I have done the French Quarter more times than I can count. I've walked down the middle of Bourbon Street, drink in hand, well after midnight listening to the strains of jazz loudly emanating from open doorways. I've eaten way too many hot beignets dusted with powder sugar accompanied with cups of Community coffee at Café Du Monde in the New Orleans French Market.
I know the menu almost by heart at Emeril Lagasse's restaurant Nola, stood in long lines several times for the chance to sample the food at Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen and tipped the mimes that stand near Jackson Park in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. On my walls at home are masks and voodoo dolls that I've collected late at night in the quarter's curio stores. In other words as far as New Orleans's famous Vieux Carre or French Quarter goes, though I'm always excited about being there - been there, done that.
But on my last trip, I discovered a different aspect of the French Quarter, one that introduced me to how life was lived in this most famous area of New Orleans in the mid twentieth century and earlier, much earlier.
Leila Williams took a cooking class in Santa Barbara where she and her husband, General L. Kemper Williams, had a second home. But this New Orleans philanthropist never learned to master making anything more than a baked potato. Still that was enough and on Thursday evening, the cook's night off, she and her husband, following their typical dinner routine, dressed formally even if no company was coming, he in tuxedo, she in a gown, and sat at the large dining room table in their home on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Their supper? Baked potatoes, of course.
The Williams lived in what was sometimes known as Hidden House, so called because it was hidden from the surrounding streets by three courtyards.
Avid preservationists, the Williams restored their 1889 townhouse, one of seven they saved in what is known as the Royal Street Complex in the French Quarter in the mid-point of the last century. This area, though now revered for its architectural gems, was at risk in the 1940s when the Williams moved into their home.
Behind courtyards planted with sweet olives, Japanese plums, kumquats and banana trees and filled with fountains and flowering bougainvillea, the Williams home is serene and calm, decorated in soft shades of Mardi Gras colors—gold, purple and green. The furniture is eclectic, representing the couple's frequent international travels and include old city maps dating back to the 1800s. Tough the couple moved out in 1963, the home was opened to the public ten years later, its furnishings restored to the time when they lived and entertained in gracious elegance.
The Williams Residence is part of The Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center for Louisiana studies. Its entrance, like the name of the house behind its walls, is somewhat hidden, but well worth searching out.
Other buildings in the complex, connected by garden paths, gardens and walkways, include Merieult House, built in 1791 and remodeled about 40 years later which is as it remains. The Spanish Colonial house houses the Williams Gallery, Louisiana History Galleries and the museum shop, There was even talk of tearing down the dilapidated buildings. Because of people like the Williams they were instead returned to its centuries old charm. A young playwright named Tennessee Williams lived for a while in the two-story masonry house built by Louis Adams in 1788 before it was restored to its original Spanish colonial style with such features as a wood gallery, garret and high-pitched, tiled roof.
In a home hushed with the years of old wood, family portraits, thick woven carpets and windows wavy with age, the Beauregard-Keyes House on Chartres retains the charm of its last owner, author Francis Parkinson Keyes.
Keyes (pronounced Kayes), a prolific author of more than 50 books, is probably best known for her mystery Murder at Antoine's, a novel based upon the stylish doings of aristocratic New Orleans residents more 70 years or so ago which she wrote here as well as two other novels—Blue Camellia and Chess Player. The word swank deftly summarizes the protagonists who dine at Antoine's Restaurant, a fixture in New Orleans's dining since the late 1800s.
But, Keyes biggest contribution to American culture may have been her dedication to saving the French Quarter.
The wife of a U.S. senator who became a governor, Keyes grew up in a rarified East Coast existence but in 1944 she fell in love with a rundown home in the down at the heels French Quarter.
"She wanted this house to look lived in and like the 1810s," the docent for the Beauregard-Keyes House tells me. She also mentions that Dinner at Antoine’s is now almost impossible to find and old copies sell for a fortune. Alas, about five years before I had picked up a copy at the library book sale for $1, read it and then because my place is overrun with books, donated it to another library. No wonder I will never be rich.
An example of what is termed "raised cottage" the house, built in 1826 and once owned by the Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard after the Civil War, seems much more mansion like than that description indicates. Much of the author's personality remains (but that's not her ghost that lives upstairs and irritates the workers, Keyes was much too classy for that) the home has interesting touches from her travels. These include a small room with ceiling, walls and floor done in mosaic tiles from Mexico, her extensive collections of ladies fans and veilause (antique night lights) as well as the desk she used for writing.
A large courtyard, centered on a fountain, sits in the middle of the rambling house. From here the exterior details of the Beauregard-Keyes house can be fully appreciated. Green shutters and white trim enhance the lemon yellow of the outside walls; baloneys run along the sides of the top floor. Handsome transoms sit above doorways. Inside are remnants of the 19th century, elaborate wood furniture, ornate chandeliers and marble fireplaces.
Keyes also bought property next door and re-created the formal parterre garden—a symmetrical garden with walking paths helping define it into separate spaces--created in the 1830s by Madame Anais Philippon Merle (her plans were available all these years later in the archives of Tulane University. As Madame Merle, Keyes added grill windows so that a passerby could see into the garden which was surrounded by a brick fence. The space, filled with a plethora of lush, fragrant blooms like jasmine, magnolias, lilies and roses.
Just across the street, on the corner of rues Chartres and d'Ursuline is the Old Ursuline Convent, the oldest building not only in New Orleans but also in the entire Mississippi Valley, construction having started in 1745, some 31 years before the beginning of the Revolutionary War.
There are other firsts here. Not only was the convent the first school for girls in the United States, it also provided free schooling for slaves and Native American girls and was the first retreat house for ladies. Of the 12 original Ursuline nuns who came here in 1727 as protectors for orphan girls of marriageable age and who lived and worked at the convent, Sister Frances Xavier was also the first female pharmacist in the Western Hemisphere. It is also a last, the only remaining French Colonial building left standing in America.
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