Julia Street with Poydras the Parrot

Dear Julia,
I lived at 621 Jefferson Ave. My grandmother Louisa Sophie Weiket Hill inherited this home around 1926. She then deeded it to my brother Edward T. Hill Jr. and me, Sarah L. Hill. I was told this house was built before the Civil War.

Can you tell when it was built?

Also, we attended McDonogh 14 school in the 1930s and ’40s. Last time I was in New Orleans the name had been changed to James Lewis. Who was James Lewis and why was the name changed?

Sarah “Sally” Hill Lane
Middleburg, Fl
P.S. Jefferson Avenue was once called Peters Avenue, so my father told me.

Many local educational institutions, including most of the McDonogh schools, which were originally named for people who owned slaves, were subsequently renamed. McDonogh 14, as you noted, became James Lewis Elementary. The latter school closed at the end of the 2002-’03 school year; Benjamin Franklin Elementary now occupies the site.

Although the media of the day described James Lewis (1833-1914) as a black man, he would be more accurately described as multi-racial, the son of a white father and a mulatto mother. From the age of 15, when the Woodville, Miss., native began working on riverboats until his death in 1914, he led a remarkable life.

During the Civil War, Lewis recruited black troops to serve in the Union Army. Serving in Company K of the Louisiana Volunteers, James Lewis attained the rank of Colonel. When the war ended, the Freedman’s Bureau appointed him to organize free state schools for blacks. Around the same time, Lewis was appointed Inspector of Customs for the Port of New Orleans.

In 1872, James Lewis came to national attention when he chaired the Louisiana delegation to the National Republican Convention in Philadelphia. Presidential appointments soon followed. Designated a U.S. naval officer by President Hayes, Lewis also served as Surveyor General under presidents Arthur, McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Lewis’ accomplishments outside the political arena were also distinguished. As a Scottish Rite Free Mason he attained the 33rd Degree and served as the state’s Grand Master, as well as the Southern Jurisdiction of Colored Free Masons’ Sovereign Grand Inspector General. Lewis was also a department commander of the Grand Army of the Republic in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In 1902, when Booker T. Washington visited New Orleans, the prominent educator stayed at Colonel Lewis’ home, located at 2415 Canal St. At the time, the Lewis residence was once one of many desirable homes to line Canal Street between Claiborne Avenue and Broad Street. It once stood across the street from the James Ferret-designed Straight University. The site of the Lewis home is now a parking lot, while the long-abandoned and severely blighted former City Hall Annex has taken the place of Straight University.

James Lewis’ daughter, Julia, who preceded her father in death, attended Straight University before graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music. An accomplished musician, she married Prof. W. J. Nickerson, with whom she ran a classical music school in the 100 block of North Galvez Street, just off Canal Street.

Your father was correct. Jefferson Avenue was originally called “Peters Avenue.” Its name was changed, by city ordinance, in 1924. Your family home at 621 Jefferson Ave., seems to have been among the first structures built in its block. Its footprint appears in the Robinson Atlas, so evidence seems to indicate the house was in existence by the late 1870s.

Dear Julia,
I was told that there was a black college located on the corner of St. Charles and Jefferson avenues. What was it called, how long was it there, when and why did it close? Was it all girls, all boys or co-educational? On that corner now are the Jewish Community Center and De La Salle High School. Thanks for any information.

Garmanne Mack
New Orleans

The Methodist Episcopal Church founded New Orleans University. Originally located at the corner of Camp and Race streets, the institution first opened in 1873 but later moved to the St. Charles Avenue location. In 1935, financial difficulties led New Orleans University to merge with Straight University to form Dillard University. Gilbert Academy, a preparatory school that had been associated with New Orleans University since 1919, then moved into the St. Charles Avenue site. A private co-educational high school for New Orleans blacks, Gilbert Academy operated at that location until 1949, when it was demolished.

Dear Julia,
As a child growing up in Kenner in the 1950s, my family would head to New Orleans at Christmas time to view a beautifully decorated home on Canal Street. What family owned that home, and do they still own it? I would love to know some history of the family. What a treat that was.

Mary McAlister

From 1946 to ’66, the Centanni family, who owned the Gold Seal Creamery, turned their Mid-City home into a popular Christmas destination. Families came from far and wide to see elaborate holiday-themed displays Myra and Salvador “Sam” Centanni, and their seven children set up in their yard at 4506 Canal St. Although the family tradition ended with Mrs. Centanni’s death, the Nativity set was preserved and was part of City Park’s annual Celebration in the Oaks holiday display pre-Hurricane Katrina.

Dear Julia,
I spent my early childhood in Bywater, on Burgundy Street between Louisa and Clouet streets, before my parents moved to Lakeview. That was the mid-1940s to the mid-’50s.

As a young child, I thought it was wonderful, as all my relatives lived on the same block. Moreover, I lived a few doors down from the Happyland Theatre, and at the corner of Louisa Koffsky’s Drugstore for ice cream cones.

I see that now, all these decades later, the Happyland Theatre is still boarded up and Koffsky’s Drugstore is also unoccupied. They have both been out of use for a very long time.

Do you know anything about these two properties?

Janice Donaldson Grijns
Greenwich, Ct.

Located at 3126-3132 Burgundy St., between Clouet and Louisa streets, the Happy Land Theatre, also known as the Happyland, appears to have begun business about 1914. Its first manager was Henry Lazarus. By the late ’30s, city directories indicate the property was vacant. In later years, however, the movie house reopened. In the early ’50s, when you frequented the theater, Mrs. Lenora S. Cheek was its manager. By ’60, the theater had closed and was, once again, listed as vacant.

Long a neighborhood fixture, Louis E. Koffskey’s pharmacy was located at the corner of Louisa and Burgundy streets. No longer vacant, the former drugstore, which still has the L. E. Koffskey name along its roofline, is now local photographer Eugenia Uhl’s studio, Eugenia Uhl Photography. Coincidentally, Uhl regularly does photography for the Food column in this magazine.

Dear Julia,
I am interested in the use of the word “faubourg” to describe sections of New Orleans. Was any settlement outside of the French Quarter considered to be a faubourg, and when did the word first come into the usage here?

Patricia Hymel
New Orleans

A word with Middle English and Old French origins, “faubourg” refers to suburbs. Even though it has been used since colonial times to refer to settlements beyond the original city boundaries, the word has come into much more common usage since the gentrification of the neighborhoods downriver from the French Quarter. Until fairly recently, “faubourg” was a word a local person was far more likely to encounter in a history book or a property’s chain of title than in daily conversation.

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