Walking Tour 2: The Garden District

Start: Prytania Street and Washington Avenue

Finish: Lafayette Cemetery

Time: 45 minutes to 2 hours

Best Time: Daylight

Worst Time: Night, when you won’t be able to get a good look at the architecture

Walking around the architecturally astounding Garden District, you may get the impression that you’ve entered an entirely separate city—or time period—from the French Quarter. Although the Garden District was indeed once a separate city (Lafayette) from the Vieux Carré and established later, their development by two different groups is what most profoundly distinguishes the two.

The French Quarter was settled by Creoles during the French and Spanish colonial periods, and the Garden District was created by Americans after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The lucrative combination of Mississippi River commerce, abundant slave trade, and national banks fueled the local economy, resulting in the remarkable antebellum building boom still seen here.

Thousands of Americans moved here after the Louisiana Purchase. Friction arose between these new residents and the Creoles around language barriers, religious division, competition over burgeoning commerce, and mutual snobbery. With inferior business experience, education, and organizational skills, the Creoles worried that les Americains would drive them out of business. Americans were thus barred from the already overcrowded French Quarter. The snubbed Americans moved upriver and created a residential district of astounding, in-your-face opulence: the Garden District. It is, therefore, a culture clash reflected through architecture, with Americans creating an identity by introducing bold, new styles.

Note: With few exceptions, houses on this tour are occupied, private homes and are not open to the public. Several are owned by celebrities (names are omitted for privacy). Please be respectful of the residents.

To reach the Garden District, take the St. Charles streetcar to Washington Avenue (stop no. 16) and walk 1 block toward the river to:

1. 2727 Prytania St., The Garden District Book Shop
A stellar collection of national and regional titles, with many signed editions, makes this bookshop an appropriate kickoff for a Garden District tour. The historic property was built in 1884 as the Crescent City Skating Rink, and subsequently acted as a livery stable, mortuary, grocery, and gas station. Today “the Rink” also offers a coffee shop, restrooms, and air-conditioning (appreciated if you're doing this tour in summer).

Across Prytania Street, you’ll find:

2. 1448 Fourth St., Colonel Short’s Villa
This house was built by architect Henry Howard for Kentucky Colonel Robert Short. The story goes that Short’s wife missed the cornfields in her native Iowa, so he bought her the cornstalk fence. But a revised explanation has the wife requesting it because it was the most expensive, showy fence in the building catalog. Second Civil War occupational governor Nathaniel Banks was quartered in this 9,800-square-foot beauty, which has been on the market for a while. At press time, it could be yours for $4 million.

Continuing down Prytania, you’ll find:

3. 2605 Prytania St., Briggs-Staub House
This is the Garden District’s only example of Gothic Revival architecture (unpopular among Protestant Americans because it reminded them of their Roman Catholic Creole antagonists). Original owner Charles Briggs built the relatively large adjacent servant quarters for his Irish slaves. Irish immigrants were starting to create the nearby Irish Channel neighborhood across Magazine Street from the Garden District.

4. 2523 Prytania St., Our Mother of Perpetual Help

The original owner, Henry Lonsdale, made his fortune selling burlap sacks, and was the first to add chicory to coffee. Once an active Catholic chapel, this site was one of several in the area owned by novelist Anne Rice and the setting for her novel Violin. The author’s childhood home is down the street at 2301 St. Charles Ave.

5. 2504 Prytania St., Women’s Opera Guild Home
Some of the Garden District’s most memorable homes incorporate more than one style. Designed by William Freret in 1858, this one combines Greek Revival design with Queen Anne–style additions. It’s now owned by the Women’s Opera Guild. Tours ($15 per person) are offered Monday 10:30am to 4pm between Labor Day and Memorial Day (but not holiday Mon) (www.operaguildhome.org; tel. 504/914-2591; or at 9:30am daily year-round through Gray Line New Orleans).

6. 2340 Prytania St., Toby’s Corner
The Garden District’s oldest known home was built in 1838 for Philadelphia wheelwright Thomas Toby in the then-popular Greek Revival style. The “non-Creole” style still followed Creole building techniques, such as raising the house up on brick piers to combat flooding and encourage air circulation. The house changed hands in 1858 to a family whose descendants still live here, six generations and many renovations and expansions later.

7. 2343 Prytania St., Bradish Johnson House & Louise S. McGehee School

Paris-trained architect James Freret (cousin of William, see stop #5) designed this French Second Empire–style mansion for sugar factor Bradish Johnson in 1872 at a cost of $100,000 ($1.6-plus million today). Contrast the house’s awesome detail with the stark classical simplicity of Toby’s Corner across the street—illustrating the effect that one generation of outrageous fortune had on Garden District architecture. Since 1929 it has been the private Louise S. McGehee School for girls.

Turn down First Street (away from St. Charles) and it’s a short block to:

8. 1407 First St., Pritchard-Pigott House

This grand, Greek Revival double-galleried townhouse shows how, as fortunes grew, so did Garden District home sizes.

Note the marble carriage block in front of the house across the street. Past residents used these like a step-stool when mounting their horses and carriages.

9. 1331 First St., Morris-Israel House
As time passed, the trend toward the formal Greek Revival style took a playful turn. By the 1860s, Italianate was popular, as seen in this (reputedly haunted) double-galleried townhouse. Architect Samuel Jamison designed this house and the Carroll-Crawford House on the next corner (1315 First St.); note the identical ornate cast-iron galleries.

