Friday, April 27, 2007

Is it On Fire, Or Underwater This Week?

The Orleans Ballroom. It's very New Orleans. Bad luck and mojo are my only friends, as they say.

Henry Latrobe started building it in 1816 for a fellow named John Davis, to go along with Davis' theater next door. It burned to the ground, along with the theater and half the neighborhood, before he was finished building it. Very New Orleans, that.

Davis got busy right away and a year later he had it built. Um, rebuilt. Well, done, anyway. He rebuilt the theater next door, too. It was in that empty lot in the picture, attached to the ballroom. The theater burned down again in 1866, but the ballroom was saved. This grows monotonous, in an exciting kind of way. "Monotonous in an exciting kind of way" should be the town motto, if you ask me.

Like lots of things now considered authentic French New Orleans, the wooden balcony and screen are much later additions. Much of that ironwork you associate with the oldest part of New Orleans is not original equipment on the buildings.

They held grand balls in there, including one in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette, we are here! And not on fire for a change. Drop by.

Hey! In 1828, the ballroom was used as a meeting place for the State Legislature, when the government house --three guesses! --burned down. It's a good thing that New Orleans floods from time to time, if for no other reason than to give the fire company a breather every now and then.

For about a decade in the late 1800s, the place was used as the District Court, too. Lot of arson cases were heard there, I suspect.

There's a cryptic reference to a "sale" of the furnishings and fabrics of the place in 1836, which sounds like someone paid a few bucks for a few things and ripped out everything worth looking at on the interior of the building, so looting has a long history thereabouts too, I gather.

There are conflicting accounts of the use of the ballroom for what were called "quadroon balls." A quadroon was a description of someone who was of one quarter black ancestry. There was a dizzying assortment of social rankings in New Orleans based on ancestry, and the quadroon balls were one of a number of ways for a sort of common-law marriage to be arranged between white men, and women of African, Indian, and Creole ancestry. The arrangement was called "Placage." I much prefer the term free blacks used for it: "Left-handed marriage." That's wry.

In a marvelous turn of events, a young lady that had been destined for a left handed marriage rebelled against the idea, and became a nun instead. Henriette DeLille saw Placage as an affront to the Catholic sacrament of marriage. She spent her life in opposition to the practice, and in the aid and education of the poor of New Orleans. In 1837 the Vatican formally recognized her organization as what would later become The Sisters of The Holy Family.

The Sisters of the Holy Family, all African-American nuns, bought that ballroom in the 1880s and used it for a school for poor children until the 1960s, when they sold the property to a hotel.

There's a fad for advertising ghostly happenings in lodgings to get a kind of vibe going in the hospitality business. The ballroom is part of a hotel now, and they're trying to play up some supposedly ghostly happenings there. In New Orleans, that's superfluous. The whole town is a layer cake of haunts.

When it's not on fire, or sublime, anyway.

No comments: