Sunday, August 18, 2013

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop - Oldest Bar?

            One of the many things I love about this city is the ease with which one can travel through time.  New Orleans doesn’t throw anything away and so documents, newspapers, journals, letters, insurance maps, city directories, etc., all end up in archival collections which are open to the public.  Anyone can go and suddenly you’re in the 1840’s, physically holding a bail bond signed by Marie Laveau or staring at Rose Nicaud’s permit to operate a coffee stand at stall #16 in the French Market.  When I come across a claim or a story or a legend I want it to be true; I want Adelina Patti to have saved the French Opera House (she did); I want Antoine Peychaud to have invented the cocktail (he didn’t); I want the Pharmacie Français to be the first pharmacy building in the United States (it is) and I want everything they say about Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop to be true - but like so much else...it just....isn’t.

            The owners of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop have only been making the claim to be The Oldest Bar In The U.S.A. since Katrina.  Prior to that, their claim was a little different.  When I began working for Magic Tours in 2005 their ghost tour was leaving from The Blacksmith Shop.  At that time The Blacksmith Shop was claiming to be “the oldest building in the United States to house a bar.”  After Katrina they began selling t-shirts with the phrase “The oldest bar in the U.S.A.” and every carriage driver in the city backed it up.  I never questioned the “oldest building” claim (didn’t feel I had a reason to) but this new claim struck a chord with me.  I am a volunteer for the New Orleans City Archives since the mid-1990’s and I did a two-year project for them which ended up being one of the most rewarding and enlightening things I’ve ever done.

            There was a cartography firm called Sanborn that made maps and surveys in cities around the country for use in fire insurance.  (Click here for more information on Sanborn Maps.)  Their documentation is very thorough and extremely complete - detailing the buildings, their addresses (and in New Orleans they include the buildings' old and new addresses, which is valuable when one is researching a building prior to the address renumbering in 1895), their construction, who owned them and (most importantly) how they were used.  I processed the Sanborn survey of 1897 for the City Archives; in fact, they said I could keep the photocopies of the Sanborn file they sent me and they are still in my library and I still refer to them frequently.  According to that directory, the building that is now Lafitte’s Blacksmith was owned by a C. Mongo and served as a combination oyster shop and cobbler.  In rooting around in other records I found that the property had a dependancy to the side where the courtyard is which was demolished around 1910 and that the oyster shop was in the outbuilding while the building which still stands on the corner served as the cobbler shop.  (Attached is a photo taken circa 1895 which shows the outbuilding at the side - notice both the outbuilding and the main building each feature vitrines [display windows] - it's a shame that the sign on the main building is unreadable.)

            So in 2006 when Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop's bar-back, Darryl, began wearing a t-shirt with the claim to the oldest bar in the United States, I questioned it and he got a little defensive and simply said that the claim was true.  I spoke to the manager and told him about the Sanborn maps and questioned how they could claim to be the oldest bar in the country since 1772 when they also claim to have been a blacksmith shop in the Lafitte era and that I have records that show it was a cobbler shop in 1897.  He got so defensive that he banned me from the bar.  (Luckily I was in good with the bartenders and they didn’t enforce it, since he wasn’t there at night anyway.  I did, however, decide against pressing the issue.)  In fact, their own website claims that the Lafitte Brothers used the building between 1772  and 1791.  An interesting claim considering Pierre Laffite (the Laffite boys spelled their name Laffite) didn’t even come to Louisiana until 1803 (he was a refugee from San Domingue) and Jean followed after him later.  Plus - it was a bar AND a blacksmith shop at the same time???

            As for when the building became a bar - the first record of a barroom permit for that address is in 1933 when Mary Collins, Thomas Caplinger and Harold Bartell opened a restaurant there called “Café Lafitte.”  And yes, it was an actual restaurant, not just a saloon.  In his 1945 dining guide Scoop Kennedy describes the restaurant as serving steaks, fried oysters, liver and onions and roast beef.  Of course, Café Lafitte was later “exiled” and became the gay bar.  Business licenses for that location prior to 1933 range from groceries to shoemakers to dentists.  The 1842 city directory lists two dentists, GUIROUD and VALENCOURT, practicing in that building.  Dentists!  Who knew?

