I love to explore historic neighborhoods and to me, the historic core of any city is usually most fascinating. While in New Orleans recently I took a walking tour of the French Quarter, the oldest part of that city. However, an afternoon stroll of the restored homes of the Garden District, a 10-minute drive from the Quarter, proved just as captivating.
The Garden District’s history is based on segregation, the nouveau rich Americans who settled it received the cold shoulder from New Orleans’ Creole society and were excluded from the old Creole neighborhoods of New Orleans. The historically French aristocrats there wanted little to do with the Protestant and less cultured Americans. Thus the Americans ended up settling a 14-square block area that was originally its own city called Lafayette. It finally joined with New Orleans in 1852.
The oldest home in the area was built in 1838 and the decades that followed were characterized by unbridled architectural innovation. While many of the homes exhibit the Greek Revival style, they also feature Italianate, Moorish, Asian and Caribbean influences – wrought iron, pastel colors, and white columns. Plus elaborate and intimate gardens tucked behind iron gates.
Politicians and famous writers (Anne Rice) and actors (John Goodman, Sandra Bullock) have all lived in the District but perhaps the most historic house is the Payne Home on First Street. Here on December 6, 1889 former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis died while visiting the owner. Certainly other luminaries in America’s past spent time in the neighborhood including Edgar Degas, Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt.
I visited the Garden District on a sunny warm day in January, and saw giant Meyer lemons ready for picking and a few flowers in bloom. Sadly I did not experience what must be a feast for the senses in the springtime when the gardens burst with color and the fragrances of jasmine, sweet olive and gardenia permeate the air.
On one end of the neighborhood stands Lafayette Cemetery Number 1, opened in 1833 and typical of the New Orleans cemeteries, or cities of the dead, that feature row after row of above-ground crypts. Originally filled with victims of yellow fever, the cemetery is the resting place for generations of residents from the neighborhood.
The best way to reach the Garden District is by the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, the oldest operating street railway system in the country dating back to the 1830s. The current green cars were built in the 1920s. A friend and I decided to ride most of the 13-miles route which travels past two well-known universities, Tulane and Loyola.
And, a great stop for pecan pie on the streetcar line is the Camellia Grill. Read about it in this blog post.