December 1 & 5, 2018
New Orleans is OLD. It is also an incredible melting pot that took all different cultures and blended them up into something new while retaining enough of each of the old ones to maintain an identity. The land and the city changed hands over and over but the city itself has been around for 300 years. That, dear readers, means history… lots and lots of history. So we had to hit a few of their museums.
This is not a museum. It is a large open plaza that has been there since the city was born. It was originally a dirt square with cannon and armament storage buildings. All that changed and it is a beautifully landscaped square with paths, fountains, benches and a big statue of Andrew Jackson in the center for whom the square was renamed. Why? Because he saved the city from the British in the war of 1812. The citizens of New Orleans joined the fight: the Indians, the Creoles, the slaves and even… the pirates. How cool is that?
The Cathedral in our top picture is centered on the top of the square and is flanked by two large buildings that are now Louisiana State Museums: The Cabildo and The Presbytery. The two sides of the square are lined with matching commercial/townhouse buildings with ornate ironwork. These beautiful buildings are the Pontalba Buildings (Named after the Baroness de Pontalba who built them in honor of her father who had planned them years before). There are commercial stores and restaurants on the ground floor and residential units above them. The lower end of the square has a raised concrete plaza that hides the railroad tracks and acts as part of the levee system.
The Cabildo was built as the new capitol house in 1799. Its claim to fame is that this is where France transferred Louisiana to the United States completing the Louisiana Purchase and dramatically expanding US territory.
Today, the Cabildo houses the Louisiana State Museum, which opened in 1912. One cool exhibit to someone like me was an electronic map that showed the growth of New Orleans and the surrounding area from the late 1700s to today. The walls of the exhibit room were filled with maps going back to the early 1700s.
Another exhibit room, dedicated to the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, contained paintings, maps, and artifacts related to the battle and those who fought in it.
Another exhibit showcased the tumultuous, soap opera life of Macaela Almonester (1795-1874). Born in New Orleans, Macaela was 16 when she married her second cousin, Celestin de Pontalba, becoming the Baroness de Pontalba. She and her husband then moved into the Pontalba estate outside Paris. In 1834 her father-in-law attempted to kill her over an inadequate dowry. She survived, moved back to New Orleans, and constructed the Pontalba Buildings, before returning to Paris where she lived out the rest of her life.
In honor of New Orleans tri-centennial, a special exhibit titled “Why do you love New Orleans?” was created. This exhibit uses artifacts and displays to celebrate the city’s architecture, music, nightlife, food, Mardi Gras, and the French Quarter. In my opinion, the answer to the question is, “All of the above.”
This museum recreates a mid-1800s upper class home in one of the Pontalba Buildings that flank Jackson Square. The home’s furnishings and décor reflects the style and tastes of prosperous families during that time period.
You enter through the commercial space on the ground floor which is now the museum’s ticket desk and gift shop. Once you’ve paid or shown your ticket, you step into a hidden courtyard. EVERY unit in the Pontalba Buildings had their own courtyard as part of the residence. The residential entry is through an enclosed walkway between the commercial spaces. The original floorplans are on display in the Cabildo Museum.
The parlor was the rec room of that day where guests were entertained and family and friends enjoyed music, playing cards, and doing needle work.
I love the child’s walker next to the bed in the nursery which isn’t much different than the brightly colored plastic walkers of today. Can you picture a baby bouncing up and down while zooming around the house and getting underfoot?
New Orleans Mint and Jazz Museum
As the name implies, there are two parts to this museum – one floor for the mint and the other floors for Jazz. I’m sure the mint side doesn’t get the attention the Jazz side does.
As an enginerd (retired), I enjoy looking at technology through the ages. The mint had bullion scales, stamp machines, a mechanical calculator (I wanted to play with it), and automatic weighing machine.
While not a true music lover, I do like to listen to music although mostly Classic Rock (old people music). Still, Jazz has an interesting history and is closely linked to New Orleans.
Drums, clarinets, trumpets, saxophones, and pianos are the main instruments of Jazz and the museum highlights many of them.
One exhibit called Drumsville traced the development of drum sets and the “language” of the drums. (I have enough trouble with English.) They were a band’s timekeeper, set up and supported soloists, and often “stepped out” for their own solos.
Another exhibit highlighted the career of Pete Fountain, Pete the Prodigy, a Jazz clarinetist. His career spanned more than 40 years – from the 1950s (Lawrence Welk Orchestra) to the 1990s. He had a carnival group called the Half Fast Walking Club. On Mardi Gras Day his club, wearing themed costumes, would start at 7:00am. He pointed out that his group was a walking club. He said, “We can’t march. If we marched, we’d die. We’d last about four blocks.” This was a man I would have enjoyed talking to.
During Hurricane Katrina, Fats Domino’s baby grand piano was ruined. The piano was completely disassembled and all the mold, mildew, and rust were removed. The piano was rebuilt and re-lacquered. A new exhibit will be built around the restored piano.
Louis Armstrong’s first cornet is also on display. xxx
A very in depth exhibit traced the life and career of Henry Roeland Byrd who came to be known as Professor Longhair. I will admit I had never heard of this man, but found his life intriguing. And sad.
His career was on the rise In the 1940s and 1950s. Despite his talent he had a string of bad record company deals. But by the mid-1960s his career seemed to come to an end. The gradually disappeared from the music scene and resumed gambling and running card games.
Then a young artist, Hudson Marquez, who was fascinated by Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras New Orleans”, started looking for him. It took a year, but he eventually found him. His career revival started at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1971. He wowed the crowd and continued to headline the festival until his death. Still, relaunching his career had its ups and downs. Bookings were scarce. His house burned down. Some recordings weren’t released until after his death. Many of his gigs didn’t pay much. In 1979, one club paid him and his Blues Scholars band $50 in cash for three hours work.
Things were going his way as 1980 dawned. He got a recording contract where he controlled his recording session. He was proud of the result. He was featured in a documentary film. A concert for the film was scheduled for February 3, 1980. But Professor Longhair died in his sleep on January 30, 1980. His death certificate listed the cause of death as chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema, and cirrhosis of the liver.