On Sunday morning, a warmer day than we’ve experienced the last few weeks, I descended from the Crescent Park entrance on Mazant Street in the Bywater to the sound of a small brass band warming up. A few steps later, as I rounded the levee wall, I was greeted by the sweet smell of barbecue filling my nostrils, and the sight of dozens of dogs in tutus and a variety of other costumes on the vacant plot of land bounded by France, Royal, Mazant and Chartres streets.
When I first moved into the neighborhood in 2009, there were two two-story public housing buildings on this square of land. I believe they were still in use, but I can’t remember. But I recall biking to work one day, in 2015 or 2016, and the units had been demolished, reduced to large piles or rubble being cleared from what all of a sudden looked like a big park.
But, until a pair of historic markers went up within the last year on the Chartres Street edge of the park, I hadn’t realized the rich history that preceded those public housing units.
Our story begins with David Olivier, born in Lyon, France in 1759. Olivier moved to America in the early-1800s and made his fortune here. He left Fredericksburg, Virginia in the late-1700s and was in New Orleans by 1809.
He became a prominent merchant in New Orleans and, in 1820, he purchased two adjacent tracts of land and built his palatial dwelling – ornate with towering columns of white plaster brick, stately bannisters, and spacious verandas — a spectacular example of the early-19th century colonial Creole plantations that once existed downriver of New Orleans. In more recent times, the mansion’s address was 4111 Chartres Street, but, then, Chartres was called “Rue de Moreau,” and what is now the Bywater, was formerly called the lower banlieue, which New Orleans geographer Richard Campanella says refers to an area on the lower outskirts of the city.
At this time, New Orleans and the surrounding area used the arpent system. In an agricultural society, like New Orleans outside the French Quarter was, the most fertile and desirable land was near the river So, to give one landowner a plot next to the Mississippi River, while others had land closer to the swamp, which would have begun somewhere around Claiborne Avenue (less arable and rife with mosquito-borne illness), would be unfair. The solution was to cut narrow slices of land that ran from the Mississippi and extended back.
Olivier’s plantation, for example, existed between present-day Bartholomew and France streets, and extended back near what would become Florida Avenue. Landowners built their homes on the high ground near the river, creating what scholar Frederick Starr called, “a formidable collection of high-end Creole, French American, and American rural architecture.” Each parcel was approximately two to four arpents wide (approximately 400 to 800 feet) and created what Campanella describes as “a bucolic landscape of villas with gardens, orchards, horse farms, dairies, and intensive agriculture, as well as brickyards and lumber mills interspersed with commodity plantations,” usually with slaves.
This plantation harvested sugarcane, with pigeonniers, a kitchen, a distillery, and a stable outside the main structure. While the façade and much of the house, itself, was an excellent example of the colonial-era West Indies-influenced French Creole design, the house had a center hallway, which Campanella points out is “a privacy feature more typical of Anglo-American domestic design…and reflected New Orleans’ impending Americanization.”
Note: a pigeonnier was used to house – you guessed it! – pigeons (and doves), which were an important food source for western Europeans, who also kept pigeon eggs, as well as their – you probably didn’t guess it! – flesh and dung.
The home was owned by Olivier until April of 1833. By this time, landowners were realizing they could make more money subdividing their large parcels into neighborhoods for an exploding population than they could harvesting sugarcane. It’s was with this purpose in mind that Etienne Carraby and two of his partners purchased the property from its founder for $70,000.
Carraby and his partners subdivided and sold the land, but kept the house intact. (There was a short span of time where a prison was almost built on the neighboring plot, and I’m not too bummed that never came to pass.) Then, just a few months after purchasing it, the house and the now-much-smaller plot of land it was on, was sold to A.L. Boimare.
The next years aren’t quite as clear, but whoever owned the land in 1835 sold much of it to the Catholic Orphans Association, but still retained possession of the main house.
St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, a program of the Catholic Orphans Association was founded in 1835 by Father Adam Kindelon (the first pastor of New Orleans’ St. Patrick’s Church), on Bayou St. John. A New Orleanian at the time described Father Kindelon: “his charities like his soul, were unbounded.” In orphanage’s opening years, a storm ripped through the Gulf of Mexico and caused Lake Pontchartrain to overflow its banks. Father Kindelon woke up to water rushing into his room at midnight. With the help of servants and teachers, he woke all the boys and moved them to safety. (Don’t worry, the girls weren’t left to die. St. Mary’s was a boys’-only orphanage.)
After the children were safe, Kindelon took servants to rescue the cows he tended to provide milk for the boys. While he was able to rescue the animals, he had waded and swam so much that he got the chills, then Typhoid, which killed him a few days later.