            So what, then, is the oldest bar in the United States?  The White Horse Tavern in Newport, R.I. can trace their liquor licenses to 1702, although not continuously.  From 1895 to 1957 it served as a boarding house.  As for the oldest bar in New Orleans, The Old Absinthe House has been serving liquor at least since the 1880’s and is probably the oldest continuing operating bar in the city.  In fact, they operated an annex at the corner of St. Ann and Chartres in a building that once stood where the current Muriel’s building was built later.

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, circa 1895
Note the small building to the left of the main building.

Branch of the Absinthe House, corner St. Ann & Chartres, circa 1880
Demolished circa 1900 to build the current Muriel's Restaurant.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Difference Between a Tour Guide and a Historian

It's becoming increasingly difficult to be a tour guide AND a historian.  Unfortunately many people who research and write about our history refer to books that people (often outsiders) wrote and use them as their sources. This is how facts and history get so distorted that we have to pry these myths from people's cold, dead fingers.  I tell visitors all the time that unless a "history" book has detailed notes, bibliographies and indices that give explicit source material then a book is not historical research. 
Of all the books out there, I think probably GUMBO YA-YA has done the most damage.  Published in 1945, the subtitle reads "Folk Tales Of Louisiana" - it never purports to be history, despite the fact that it reads like history.  And yet people latch on to this book (and others like it) and quote it as a source in their "research."  But a book - any book - is not research.
Research means documents.  Government records (laws, ordinances and resolutions); church records; records of health boards, colleges, notaries, conveyances, etc.; often journals, diaries, letters; newspapers and publications - all of these tell the story as it happened and not as an outsider heard it, read it or interpreted it.
Unfortunately, when one goes to a 250 year old document this is what one often finds:

It's easier to read someone's book, isn't it!
And this is how myth and misinformation begin.  Unfortunately, the tour guide classes available to up-and-comers in the city don't help either.  Their purpose, actually, is to prepare new tour guides for the 100-question test required for licensing.  They are not always taught by people who are qualified educators and often the knowledge they possess and pass along comes from - well....books.  And these new tour guides come up to me all bright and sunshiney and full of enthusiasm and start talking like they've been living in the Notarial Archives half their lives, studying away when what they are doing is repeating what they've learned in class.
When I give a tour I usually give a very different tour than people expect.  I don't give them the information they see on TV or read in a guide book or (amazingly) what they've heard from other tour guides.  And the myriad of misinformation makes it difficult, because people say "But that's not what I heard on my other tour" and I find myself saying "Well, that's not so - email me and I'll prove it."  (Or very often "But you're looking at it with your own eyes and seeing for yourself!")  Only when they see irrefutable proof do they realize that so much of the information in New Orleans is not only bogus but that the truth is often far more interesting.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The "Ghost" of Muriel's Restaurant

There is so much crap out there being passed off as “accurate” and “authentic” that it is positively galling!  It doesn’t really matter to many tourists who only see New Orleans as a giant theme park and ghost tours are to be enjoyed with Mardi Gras beads (in July), a t-shirt that reads “I Put Ketchup On My Ketchup” (whatever that means!) and a Huge-Ass Beer in hand.  But it does matter to those who are interested in learning about and preserving the amazing history of this amazing city.  Take Muriel’s Restaurant, for example.  Muriel’s has a “Ghost Table” set up at the end of their carriageway which is reserved for the ghost Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan.  Ghost tour guides stand at the doorway, encouraging tourists to peer in while they tell, ad nauseum, how Pierre inherited that building from his father and promptly lost it in a card game leaving his mother homeless for which he committed suicide by  (depending on the tour guide telling the tale) gun shot, hanging, jumping out a window...whatever.  Most of them are telling the tale as they heard it 3rd and 4th hand without even checking Muriel’s version of the story.  Let's have a look at it from their website:

“In 1718 New Orleans was founded and a young French Canadian named Claude Trepagnier was awarded this piece of land for his assistance in the expedition. Trepagnier built a small cottage, which later became a prime piece of property, due to the fact of its proximity of the area that soon became known as Jackson Square during the layout of the Quarter in 1721. Some locals believe that this structure used to hold slaves when they came off the boats, before going up for auction. Although Muriel's carriageway dates back to the late 1700's, and some clairvoyants say that many troubled spirits reside here, this area was said to be where servants were housed in the evening.

