Exploring Louisiana at “The Collection”

In the heart of New Orleans’ cluster of architectural gems and captivating museums called the French Quarter is a sub-cluster of architectural gems and captivating museums called the Historic New Orleans Collection. Many Louisianians have heard tales of the treasures of the “HNOC,” but many (even New Orleanians) have never experienced the place, and there are a couple of misconceptions to blame: Some believe the collection is an archive accessible only for scholarly research, and others think that an attraction of such size and complexity cannot be wedged into a weekender’s standard schedule of courtyard brunches, carriage tours, music clubs, steamboat rides, antique shopping and Pat O’s beverages.

The fact is, though, that even the archival holdings –– centered at a Chartres Street building called the Williams Research Center –– are a Tut’s tomb of marvels that are quite accessible to any ambler with a half-day or even a half-hour to spare, and the rest of this awesome complex is available piecemeal on a menu of separate galleries and tours meant to be savored individually, like the soups and entrées of nearby Galatoire’s. The appetizer is the free-admission Williams Gallery at 533 Royal St., with its major changing exhibits, located with the museum shop and tour-ticket office in an 18th-century landmark known as the Merieult House.

Lewis Kemper Williams of the Bayou Teche town of Patterson mingled several careers in his incredibly interesting lifetime, beginning, after graduation from the University of the South, with duties at his family’s F.B. Williams Cypress Co. (as an odd-jobber and eventual president of the world’s largest cypress milling operation) and with military duties that spanned both world wars and ultimately earned him the rank of brigadier general.

After his service in World War I, young Williams married Leila Hardie, daughter of a prominent New Orleans cotton broker, and spent the 1920s operating the family cypress business with his brother Harry (who in 1929 would team with aircraft designer/racer Jimmie Wedell to found the famed Wedell-Williams Air Service). In 1938 Williams and his wife, both of them enchanted if not obsessed with the histories of New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf South, purchased an early-20th-century residence on Toulouse Street as their future New Orleans home and, to house their burgeoning collections of historic materials, acquired the Merieult House, which faced Royal Street but connected via courtyards and other structures to their around-the-corner residence, which they restored and occupied in 1946.

After World War II Gen. Williams became president and later director and chairman of the board of Williams Inc. (land, mineral royalties and investments), while he and Leila redoubled their collecting efforts and gloried in the bohemian era of the French Quarter. The residence and furnishings remained intact even when the couple moved to the Garden District in 1963, devoting their French Quarter properties entirely to their historic arts and papers. To ensure proper care and public access, the HNOC was formally established in 1966, the year of Leila’s death, and opened to the public in 1970, one year before the general’s death.

The first director of HNOC was artist/historian Boyd Cruise, whose distinctive paintings of French Quarter buildings can be found in many public places and on the dust jackets of vintage Louisiana books, and the current director is art historian Priscilla Lawrence, who has steered the growth of the collection and the restoration of its newly acquired buildings since 1998.

In four short decades the collection has grown into a major complex and satellite complex of historic structures –– whose architectural styles represent three centuries of New Orleans trends and tastes –– housing multiple galleries filled with a vast array of collections, not to mention the ever-growing archive/library of invaluable books, maps and documents.

MAIN COMPLEX
The old granite-clad Merieult House, the first home and still the focal point of the HNOC, was built circa 1792 by Jean François Merieult and consisted of an upper-floor residence and six stores, plus a carriage house and stable, at street level. The square had first been the site of the colony’s forges and workmen’s barracks.

The left wing of the Merieult House connects rearward to a 1795 warehouse, which was enlarged (second floor and galleries) and Greek Revivalized in the 1830s to become the banking house for an importing and international banking concern called Lizardi Brothers. For that reason, it is known now as the Counting House, and though it provides meeting rooms and a handsome Greek Revival reception hall (its lavish floor salvaged from the old St. Charles Hotel), visitors will remember this building primarily for its double-duty as a grand portrait gallery of early Louisianians, some prominent and some unknown.

Behind the right wing of the Merieult House, opposite the Merieult courtyard from the Counting House, another 1790s dependency forms the ground floor of HNOC’s three-story office building called the Maisonette, which borders Toulouse Street. After the Merieult era it was enlarged to create a service wing, thus creating its upper galleries that now overlook the courtyard.

The courtyard ends at the side entrance to the post-bellum Italianate home that Gen. and Mrs. Williams occupied in 1946, facing Toulouse from beyond a small courtyard and brick wall. It had been built in 1889 to serve as the residence of Jean Baptiste Trapolin –– then-owner of the Merieult House, which he was operating as the Royal House hotel –– and its sole purpose today is to preserve the World War II-era home, décor and lifestyle of the general and his lady. A walk through those rooms is a walk through the 1940s, complete with a perfectly preserved kitchen, a formal table setting, furnishings collected from around the world and such personal treasures as the Times-Picayune Loving Cup presented to the general for his pro bono work with the New Orleans Housing Authority. Leila’s personal areas still bear the muted Carnival shades of purple, green and gold (she was a former queen of the ancient Krewe of Comus) and such touches as the silk wall coverings of her powder room.

