11 Top Carnival Landmarks

Carnival in New Orleans is so established and so broad in its activity that just about every place provides a landmark of sorts. However, there are some sites that were especially important to the evolution of the season. If you’re looking for history and want to do a little exploring, here are, in random order, some of the top sites in the celebration’s evolution:

•127 Royal Street. (Former site of the Gem Café.)  

As invitations go, it was brief and to the point. But what an impact it would have. In early January 1857, a small group of New Orleans men received the following message:

“You are requested to meet a few of your friends at the Club Room over the Gem, on Royal Street, on Saturday, 10th, at 7 o’clock.”

From that meeting, and a subsequent gathering held on February 8, came an organization that would forever affect the city’s reputation, character, traditions and economy – all for the better. The new group would be called “The Mistick Krewe of Comus.”

Carnival, as it would become known, was created in the room above the Gem Cafe. Prior to Comus, Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans, but in no way that lasted. There were miscellaneous makeshift parades, lots of disorganized street rabble and a few decent soirees and balls. Comus gave the season a lasting presence. It created the New Orleans style of parade and established many traditions. From then on, wherever the season was celebrated in North America, it was most often an imitation of New Orleans. In terms of the length of celebration and the multitude of events, the local Carnival would become the largest in the world.

By any standards, the Gem should be a revered historic landmark, but it is not. The building still exists, housing on the first floor, a convenience store. The Carnival establishment should have embraced the building decades ago, but it never happened.  There is a now a plaque their commemorating the significance of the spot to the modern Carnival. Maybe one day the spot will get the full recognition it deserves.

 • Prytania and Jackson Avenue – riverside corner. (Site of former Pope’s Pharmacy.) 

If the Gem was the birthplace of the modern Carnival, Pope’s Pharmacy was where it was conceived. It was there, in late 1856, that six men met, discussed the idea and decided to have the meeting at the Gem. The proprietor, Dr. J.H. Pope would be the one to suggest the name,” The Mistick Krewe of Comus.” The building still stands and has most recently housed an architecture firm. Just as in 1856 people are still making designs within those walls.

• 200 block of St. Charles (Site of former St. Charles Hotel; now the site of Place St. Charles office tower.) 

The hotel was where the meetings were held from which Rex evolved. In 19th century New Orleans, it was the hub of activity and the place where many important visitors stayed. Only three blocks away from where Comus was born, Rex came to life here.

• Headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club – 732 N. Broad St. 

Having celebrated its centennial in 2009, Zulu is one of Carnival’s senior organizations. The group, which was founded to allow more Black participation in Carnival, is known for the African motif on its floats and for its tradition of handing out decorated coconuts. It parades on Mardi Gras morning.

• Corner of Magazine and Julia Streets. 

There is an historic marker here explaining that at 9 p.m. of Mardi Gras evening 1857 the first Comus parade began at this spot. Music and lights stirred the stillness in what is now commonly referred to as the Warehouse District. Carnival got its glow that night.

• Pickwick Club – 115 St. Charles Ave. 

First there was the parade, then there was the men’s club around which it would center. When Comus paraded, the club’s balcony was the reviewing stand for the Queen and her court who would be toasted there by Comus. Arrival at the Pickwick Club also meant that the Comus parade was about to make its turn onto Canal Street en route to the auditorium bringing Carnival to a close.

• Boston Club – 824 Canal St. 

Though there is no formal relationship between this club as the Rex organization, for many years it was the epicenter of Rex activity. The building, which until 1992 was also the place where the Queen of Carnival and her court would review the parade, is one of the most elegant along Canal Street.

• Gallier Hall – 546 St. Charles Ave. 

More than a former City Hall, the building has been Carnival’s ceremonial capitol. In 1872, it was where the visiting grand Duke Alexis watched the first Rex parade. Whether a parade’s main route is Canal Street or St. Charles, all make the turn to stop at Gallier Hall to be toasted by the mayor or a council member. In the early 1960’s once the current City Hall was completed, parades changed their routes to stop there instead. After a couple of years, however, they missed the old place. Gallier Hall has been a part of parade path ever since.

• Municipal Auditorium – Orleans Avenue at N. Rampart Street. 

There have been many places where Carnival balls have been held, but the auditorium was the only building ever designed with the balls in mind. Its spaciousness allowed for grand marches, its back rooms provided a huge dressing space and party areas for the guys in the krewe. When the building was used as a temporary casino, the krewes had to go elsewhere. They returned after a couple of years absence, but since the Hurricane Katrina flooding in 2005 the building has been closed, its future uncertain. Once again, the Carnival balls are held elsewhere, but no other place was ever as right.

• Morris-Dowman House – St. Charles at 3rd Street. 

This mansion (sometimes referred to as the Koch Home) was once the residence of Robert Downman who was Rex in 1907. Since the building was along the route, he requested the parade make a stop at the home, which would become informally known as the “Rex Mansion.” Until the grand home was destroyed by a fire in 2019, the Rex parade stopped there for a toast every year, even having to make a turn across the neutral ground and then back again to the river side of the street. The family that lived there was among the most socially connected in all of Carnival. Queens flags for both Rex and Comus fly in front. A new home is now rising there.

• Brennan’s Restaurant – 417 Royal St. 

It was here that the meetings were held in 1968 leading to the formation of the Bacchus organization. As the first of the “super krewes,” Bacchus added a new dimension to Carnival, expanded the activity and making the weekend before Mardi Gras as big as the day itself in terms of crowd size. Somewhere between the entree and the Bananas Foster, Carnival took a huge leap into the future.

         May that future create many more landmarks.

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Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at errol@myneworleans.com. Note: All responses are subject to being published, as edited, in this article. Please include your name and location.

SOMETHING NEW: Listen to “Louisiana Insider,” a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state. LouisianaLife.com/LouisianaInsider, Apple Podcasts or Audible/Amazon Music.

BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.

WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.

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