“Around 1745 Jean Baptiste Destrehan, a man of great power and wealth considered to be the Royal Treasurer of French Louisiana Colonies, acquired the property. He immediately tore down the humble little cottage and built an elaborate home of grandeur for his family. After his death in 1765 the house was passed down to his son and then sold at an auction when the family money ran out. In 1776 Pierre Phillipe de Marigny purchased the grand residence and used it as one of his "city homes" when he came into town from his plantation on the outskirts of the town, known as the Fauberg Marigny area today.

“On March 21, 1788, the Great New Orleans Fire started on Good Friday and burned 856 of the 1,100 structures in the French Quarter, including the city’s main church, original Cabildo, the municipal building, the army barracks, armory, and jail. During the tragedy, a portion of Pierre Phillipe de Marigny’s mansion was burnt.

“During the next decade, the city of New Orleans was in a rebuilding process, trying to recover from the fire that swept the French Quarter. The Spanish replaced what was left of the wooden buildings with thick brick walled structures that included courtyards, arcades, and wrought iron balconies. Among the new buildings in Jackson Square were the St. Louis Cathedral, The Cabildo, The Presbytere and a piece of property Mr. Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan purchased from Marigny. 

“Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan built his dream home restoring it to the original grandeur, for his family and himself. Although Jourdan dearly adored his beautiful home, he was a man that could never quench his thirst for the thrill and excitement of gambling. In 1814 he wagered his beloved home in a poker game and crushingly lost the one thing he treasured most in life. The shock of the loss was so intense, before having to vacate the premises and hand over his beloved treasure, he tragically committed suicide on the second floor in the area that served as the slave quarters-the same area where Muriel’s Seance Lounges are situated today.

“Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan is still with us today in spiritual form on the same piece of property that is now Muriel’s. His ghost doesn't appear in human form, but instead as a glimmer of sparkly light wandering around the lounge. Our Seance Lounges on the second floor are named as such because it is believed that this is where Jourdan spends the majority of his time. Patrons and employees of Muriel’s have also witnessed objects being moved around throughout the restaurant. We believe Mr. Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan never left his true love and home in New Orleans, he continues to reside here to this day.”

