Tour the Historic Garden District
The Garden District, though built as a grand neighborhood for exclusive rich families, seems, today, to be built for the pleasure of visitors. A Garden District walking tour reveals a rarefied world of pre-Civil War wealth and privilege. Its wide, flat streets covered by sprawling, shady live oak trees makes for a tranquil and satisfying experience. Once you stroll the streets of the Garden District you’ll feel you have been a part of something memorable.
To understand how the Garden District came about, there is one key historic tidbit to know: the French and the Americans didn’t like each other. In the 1700s the whole town was the French Quarter today. They did French things, ate cheese and everything. Then the worst thing in the world happened: Napoleon sold us to the Americans!
All of a sudden these leather-clad country folk came rolling up on the docks of the Mississippi selling off all the bounty of what is the Midwest today. And these guys were not the opera-going, champagne-drinking messieurs of the French Quarter. They were more like the knife-throwing, whiskey-swilling type.
Then, everyone got rich! A man named Etienne de Bore figured out how to crystalize sugar. What’s so great about that? Granulated sugar never goes bad, you could send it off to Australia and it would make it. So these newly rich Americans wanted their own town.
These early developers eyed a large sugar plantation, just upriver, owned by a gentleman named Livaudais. Apparently all wasn’t right in paradise, as his wife successfully divorced him and got the plantation as part of her settlement. Well, Celeste, the former Madame Livaudais, wanted to be La Marquise Livaudais and retire to her stately manor in France, so she sold the whole thing to the American group.
A Cultural Tour
A walking tour of the Garden District really highlights the cultural differences between the Old World Creoles downtown and the showy nouveau riche Americans uptown. The St. Charles Streetcar started running in 1833. At the time it was called an “omnibus” and was drawn by mules. This allowed the Americans to live in their palatial neighborhood and easily get downtown to their businesses at a frightening speed of four miles an hour.
The Americans incorporated themselves as the City of Lafayette. They built their own cemetery, Lafayette Number One, to make it official. They then laid out the blocks on a wide plan, some owners getting an entire block! James Robb, railroad millionaire, constructed an enormous home to rival any chateau in Europe. A hundred years later, it was demolished as no one was interested in buying it.
With the wealthy, come the stars. Mark Twain used to crash at the Robinson House at Third and Coliseum. He wrote:
“Those in the wealthy quarter are spacious; painted snowy white, usually, and generally have wide verandas, or double-verandas, supported by ornamental columns. These mansions stand in the center of large grounds and rise, garlanded with roses, out of the midst of swelling masses of shining green foliage and many-colored blossoms. “
Walt Whitman, working as a journalist downtown, stayed in Lafayette, he wrote in his seminal Leaves of Grass about the live oaks as “rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself.”
Understand, when we say “French” or “Creole” we mean folks who were subjects of the king, this area was just more France. When we say “American” we mean all the immigrants that came here to establish a new life, a new country. Mark Twain’s favorite writer, George Washington Cable, commented on the children of the area, who played ‘Oats, Peas, Beans’[a kids’ song] with French, German and Irish accents, about the countless sidewalk doorsteps.”
A Tour of Garden District Homes
And the stars are still here. A Garden District walking tour will take you by the homes of many big names. Sandra Bullock paid $2.2 million for a Swiss Chalet style mansion. She’s not often here, but she has accommodated her good friends like George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio at the place.
Just two corners away is the home of the wonderful John Goodman, who married a local and raised his daughter here. He is often seen walking his dog around the manicured streets of the Garden District.
Around the corner is the former home of Archie and Olivia Manning, parents to the omnipresent Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. The kids attended high school here before their imminent rise in football.
Okay, enough name-dropping, we won’t get into Edgar Degas or John L. Sullivan or even Nicholas Cage. Just know a Garden District walking tour might be the most fascinating walk in a quiet neighborhood in the country.
Come explore the history, the culture, the architecture and the style of a grand statement known as the Garden District. We at Unique Nola Tours would be proud and honored to share it with you.