WITH POYDRAS THE PARROT A MONTHLY PURSUIT OF ANSWERS TO ETERNAL QUESTIONS
The original Hotel Dieu building, designed by Irish-born architect and builder Thomas Mulligan.
IMAGE COURTESY THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION
Dear Julia and Poydras,
I was born in Hotel Dieu and remember driving past it as a child. Is the hospital building still standing? If so, what is it now? If not, when was it torn down and what was built on the property? Also, in what area of town was the hospital?
And I recall a restaurant where my family ate. I think it was located on First [Street] or in the Irish Channel. With a name like Erwin’s, I think. It was in an old house and served, I believe, a German-inspired menu. As you can tell, this all is a really foggy memory, but a recurring one that I would like to clarify. Surely Poydras has a better memory than I!
Margaret Maier Kadlecek
Margaret, all of Poydras’ memories are foggy. In fact, his whole life is lived in a fog, even when there isn’t any.
The original Hotel Dieu hospital, successor to Dr. Stone’s Infirmary, was erected on Common Street (now Tulane Avenue) near Johnson Street in 1858. There was a subdivision named Gravier at the rear of the Second Municipality but there never was a Faubourg Tulane or an area historically known as Tulane-Gravier, a term coined in a 1970s city neighborhood survey. Hotel Dieu stood on Gravier land near the edge of the City Commons and the now-forgotten Faubourg Hagan.
The original Hotel Dieu building was designed by Irish-born architect and builder Thomas Mulligan, the same man credited with building the Albert Dietel-designed St. John the Baptist Church, the St. Vincent orphanage on Magazine Street and the St. Elizabeth home, author Anne Rice’s former Napoleon Avenue residence. Hotel Dieu was elevated and enlarged in the 1880s while new facilities were added in the 1920s.
Torn down and replaced in the early ’70s, the institution moved further back toward Perdido Street. In ’93, the Sisters of Charity transferred ownership to the State of Louisiana; the building is now known as University Hospital. The interim hospital that was once Hotel Dieu remains surrounded by acres of vacant land and paved surface parking; little has changed since the area was cleared for medical development more than 30 years ago.
The restaurant you’re trying to recall appears to be Irwin’s Restaurant and Bar. Owned and operated by William P. Irwin, it seems to have been in operation under the owner’s leadership from the 1940s to the early ’60s. John W. Hooper then took the helm but by ’69, Mrs. Beatrice Marques was operating the Porterhouse Room Restaurant at that location. Irwin’s Restaurant and Bar was located at 2505 Carondelet St., at the corner of Second Street. Prior to moving to Carondelet Street, Irwin operated a restaurant at 1601 St. Charles Ave. at the corner of Terpsichore Street. After Irwin vacated the property in the mid-’40s, Brian J. Young opened the Wheel Restaurant at that location.
My grandmother lived on Shell Road (Pontchartrain Boulevard) until she married in 1923. She recalled learning to swim in the New Basin Canal. Her brothers and cousins would steal watermelons from boats bound for market. A “bad girl” would raise her skirt above the knee, and the boatmen would toss a watermelon onto the bank, where the kids would scramble for the broken chunks. She also remembered walking across the “Black Bridge” to get to school at St. Anthony on Canal and Crossman on Carrollton.
Where was the Black Bridge located, and was it used by trains or vehicles?
Thank you, and best regards to Poydras,
Erected in the mid-19th century, the Black Bridge was a railroad bridge. The Pontchartrain Expressway and West End Boulevard follow the right-of-way of the New Basin Canal, the construction of which cost thousands of immigrant lives, a fact commemorated in a memorial and Celtic Cross on West End Boulevard. The Black Bridge was located roughly where the present railroad overpass crosses the interstate near Metairie Cemetery.
In the June issue of New Orleans Magazine, Maureen Pfister asks Julia Street about the Napoleon Theater that she says was located at 1012 Napoleon Ave. The answer stated that the theater was on the corner of Camp and Napoleon. We live at 1014 Napoleon, one of five condominiums (1010, 1012, 1014, 1016, and 1018) built by architect George Hopkins in the late 1970s. Mr. Hopkins originally lived in one of the units. Our complex isn’t on the corner, but one lot lakeside from the corner with a VOA facility next door at Camp Street.
My memory – I’m 68 – of the Napoleon Theater is that it was in our location.
Tommy and Sande Zander,
Yes, you are correct about the exact location of the old Napoleon Theatre. I am not, however, entirely wrong. The establishment’s earliest newspaper advertisements consistently reported its location as “Napoleon Avenue and Camp Street.” One often finds, when searching older city directories, that business and residential locations were not always reported as specific numeric addresses. It isn’t unusual to find a house or company reported as being near at or near an intersection, even if it wasn’t located exactly on the point where two streets intersect.
I understand that the famous U.S. Senator and Confederate Statesman Judah P. Benjamin owned a house at the corner of St. Charles Avenue (the Naiades Street) and Nashville Avenue until about 1865. Which corner would that be and is the house still there?
Gertie M. Beauford
The Judah P. Benjamin House was originally located in the block on the downtown lake side of St. Charles and Nashville avenues. According to the book New Orleans Architecture, Vol. VIII: The University Section, Judah P. Benjamin and his brother purchased the property in the early 1850s but it was actually their sisters, the widowed Rebecca Benjamin Levy and the unmarried Harriet Benjamin, who resided in the home until the Federal occupation of New Orleans. The home then passed through a succession of owners until John M. Bonner purchased it in the late 1880s. Bonner subdivided the property and, in the 1891, sold the Benjamin House, its contents, and a lot on Arabella Street, to Carrie Newsom (Mrs. Alphonse O. Pessou). The house was then moved and, although modified, still stands at 1630 Arabella St.
During a Vampire Tour with my daughter, I heard of the Coffin Girls for the first time. This week, my cousin referred to one of her ancestors as a Coffin Girl and told the same vampire story. Who organized the recruitment of these girls, in what region of France did they live and when did this did this occur?
I enjoy good stories, including those of the ghostly variety, but when it comes to history, there never were any coffin-dwelling vampire girls inhabiting the Colonial Gulf Coast or running around the Ursuline Convent. The confusion is with something that was totally real, the so-called “casket girls.”
The filles à la cassette, French women who arrived in Colonial Louisiana in 1727 and who were entrusted to the care of the Ursuline nuns, weren’t undead, didn’t sleep in coffins and didn’t consort with vampires. Instead, it appears that over the course of nearly three centuries, a few details have gotten lost in translation.
The girls arrived bearing small trunks, which the French called “cassettes.” These little boxes contained clothing and things necessary for beginning married life. Although the French word cassette can be translated into English as “coffin,” it also means “cash box” and it’s in the sense of a cash box or dowry chest that it applies to the young women who were brought here to marry early colonists.