Let’s rip this one to shreds, shall we?
            Slaves were not housed in the building when they came off the ships; slave ships docked across the river in Algiers at an encampment for slaves where they recovered from the hellish voyage and learned the trades necessary to begin servitude.  Furthermore they were not auctioned at that time - they were the property of the king and simply purchased from the Company of the Indies which had control of the colony. The earliest known house on the lot was, indeed, a small house built circa 1735 and described as “a house roofed with bark shingles, having a brick chimney, front gallery and bricked between posts, sheathed in ship-lap siding twenty-seven or twenty-eight feet in length."  The description is very similar to the house we know as “Madame John’s Legacy,” (only smaller - 1/4 the length of Madame John's) and very typical of French colonial architecture.   Destrehan did acquire the property but not necessarily in 1745.  We don't know exactly when he became the owner due to missing records. It can be assumed (without certainty) that he acquired it around that time period but we do know that he owned it at the time of his death in 1765 when he passed it to his son.  There is no description of the property and no way of knowing if the house was the small one built by Trepagnier or if Destrehan built "an elaborate home of grandeur for his family."
           In 1776 Pierre de Marigny did, indeed, purchase the property from Jean Baptiste Destrehan, who sold it at auction.  By 1785 Marigny has replaced it with a larger house described as "The said house is separated into or divided into a drawing room, five bedrooms, three cabinets, a kitchen downstairs, and a coach-house with a kitchen."  Muriel’s history is correct in the 1788 fire, but not only did Pierre Jourdan not  purchase the house from Marigny, it was no longer Marigny’s to sell.  He sold it in 1785 (before the fire) to Antonio Ramos.  Ramos, you will notice, is not even mentioned in Muriel’s history and it was he, not Marigny, who sold it to Pierre Jourdan a year after the 1788 fire.
            However, the Pierre Jourdan who purchased the home was not the Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan named in the history of Muriel’s.  It was his father, Pierre Jourdan, pere. (Senior.)
            Between 1789 and 1824 the house described above was replaced with “a house of brick with a ground floor and other buildings.”  So now, the building on the corner is a single story and remained so until it was razed sometime between 1890 - 1900 to construct the building which now houses Muriel’s.  Their history claims that their carriageway dates back to the 1700’s; a claim that has absolutely no basis in fact.
            But the Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan story gets more interesting and a bit murkier.  (And VERY confusing!  Try to keep up.)  In 1824 Pierre Jourdan, pere, died and left the house to his daughter, Rosalie, and his two sons Pierre, fils, (junior) and Barthelemy.  When Junior, sis and brother, Barthelemy, inherited the house from their father, Junior and Rosalie were already deceased!  And it gets even better.  The widower of the late Rosalie Jourdan was Manuel de Hoa who claimed power of attorney for his wife, the daughter of Pierre Jourdan, pere.  Actually, the house was left to Pierre, fils, Barthelemy and Manuel de Hoa (as Power of Attorney for Rosalie Jourdan de Hoa).  However, Manuel de Hoa was completely unauthorized to claim Power of Attorney for his wife.  (It’s a long and complicated Napoleonic Code situation - don’t ask.)   Therefore much of Rosalie’s estate was thrown into a confusing situation of who owned what and when and where and how and why.
            In the end, though, it didn’t really matter because Manuel de Hoa was also dead by the time the inheritance went down.
            So.....whaaaaaaat?
            Ok, let me clear it up - here’s what we have - Pierre Jourdan, Sr., purchases the property from Antoinio Ramos and does NOT lose the house as a gambling debt.  Pierre Jourdan, Sr., dies (not from suicide) and leaves the property to Pierre Jourdan, Jr., deceased; Manuel de Hoa, deceased (as illegal Power of Attorney for his wife, Rosalie Jourdan de Hoa, deceased) and Barthelemy Jourdan who was the only Jourdan left alive in this huge cast of characters.  So, how can a dead person leave an inheritance to dead people?  Well, when people die and a will isn’t changed then one estate inherits another estate and it’s up to the executors to piece it all together and deal with it.  And deal with it they did - the property was sold to the über-rich philanthropist, Julien Poydras who owned it for about a year and sold it to the next link in a very long chain which has nothing to do with gambling, suicides or scandals.
            And the building, itself?  Well, by the 1880’s or ‘90’s the single-story building on the lot (pictured below) was an annex of the Absinthe House on Bourbon street.  (Which is, by the way, the oldest bar in the city - the Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop story will have to wait until another time.)  That building was razed and the present structure was built circa 1900 and by 1916 it was a pasta factory well into the 1960’s owned by the Taomina family.  As people rolled, cut and dried spaghetti, there was no talk of ghosts.  I know people who were employed there and they never felt ghostly presences or experienced the supernatural or paranormal.  Later (1974) it became the Chart House Steakhouse which operated until 2000.  I have spoken with employees of the Chart House and at no time did anyone ever feel a sensation of being in a haunted property.  By 2000 the "ghosts" of New Orleans made for big business. It was then that the building was remodeled into a quasi-goth appearance with a goth logo, a room designated “The Séance Lounge” and a ghost table for a man who had nothing to do with the property placed in a carriageway for all ghost tourists to see.  What better way to draw attention to your restaurant than to trump up a ghost and have hoards of tourists standing right there, peering in and a tour guide giving free advertisement?  Muriel’s is a fabulous restaurant.  One of my favorites.  Too bad their reputation needs a fictitious ghost rather than standing solely upon the merit of their cuisine and service.