Follow Coliseum Street to the left, less than half a block to:

10. 2329–2305 Coliseum St., The Seven Sisters
This row of “shotgun” houses gets its nickname from a (false) story that a 19th-century Garden District resident built these homes as wedding gifts for his seven daughters. Actually, there are eight “Seven Sisters,” and they were built on speculation. “Shotgun”-style homes are so named because, theoretically, if one fired a gun through the front door, the bullet would pass unhindered through a series of rooms and out the back. (Also, a West African word for this native African house form sounds like “shotgun.”) Common in hot climates, the shotgun style effectively circulates air. The relatively small shotguns are popular throughout much of Orleans, but rare along the imposing Garden District streets.

Now turn around and go back to First Street and turn left. At the corner of First and Chestnut, you’ll see:

11. 1239 First St., Brevard-Mahat-Rice House
This 1857 Greek Revival townhouse was later augmented with an Italianate bay, in a fine example of “transitional” architecture. The fence’s rosettes begat the house’s name, “Rosegate,” and its woven diamond pattern is said to be the precursor to the chain-link fence. This was novelist Anne Rice’s home and a setting in her Witching Hour novels.

12. 1134 First St., Payne-Strachan House

As the stone marker out front notes, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, died in this classic Greek Revival antebellum home, that of his friend Judge Charles Fenner. The sky-blue ceiling of the gallery is believed to keep winged insects from nesting there and to ward off evil spirits. Many local homes adhere to this tradition (now that you’re aware of it, you’ll notice it everywhere).

Turn right on Camp and go less than a block to:

13. 1137 Second St., Stained Glass House

This house exemplifies the Victorian architecture popularized in uptown New Orleans toward the end of the 19th century. Many who built such homes were from the Northeast and left New Orleans in the summer; otherwise, it would be odd to see this claustrophobic, “cool climate”–style house. Note the exquisite stained glass and rounded railing on the gallery.

Turn right onto Second Street and go two blocks to the corner of Coliseum:

14. 2425 Coliseum St., Joseph Merrick Jones House
When previous owner Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails moved in, new anti-noise ordinances were introduced at city council. His next-door neighbor was Councilwoman Peggy Wilson. Coincidence?

Turn left onto Coliseum Street and go one block to Third Street. Turn left to get to:

15. 1331 Third St., Musson-Bell House
This is the 1853 home of Michel Musson, one of the few French Creoles then living in the Garden District and the uncle of artist Edgar Degas, who lived with Musson on Esplanade Avenue during a visit to New Orleans. On the Coliseum Street side of the house is the foundation of a cistern. Most of these once-common water tanks (Mark Twain commented that it looked as if everybody in the neighborhood had a private brewery) were destroyed at the turn of the 20th century when mosquitoes, which breed in standing water, were found to be carriers of yellow fever. Yellow-fever epidemics infamously killed 41,000 New Orleanians between 1817 and 1905.

Turn around and cross Coliseum to see:

16. 1415 Third St., Robinson House
This striking home was built between 1859 and 1865 by architect Henry Howard for tobacco grower and merchant Walter Robinson. Walk past the house to appreciate its scale—the outbuildings, visible from the front, are actually connected to the side of the main house. The entire roof is a large vat that once collected water. Add gravity and water pressure: thus begat the Garden District’s earliest indoor plumbing. The lavish 11,000-square-foot interior features a dining table seating 26 guests and a grand, curving staircase with 28 stairs, each covered in their own design. Hard to believe that, in sorrier, post-Depression times, it was sold for just $500…especially considering that the seven-bedroom home was on the market recently for $12 million (and sold for $4 million).

Continue down Coliseum Street a half-block to the corner of Washington Avenue:

17. 2627 Coliseum St., Koch-Mays House
This picturesque chalet-style dollhouse (well, for a large family of dolls) was built in 1876 by noted architect William Freret for James Eustis, a U.S. senator and ambassador to France (perhaps justifying the full-size ballroom). It and four other spec homes he built on the block were referred to as Freret’s Folly. No detail was left unfrilled, from the ironwork to the gables and finials.

18. 2707 Coliseum St., Benjamin Button House
This 8,000 square-footer is best known as the title character’s home in the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Ergo Brad Pitt slept here, fictionally (he bought his own French Quarter home soon after filming). The house was owned by the same family from 1870 until its 2009 sale. Thus when the “Button” location scouts came calling they dealt with the family’s 90-year-old matriarch, who had raised seven kids under this roof. Or roofs, perhaps, since it’s actually two houses combined: The original 1832 cottage was raised atop the columned Colonial number built in 1908.

19. 1403 Washington Ave., Commander’s Palace

Established in 1883 by Emile Commander, this turreted Victorian structure (a bordello in the 1920s) is now the pride of the Brennan family, the most respected restaurateurs in New Orleans. Commander’s Palace has long reigned as one of the city’s—nay, the country’s—top restaurants.

20. 1400 Washington Ave., Lafayette Cemetery
Established in 1833, this “city of the dead” is one of New Orleans’s oldest cemeteries. It has examples of all the classic above-ground, multiple-burial techniques. These tombs typically house numerous corpses from an extended family—one here lists 37 entrants; others are designated for members of specific fire departments or fraternal organizations.

Walk to St. Charles Avenue to pick up the streetcar (there is a stop right there) or flag down a cab to return to the French Quarter.

21.Wind Down at Still Perkin’, Tracey’s, Coquette, or Sucré 

Now go back to your first stop, the Rink, where you can enjoy a cup of coffee and some light refreshments at Still Perkin’. Or head south on Washington to Magazine Street, where a po’ boy at Tracey’s, lunch at Coquette, or a sweet from Sucré will satisfy other appetites.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.