Seen in this 1905 photograph is the city’s famed Napoleon House, a historic French Quarter landmark and bar located at 500 Chartres St. In the early 20th century, however, the Napoleon House was anything but a popular local watering hole. It was a neighborhood grocery.
According to New Orleans city directories, Joseph Labourdette operated this grocery store on the ground floor from about 1904 to about 1908, after which he moved to N. Alexander St. Later in 1914 Joseph Impastato rented the building where he continued the grocery business while his family resided upstairs. Six years later, he purchased the building and, despite Prohibition, opened a small bar next door, but that was New Orleans. After World War II, Joe gave the business to his brother Peter. After Peter died in 1971, his son Sal took over the business. In 2015 Ralph Brennan purchased the bar and building.
The Napoleon House is one of the city’s oldest examples of late 18th and early 19th century French architecture. Constructed in 1794 and expanded in 1814 as a private residence for New Orleans mayor Nicolas Girod, the three-story, stucco building with its well-known rooftop cupola takes its name from a local legend that claims the house was offered as a sanctuary for Napoleon Bonaparte then living in exile after the Battle of Waterloo. As the story goes, Napoleon’s local admirers abandoned the plan when they learned Napoleon had died in 1821 on the Island of St. Helena.
The name Napoleon House stuck, however, and for much of the 20th century, the Napoleon House bar, with its soft classical music playing in the background and dimly lighted rooms with the warm patina that only age, and the city’s sultry air, can bestow, was a favorite haunt for French Quarter writers, poets and artists who lived “la vie Bohème.”