Three other properties along Toulouse eventually were acquired by HNOC, including 714 (the nearest riverside neighbor of the Williams residence), a deliciously simple brick bank built sometime prior to 1888 and later converted to a residence. Now called simply The Townhouse, with its cast-iron balustrade and four iron posts supporting a second-floor gallery, it provides space for HNOC offices and its photography department.

The other next-door neighbor of the Williams residence, 722 Toulouse, is a two-story masonry house built in 1788 by Louis Adams that today serves as the offices of HNOC’s publication/marketing department. The tile-roofed, wood-galleried beauty, enlarged in 1805 while owned by the architect Joseph Guillot, served as a boardinghouse for a time in the 1930s. One small upper-floor space, in fact, became the first New Orleans apartment of Tennessee Williams. The house was returned to its original Spanish appearance in the 1970s by the legendary architectural-restoration firm of Koch and Wilson.

An 1830 central-chimneyed single-story double –– its little façade a composite of two windows, two cast-iron ventilation covers, two entrance doors (with requisite stoops) and a narrow alley doorway –– anchors the HNOC’s Toulouse Street boundary at 726-728. The old briquette-entre-poteau residence (bricks between vertical and diagonal wall posts), now a workshop for the exhibition-preparation staff, boasts an equal-width brick garçonnière and a small courtyard at the rear.

The HNOC has set aside ample public-access areas –– corridors, courtyards, exhibit rooms and walking-tour routes –– to assure opportunities for viewing every aspect of the construction methods and historic decorative trends preserved therein.

TOURS AND GALLERIES
After seeing the special exhibit of the season in the Williams Gallery –– until Feb. 20 an exhibit of the earliest-known paper photographs of New Orleans (taken by Jay Dearborn Edwards on the eve of the Civil War) –– browse your way through the Collection Shop (locally inspired books, music, stationery, prints, ties, scarves and jewelry) to the admission office. This is the starting point of three separate tours of the complex, all departing four times daily, Tuesday through Saturday, at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.

The 45-minute Williams Residence Tour is an intimate visit to the courtyard and home that were lovingly restored by the Williamses in the 1940s, furnished and decorated today just as it was when they were Quarter-dwellers in the World War II era, deeply involved in the civic and social affairs of the city and busily amassing the bulk of their personal Louisiana materials collection that would become the Historic New Orleans Collection.

By far the best 45-minute tour for up-close inspections of traditional Louisiana house types, the Architecture Tour introduces the styles, construction methods and décor of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, all within the nearly square-block domain of the main HNOC complex. The circuit leads through four courtyards and seven major structures as the guide points out significant architectural aspects and shares biographical tidbits about the early occupants.

The third option is the Louisiana History Galleries, an hour-long guided walk through the upstairs rooms of the Merieult House, where 11 galleries represent the various eras of Louisiana history, from the days of the exploration to a lively and nostalgic look at the 20th century. From early marvels (such as a 1743 edition of the Code Noir and the actual transfer documents concluding the Louisiana Purchase transaction) to lighthearted curiosities like the shaving mug of Steamboat Natchez captain “Old Push” Leathers, from early New Orleans silver and porcelain creations to famous Newcomb Pottery, each photograph, print, painting, map and artifact in the galleries contributes to this well-told story of Louisiana’s place in the nation and world.

RESEARCH CENTER

The nearby Williams Research Center, recently ensconced in a sturdy old criminal court/police station at 410 Chartres, is where scholarly researchers and the public can actually lay hands on the collection’s precious archival materials by simply requesting that a book or document of interest be brought to one of the reading tables by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff members.

Holdings of special interest to many include the 42,500-item William Russell Jazz Collection, the largest private collection anywhere of Tennessee Williams materials and a vast Louisiana sheet music collection.

Like the Williams Gallery in the Merieult House, the Research Center’s main exhibit room and lobby/hallway exhibit space on the first floor should never be passed without a look-see. In the lobby through April can be found an assortment of items and images relating to Louisiana’s favorite epic poem, Longfellow’s Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie, which is appropriate because the topic of the 14th annual Williams Research Center Symposium  will be “The Acadian Diaspora.”

For an in-depth look at modern-era Acadian life, the building’s main exhibit room will feature, through April, selections from photographs by Charles Traub and Douglas Bas taken in and around Breaux Bridge during six months of 1974.

Just around the corner on Conti Street but entered through the main Research Center building, the brand-new Research Center Addition is a replica of a four-story brick hotel that stood on the spot in the 1850s, re-created by architect Davis Jancke from a Notorial Archive drawing. The Boyd Cruise Room on the first floor will be used for special programs and for additional exhibit space, while the three upper floors are devoted strictly to archival storage.

The HNOC, then, is indeed an archive –– an incredible archive that has become an integral part of Louisiana’s research resources traditionally provided by state and university holdings –– but it is also one of the great historic-home tours in a city of great home tours, a grand art gallery in a city of fine art collections, a major publisher of worthy titles on Louisiana topics (such as its hefty compilation of Dearborn photographs from the current Williams Gallery exhibit) and of course a multi-gallery historic museum that many have called a native’s or a visitor’s best possible overview of the Louisiana story.

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