Yikes, such was the beginning of St. Mary’s Orphanage…
The asylum (just a note that, back then, “asylum” was meant as we use “orphanage” now) moved to the square of land on Chartres Street in 1840. It remained a part of the Catholic Orphans Association, but for much of the 1840s, it was administered by a secular group of tutors. It has been reported that during this time, the Catholics considered dropping the program, but the need for it was deemed too great. This would become even more true in the coming decades.
In 1848, the Brothers and Marianites of Holy Cross took over control of the care of the boys, and in 1953, the famous architect, Henry Howard, designed addition buildings to be erected around the edge of the property. By this point, Albert Piernas owned the main house, now mostly hidden from public view, and lived in it with his family. The Civil War, however, sent the Piernas into financial ruin, and Albert was forced to part with the house, which he sold to the orphanage.
The extra space was needed. The cholera epidemic of 1852, the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, the Civil War, and World War I ensured, sadly, there was never a shortage of orphans in New Orleans. St. Mary’s became the biggest orphanage in the city, usually housing between 300 – 400 boys at any given time. By the time St. Mary’s changed names and moved in 1933, an estimated 9,000 children – infants to 15 years of age – had been served on this plot of land that now sat empty.
But ‘ol Olivier (‘olivier) House wasn’t done yet. A 1939 book by the Works Progress Administration reports, “The building, which is now occupied by an old lady and two children who migrated to the refuge from Pointe Coupee, is surrounded by new but deserted brick buildings, and can hardly be seen from the street.” As late as 1943, the first floor of the house was the sawdust-filled Giordano Furniture Manufacturing Company.
Then, an article in the Times-Picayune in 1949 described a contraption fastened around the house, “and a heavy tractor about to pull away, leveling the ancient mansion to rubble.” It goes on to describe an interested historian who happened to be walking by “almost like the square-jawed hero of a movie melodrama, he flung himself on the contractor and begged a reprieve for the house on Chartres, last example of the New Orleans riverside plantation of the early 1800s.” Amazingly, a short reprieve was granted.
Mrs. Martha Robinson led a group of Tulane architecture students in an effort to quickly come up with a plan to save the structure, the last remaining example of this style of home that once was so common between Elysian Fields Avenue and Chalmette. Their plan was to document the floor plans, dismantle the house, and then reassemble it, brick by brick, in a far corner of Audubon Park they had purchased.
Unfortunately, they had very little time to raise quite a bit of money, and they were unable to do so. The historic mansion was destroyed to make room for a brewery.
That night, however, the organization that would soon become the Louisiana Landmarks Committee met and developed strategy to avoid the future loss of our city’s treasures. This would prove a pivotal moment in the preservation of New Orleans. The Louisiana Landmarks Committee led the charge to save Gallier Hall in the 1950s, and to defeat the proposed Riverfront Expressway in the 1960s, which would have routed a highway in the small space between the French Quarter and the Mississippi River.
Now the Louisiana Landmarks Society, its mission is to promote historic preservation through education, advocacy and operation of the Pitot House. I’ll absolutely be heading over there for an adventure!
So what’s going on today with the block on which the Olivier Plantation used to stand? (The brewery was never built, but you should definitely check out Parleaux Beer Lab, just a block away!) Like I said earlier, back in 2009 there were two buildings on the lot. This article says the rest of the apartment complex had been torn down sometime around the year 2000. I’m not sure when the empty, post-Olivier House lot was converted to public housing, but if you know, please tell me about it in the comments section! A FEMA report reads that by 1998, ten apartment buildings occupied the lot, and that in the next available images (from 2003), all but two of the buildings remained. Though, I find it hard to believe the lot was left empty between 1949 and 1998.
The same FEMA report acknowledged that FEMA archaeologists determined the construction of modern buildings on the lot have largely destroyed cultural deposits that could date back as far as the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. #sad
I know there was an effort to convert the once-again-empty block to mixed-use / mixed-income housing that was gaining steam back in 2013 – 2016, getting as far as the submission of proposals to the Housing Authority of New Orleans. As far as I can tell, nothing has come of this, but – again – if you know something I don’t, please share.
Back in 2016, when the neighborhood was getting heated about the proposed 185-bed “poshtel,” I felt okay with the plan as long as the lot next to it (which I didn’t know at the time was the Olivier Plantation site!) was once again used for public housing. I hope that remains part of any plan for the site.
So now I’m back on the site, poking around for any evidence of Chocktaw Indians from many centuries ago, or David Olivier’s Plantation from 200 years ago, or an orphanage for boys 100 years ago, or even a public housing site from a couple of years ago. There’s not much.
But I did almost step in evidence from this Sunday’s puppy parade, so there’s always that.
Knowing what we know now, I’ll be interested to watch the next chapter of this storied block of land between France, Royal, Mazant, and Chartres unfold.
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