This is traditionally the week when holdouts hurriedly make plans to attend Oktoberfest at Deutsches Haus, spurred by the realization that the annual celebration will come to a close this weekend. There’s always a lot going on around town in autumn, and because Oktoberfest continues over five weekends, it’s easy for procrastinators or the habitually overbooked who enjoy this party to simply push their own Deutsches Haus visit back a week or so.

This year, however, the last Oktoberfest weekend carries a much heavier air of finality. It is indeed anticipated as the last Oktoberfest the German heritage organization will hold at its historic Mid-City clubhouse. The site is within the footprint planned for the state’s new hospital, and that means the building is slated for demolition. Many predicted Deutsches Haus would meet the wrecking ball sometime earlier this year and prepared Oktoberfest 2009 as the last hurrah at the old spot. Delays in the hospital’s site prep schedule gave the club a reprieve, but now Deutsches Haus leaders say they have a firm move-out date in hand for early November. So the winding down of this year’s Oktoberfest represents the final countdown for a long-running tradition, at least as it has been known by generations of New Orleans people.

The mood around the club during earlier Oktoberfest weekends could be described as preemptive nostalgia. It’s not morose or sulky but more like a sharpened appreciation for what’s here and what will soon be gone, all while the family-friendly party continues with its traditional Bavarian food, libations and playful dancing in the rejuvenating autumn weather.   

It is hard to believe that such a solid and vibrant part of the city’s cultural fabric will soon be uprooted. After all, Deutsches Haus traces a long and deep history in New Orleans, dating back to 1848 when its predecessor group, Deutsche Gesellschaft von New Orleans (or German Society of New Orleans), was formed to help German immigrants then pouring into the city. At that time Germans made up the largest group of foreign-speaking people in the state, according to local researcher Ellen C. Merrill’s 2004 book, Germans of Louisiana. They were so prevalent in the city that part of the Ninth Ward was known as Little Saxony. The West Bank railroad town called Mechanikham, later absorbed into Gretna, was another hub, as was the part of Mid-City where Deutsches Haus is found today.

Strong German identity became a liability when America entered World War I, however, and expressions of German culture around New Orleans were submerged. In 1918, the Louisiana Legislature even passed a law making it illegal to speak German in public or teach German in schools. But in 1928, 10 years after the armistice, Deutsche Gesellschaft and several other German groups merged to form Deutsches Haus and help reaffirm the threatened heritage.

More recently, the bonds formed in the effort to rebuild Deutsches Haus after the levee failures and the successful Oktoberfests that followed helped swell club membership to more than twice the pre-Katrina rolls. These members come from all over the metro area, representing a diverse range of ages, professions and even ethnicities. Many can trace full German family heritage while others are drawn simply for the culture of the club, its events and its camaraderie –– or what Germans call gemütlichkeit. Those close ties will be key as the club tries to relocate.

Deutsches Haus leaders are determined to reestablish the club at a new address, and they say they want to remain in Mid-City in keeping with club tradition. They have leased an American Legion hall in Metairie to use for meetings and events through the coming year, and they plan to hold Oktoberfest 2011 at a different off-site venue (yet to be determined) while they try to build a new permanent Deutsches Haus in the city proper. They plan to haul away as much as possible from the historic clubhouse before it meets the wrecking ball, from the bar itself to actual architectural elements, and then work these pieces of the past into their new home.

New Orleans knows all too well what it’s like to lose beloved cultural institutions and favorite social spots. The levee failures took away many overnight. In the case of Deutsches Haus, however, at least people have advance notice. This weekend is your chance to gather memories and create a few stories to share when the club’s 2011 Oktoberfest convenes somewhere else.

Deutsches Haus
200 S. Galvez St., New Orleans 504-522-8014
Gates open at 4 p.m. on Friday and at 1 p.m. on Saturday. The celebration ends for the year at midnight on Oct. 23.