Local History with Beignets: Discovering Vieux Carre/French Quarter

Discovering Vieux Carre/French Quarter

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~ Elisa Babel, MLS

Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana Purchase

The room where the Louisiana Purchase was signed.  How an apartment in 1850 would’ve been furnished.  The magnificence of historic St. Louis Cathedral. Documents written in Spanish, French, and English. How New Orleans celebrated Mardi Gras in yesteryears. These are a few of the things I saw while visiting the museums in the French Quarter.

This was my third ALA Annual and my first time in New Orleans. I stayed at the Holiday Inn-French Quarter on Royal Street so history was on the doorstep.

June 24

Friday was my free day so I spent the day discovering the history of the city.  After going to the convention center to get my badge and tote, I set out for the afternoon in the French Quarter. I had an early lunch at Café Beignet which was a short walk from my hotel.  I enjoyed a croissant sandwich and a side of beignets.  Délicieux! Delicious!  I liked the Café because it was quieter and not as busy.

My first museum stop was the Historic New Orleans Collection complex on Royal Street.  Here I viewed “The Threads of Memory” exhibit–a display of rarely seen documents about the Spanish presence in North America. The collection also included some documents on Louisiana under French control and then American acquisition. Moving on to the next gallery, I was impressed by colonial Spanish religious art in North America.

Cathedral St. Louis

My next stop was at St. Louis Cathedral, the Mother Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. The church is named for the royal patron saint of France. The Cathedral has a long history and is the oldest continuously used Catholic cathedral in the United States. I was impressed by the magnificent interior.  One of my favorite parts of the building was the ceiling. I spent a few minutes praying and took a few photos. The next day I returned for the 5 pm Mass after a long day at the convention center.  As a souvenir of my attendance, I took the church bulletin on my way out.

After leaving the Cathedral, I went to the Cabildo.  This building had once served as the seat of government during Spanish colonial rule. Later it was home of the Louisiana State Supreme Court before it became a museum in 1911.  Aside from learning a few facts in school, I never knew about the city’s long and rich history. It had changed hands between the French and Spanish before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  On the second floor, I visited the room where the signing took place and the painting of the 1803 ceremony.  I remembered seeing that painting in my American history textbook in grade school.  When I finished visiting all the exhibit rooms, I’d gotten a fascinating tour of New Orleans through time.

Before leaving my hotel earlier, I had made a reservation for a 4 pm walking tour of the French Quarter.  I met my tour guide Mike from Magic Tours in front of K-Joe’s Restaurant. Two others were supposed to come but they didn’t!  We walked through the French Quarter, stopping at various landmarks along the way including Jackson Square, the riverfront, Napoleon House, the Pharmacy Museum, and Madam John’s Legacy.  Mike told me fascinating historical bits and architecture about the city.  I now know why oversized colored water jars were placed in period pharmacy windows. Duelling behind the Cathedral? I’m sure the priests weren’t happy about that!  Since it was a hot day, Mike frequently directed me towards shade.

June 28

I had the morning free before going to the airport and home.  I went to the 1850 House off Jackson Square.  This is one of the buildings built by the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba in 1850 hence the name. I entered the house through the gift shop on the ground floor and mounted a staircase. The rooms are furnished as they would have been of the time period.  Various families lived there along with their slaves and household staff in the back.  In 1927 it became a state museum.

New Orleans Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras New Orleans

My second and final museum was the Presbytere next to St. Louis Cathedral. Originally the Presbytere housed the Capuchins, a Catholic religious order.  In the 19th century it was used as a courthouse then became a state museum in 1911. Originally I didn’t plan to go.  A reproduction of a 19th century Mardi Gras poster outside did it for me. Once inside, I ran into one of my colleagues as she was coming out from an exhibit on Hurricane Katrina. We went up to the Mardi Gras exhibit on the second floor.  It’s a fun exploration of how this New Orleans tradition evolved over the centuries.  There’s also a room about how Mardi Gras is celebrated by the Cajuns in the nearby Louisiana parishes.

Afterwards we went out to lunch near the Cabildo and then I had to leave for the airport.  Although most of my time was split between the convention center and the French Quarter, I had a great time in New Orleans.

Just as you get a generous serving of food in any restaurant in New Orleans, I could say the same about its local history.  Plus having a few beignets on the side.

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