Craigslist online and the want ads – that’s where young women look for housing when they make the big decision to live on their own and work in New Orleans.
It wasn’t always this way.
For the New Orleans working woman, up until the 1970s, there was another possibility: renting a room in a boarding house specifically for women. Whatever the configuration, single room or shared, this type of housing offered an inexpensive and safe home.
New Orleans doesn’t seem to have had anything as classy as the Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York (Grace Kelly was one of its better-known residents; Sylvia Plath, another). But, in the last part of the 19th century, it was obvious that young women were working at jobs, and they needed safe housing. Naturally, women’s organizations came to their rescue, and some of those same organizations are still functioning today.
The Christian Woman’s Exchange was founded in 1881. The Picayune described it as “an efficient organization of ladies, ready and willing to do whatever their hearts and hands may find to do for the encouragement, improvement and reclamation of their own sex.” Ultimately, other such groups were founded across the country.
Its Protestant members had as their purpose the founding of a shop where women, who desperately needed to support themselves and their children, could sell homemade products or family heirlooms.
In 1887, the Exchange acquired a house on the corner of Camp and South streets. There they opened and operated such a shop, plus a library, a boarding house for women and a lunchroom. In 1924, they purchased the Hermann-Grima mansion at 820 Conti St. Here, they continued their programs. Boarders occupied the top floors of the main house, and the service quarters in the rear.
The name of the organization became the Woman’s Exchange around the 1980s, according to Mamie Gasperecz, Executive Director of the Hermann-Grima/Gallier Historic Houses. Restoration of the building began in 1965, and by the ’70s the last of the boarders moved out and the historic home became a museum.
“A friend remarked that her grandmother lived here, in room No. 13,” Gasperecz says. “On the third floor you can still see the wallpaper and the numbers on the doors. They are quite nice rooms, but now they’re full of storage.”
The boarders had a kitchen on the second floor (“It’s still there.”) and there were communal baths. While there are still some card files on the boarders on Conti Street, the organization’s papers are at Tulane University. The last receipt in those rental ledgers was to Nanette Chalkley for $58, for a month’s room rental until Nov. 22, 1967.
The gift shop at the Hermann-Grima House doesn’t presently stock consignment items (it may in the future), but it does sell Junior League of New Orleans cookbooks and the publications of the Friends of the Cabildo. “We are helping others, but in a different way,” notes Gasperecz.
The Young Women’s Christian Association began in New Orleans in 1911, with the aim of providing young women with physical activities, cultural enrichment and a safe non-alcoholic community in which to enjoy themselves and, perhaps, live for a time. They first rented a building at 920 Common St. (with the rear of the property available for gym activities); the owners of the building were two women, Eliza and Ellen Hartwell. Next, the YWCA had a building at 1729 Coliseum St., which was sold in 1927. In the final inventory of that property, 64 beds were listed, so there was room for 64 females to live.
In 1918, architects Favrot and Livaudais designed a three-story building for the YWCA at 929 Gravier St., and the organization occupied it in ‘22. There was plenty of space for physical activities and meetings, and renters were welcomed. During World War I, the YWCA operated a room registry service, offering young women rooms in its own buildings and referring them to safe housing elsewhere in the city. Especially in the Depression years, safe inexpensive housing for young women was desperately needed.
The YWCA was a home, and while certain standards of conduct were required, in practice the personnel on site tried to be understanding, kind and cognizant of the temptations a city had to offer. Ms. Oolooah Burner, the YWCA’s New York-based secretary of the National Services division, wrote to the New Orleans group in 1934, that “the fact that a girl has come in intoxicated once or twice at six o’clock in the morning does not necessarily mean that she is a problem girl. It may be that all she needs is a little help from some wise older person.”
In World War II, the YWCA made a special effort to house and provide services for female workers aiding the war effort, who worked for low wages and came from small towns. The facility had 51 beds. The YWCA did have rules for the tenants: they could stay out only three nights a week later than 11 p.m.; they were not to hang clothes on radiators or ceiling fans, lights went out at 10 p.m., and use of an iron was 10 cents.
By the end of the 1950s, the YWCA residence also had a “date room” where young women could entertain until midnight – a rooftop kitchen also let them make their own meals. Room rent varied from $25 to $32 a month; there were still no private baths.
In 1962, the building was renovated – at that time there was housing for 40 permanent residents (described as aged 17 to 30, most from small towns or from Latin America) and 50 transients, “travelers from all over the world.”
By 1967, the 929 Gravier St. building was sold, although the YWCA continued at other facilities on St. Bernard Avenue and on Tulane Avenue at Jefferson Davis Parkway. The organization is in the process of re-organizing after Hurricane Katrina.
The third women’s organization providing housing was the Catherine Club, with the motto, “I serve,” and a mission statement: “The city’s big sister to the worthy girl.” It was organized in 1914 and incorporated in ’17. At its location on Coliseum Square at 1456 Camp St., the Catherine Club had boarders with a program of social entertainment for residents, offered meals, tried to help young women secure scholarships or get training and helped them find jobs.
The Catherine Club was listed in the New Orleans City Directory until the 1970s when its benefactors stopped supporting it. In the ’90s, with the help of the Preservation Resource Center it was sold, has been restored and is today the home of John Enochs.
Camille Strachan, a Coliseum Square resident, can recall seeing the Catherine Club boarders, and receiving a letter from one of them “about how they had organized events with other boarding houses and how they had breakfast and dinner together at the big table and the housemother saw to their grooming and their manners and helped them with their accounts.”
“It was a really good program,” Strachan says.
And there’s nothing quite like it today on Craigslist.