CHRONICLES: A SPOT ON THE BAYOU
“It’s like living in the country in the middle of the city,” muses attorney Charles McHale as he considers his family home on Park Island, located just across Bayou St. John from City Park and approached from St. Bernard Avenue.
“My wife is from Tennessee; I met her at Tulane. When we were dating we used to go sit by Lake Pontchartrain, and she always said she would like a house on the water.” The McHales had an older home Uptown and a costly modernization ahead when they decided to move near the lake and build. “We bought the lot in 1973 and we were the last people to build a house here,” he adds. The McHales still live on Park Island, in a home overlooking Bayou St. John.
The connection of Bayou St. John with Lake Pontchartrain was a decisive factor when the French chose to settle here – the bayou, with a short portage walk, connected the lake to the Mississippi River. Navigation on the bayou was complicated by a sharp curve known as Devil’s Elbow. Solution to shipping and drainage problems came when the bayou was excavated and straightened after the Civil War. Consequently, an island was formed from the soil dug up for the new channel. Park Island, once named for a surveyor named D’Hemecourt, was the result, and today, the original bayou route is on the island’s east side.
“My daddy always said ‘whoever has land will always have money,’” recalls Gasper Schiro. That strong belief in real estate caused his father, Joseph Schiro, along with his partners Jacques Fortier and L.S. Hiern, to form a corporation in 1953 to develop Park Island, with 24 lots fronting on water and four interior lots, all to be priced at $18,000.
The island is still high and dry land. Civil engineer Coleman Kuhn notes that, “If it’s going to subside, it’s already done it. I don’t think it’s going to settle any more.” While there might be a slight bump at the beginning and ending of the island bridge, which sits on pilings, the road in the interior “is in a remarkably good state.” Schiro remembers his father saying that Park Island was 28 feet above sea level. McHale recounts that, although water rose over part of his lawn, the island homes had no flooding from Hurricane Katrina, “but we lost some trees and had some wind damage.”
Although the road to the island now begins at St. Bernard Avenue, the elder Schiro had hoped to build a bridge from Wisner Boulevard, but City Park authorities didn’t approve. A route direct to Bancroft Drive was also rejected and the present connection was built.
Joseph Schiro was an ideal developer for the brand new island community near the lake. An immigrant, he was born in Contessa Entellina, Sicily – a small community with a unique Albanian heritage that sent many sons and daughters to New Orleans. Later in life Joseph Schiro would be named a Cavaliere of the Republic of Italy for his work to restore the Church of All Saints in his hometown of Contessa. A graduate of Soule Business College, Joseph Schiro began his New Orleans career by operating grocery stores, eventually prospering and starting his real estate investments. “In Jefferson Parish he had a subdivision called Schiro Park,” his son Gasper says. There is a Gasper Place as well as streets named for Joseph and Michael, Gasper’s brothers. “I got my love of real estate from him,” Gasper Schiro notes. An attorney, Gasper currently serves as the Register of Conveyances, in charge of real estate transfer documents in Orleans Parish. “My father could speak several languages. He used to tell me, ‘you have all the degrees but you don’t speak anything!’” he adds.
Fresh, new land demanded a new look and buyers for the Park Island lots turned to architects with innovative ideas. John Desmond from Baton Rouge designed the McHale’s home. Architect Albert Ledner started his Park Island work when he had a call from a school friend, Patricia Sunkel, who asked him to design a home for her family.
Albert Ledner was New Orleans born and bred, a graduate of Fortier High School and of the Tulane University School of Architecture, to which he returned after pilot duty in World War II and from which he also received a good dose of engineering training.
As a young architect, Ledner developed a decided point of view. “I just thought the Frank Lloyd Wright organic approach was so much more in keeping with the American spirit than the International Style.” Ledner explains. The low-slung Wright style, with built-in furnishings and loving craftsmanship, allowed the architect to provide a very personal living space for his clients. Ledner would spend some months studying Wright’s approach at his training center, Taliesin.
Early in his career, Ledner designed a hiring hall for the National Maritime Union on Washington Avenue at Tchoupitoulas Street (where it still stands, now no longer a union hall.) The N.M.U. would have Ledner design buildings across the country and selected him to design their headquarters in Manhattan, as well as a hotel and a training school. Recently The New York Times approvingly noted his earlier work there, while chronicling his rebuilding of his own flooded home in Lakewood South after the flooding following Hurricane Katrina. Another Ledner building familiar to New Orleanians has recently been the home of author Douglas Brinkley, and was formerly the Unitarian Church on Jefferson Avenue.
For the Sunkel’s house, Ledner introduced a unique exterior design element. The outside walls have a plaster fascia in which are embedded rectangles of glass, actually, as Ledner explained, “amber colored ash trays. We bought boxes and boxes of them from the manufacturer and we used them as a decorative accent.” They were also used to make a fireplace facing and a dining room chandelier. Today the “Ashtray House” is home to New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
Another Park Island client of Ledner’s was Leonie Galatoire. Galatoire had spent years gathering architectural elements to incorporate into her home. There were pieces of Whitney Bank lobbies, remnants from the home of Archbishop John Shaw and cobblestones from the site of the International Trade Mart. Ledner even trimmed down huge louvered doors from Newcomb College’s Washington Avenue campus for Mrs. Galatoire’s front door. The site now has decorative elements from the 1984 World’s Fair as well. After the Galatoires left, the home was the setting for the Canadian consulate.
Perhaps appropriately for being part of immigrant Joseph Schiro’s dream, Park Island is a cosmopolitan neighborhood. Tippi Ellis, who with her husband Michael has long lived there, notes how many countries their neighbors represent. Charles McHale can list Iranian, Pakistani and Japanese neighbors. “And, we’ve got the Mayor and a Supreme Court Judge,” McHale adds, referring to Justice Revius Ortique.
Another good reason to love Park Island?
“The sunsets are gorgeous,” McHale proclaims.