out a recent acquisition: Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s design for gates for Place d’Armes. Latrobe’s ink and watercolor, perhaps ca. 1819, depicts the decorative gates that were to adorn Place d’Armes, better known now as Jackson Square — which celebrated its 300th anniversary in August. Latrobe, a noted architect, designed it to dress up the square for a visit from Gen. Lafayette (Marquis de Lafayette) in 1825. The plans, which illustrate classical arches and decorative wrought iron railings, were not adopted by the city council — as they were deemed too expensive.

Ghost story: They aren’t telling! But Latrobe’s “ghost” gate drawing will be haunting the museum’s The History of the French Quarter Galleries exhibit.

MORE MUSEUMS!

Because I was writing this article just as Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans and the surrounding area, I was not able to contact — or follow-up for my deadline — with the following museums, which are worth a visit!

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum: Apothecary jars, tools of the pharmacy trade and other medical items.

Devoted to pharmaceutical arts, it is truly a different look at the city’s past. It is set in the home and shop of Louis J. Dufilho, the first licensed pharmacist in New Orleans, who passed the required pharmacist’s test in 1816.

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum: Learn about voodoo at this museum that showcases this religious practice, as well as its relation to the city’s history.

Museum at the Old Ursuline Convent: As the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley, the Ursuline Convent was completed in 1752-1753, the exhibitions reflect the history of Catholicism in New Orleans. Along with St. Louis Cathedral and St. Mary’s Church, it makes up the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

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