Life Along St. Claude Avenue
The doors opened on my shift – I remember I wrote the first patient name in the admit book,” recalls Connie Masson. In the 1970s, during her years at the University of New Orleans, Masson had a job as an emergency room clerk at the newly opened St. Claude General Hospital. That substantial hospital building, at 3419 St. Claude Ave., still stands today in use as a nursing home facility by St. Margaret’s Daughters. The hospital itself had actually began in a two story house at 3501 St. Claude Ave., and for decades was one of the community components that served the Bywater neighborhood.
In the late 1940s, Dr. Vincente D’Ingianni and Dr. Irwin Fontenelle had opened their medical offices in the house on the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Gallier Street. They added hospital beds for their patients. For a while it was known as the D’Ingianni Foundation Hospital; by the 1960s it had become the St. Claude General Hospital and Dr. Frederick Pou and other physicians joined them. Internist Dr. Gary Carroll, longtime head of Ambulatory Services at the Veterans Administration Hospital, moonlighted at the old St. Claude General as a young physician. The frame building looked residential but inside there were beds for about 35 patients and room for medical services.
The hospital’s ties to the local community were strong. “Inside the front door there was a plaque on the wall – the mayor was honoring the hospital for the staff’s help with the injured after the roof collapsed at the Nola Theater (corner St. Claude Avenue and Bartholomew Street) in a rain storm in 1961. They brought a lot of the victims there,” Dr. Carroll says. “I think that was important to the Bywater community – their neighborhood hospital was there for them. “
Hazel D’Ingianni Schlueter, daughter of one of the founders, remembers that the neighbors joined in working to support hospital services, “The ladies would do things like crochet doilies and embroider handkerchiefs for prizes for the Keno games.”
The Bywater neighborhood comprises about 100 square blocks, roughly between St. Claude Avenue and the Mississippi River, above the Industrial Canal and just downriver from Faubourg Marigny. Like other New Orleans neighborhoods, it once was plantation land and was auctioned off in lots in the 1850s after the estate of final owner John McDonogh was settled. Eventually, the name “Bywater” was actually chosen by the residents.
Just down St. Claude from the hospital building and behind a public school, the heart of the neighborhood is still Macarty Square, located at Pauline at Burgundy streets. This was the site of the Macarty plantation home and when the area was first subdivided, the home’s grounds began at St. Claude Avenue and went back two blocks. Ultimately a high school (once Francis T. Nicholls and most recently Frederick Douglass High School) was built on the home’s old site on St. Claude Avenue and a gym and athletic field now take up most of the rest of the public park. There was once a Macarty Eagles Social Club, and a Macarty Eagles baseball team. Macarty Square is still used regularly for Bywater Art Festivals.
Joan Bostick, longtime Bywater resident, recalls Macarty Square when it had more general neighborhood use. “I remember walking to the Alvar Library, across from the square, and seeing someone come out with bags of volley balls and footballs. It was a city-run athletic program. The square was used by the kids to play.” There is a towering triumphal arch in the square with plaques honoring World War I servicemen (and one nurse who died in service.) “That arch used to be in the middle but they moved it to the Burgundy Street side when they built the school athletic building,” Bostick explains. Along Pauline Street, substantial houses overlook the square and once the Schwegmann grocery family and the Frey meatpacking clan had their homes there.
Bostick remembers Bywater as a “blue collar” neighborhood. “The girls went to Holy Angels Academy, the boys went to Holy Cross – if you weren’t Catholic you went to Nicholls.” The Holy Angels Academy buildings are no longer a school but still offer meeting space for the community. Holy Cross, once across the Industrial Canal, has a new site some distance away.
As usual in New Orleans, there were favorite area restaurants. Dr. Carroll fondly remembers Mandich Restaurant where the St. Claude General hospital physicians had staff meetings. “Lloyd Mandich would cook for us, gratis. Just because he was so grateful to the people who took care of his father’s coronary disease,” Dr. Carroll says. “I had many a good meal there – they were kind and generous.” Ken Snow, a Bywater resident in the 1970s, notes that, “my favorite place to eat was Little Pete’s on St. Claude about four blocks from the Industrial Canal.” Masson remembers food to go from Two Guys and beers and poor boys at Huerstel’s.
The simple pleasures of a New Orleans neighborhood marked time for Bywater residents. They could fill their needs without going far. “For a while in the 1950s, that was a very lively business core – an H.G. Hill grocery store, a shoe repair shop, a jewelry store,” Bostick recalls. In the 1970s on Piety Street, Ken Snow remembers a hardware store, Bud Rip’s Bar, a cabinetmaker and a Good Will store.
The most famous corner in the Bywater was probably Piety and Burgundy streets, the location of the very first Schwegmann grocery store of the well-remembered chain. “I still have a bottle of Schwegmann’s bourbon, ‘Old Piety and Burgundy,’” Bostick laughs.
The old days of the afore described Bywater are long past but the future is looking bright. Julie Jones, president of the Bywater Neighborhood Association (founded in 1975), points out that Bywater, dry during Katrina, is a popular residential location these days, with a good stock of historic homes and a thriving artists’ colony.
Through the years the neighborhood has changed. Bywater’s own medical center, St. Claude General Hospital, once a little 1950s clinic in a corner house, has also changed through the years. From its location in a two-story house, it moved to a solidly built 100-bed facility. Dr. Fontenelle and Dr. Horace Chalstrom, stalwarts on the St. Claude General Hospital staff, had proudly announced construction plans for a new building in 1968.
In the years after this, its physician owners sold the hospital and profits were donated to a foundation with proceeds used to fund medical and nursing scholarships at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. From 1972 to 1982, the facility was owned by Lifemark Corporation, which received permission to close it in 1982. Since that time, it has served as a drug rehabilitation center and, as Bywater Hospital, operated for some time and then closed again. In the period since Katrina, St. Margaret’s Daughters has used FEMA aid to operate a nursing home in the building, since their own nursing home in Bywater was damaged in the storm.
Bostick visited the new St. Margaret’s and pronounced it a “‘magnificent – totally a ‘take away your breath’ kind of facility. I wouldn’t mind going there myself,” she admits. Bywater residents do indeed like their neighborhood.