It was long past noon and still raining when we finished at the Presbytere, so we took cover under the awnings of the Lower Pontalba Building as we made our way to Cafe du Monde, on the opposite side of Jackson Square. The Cafe started as a coffee and beignet stand in 1872 and is now the most popular coffee shop in town. There’s usually a wait for a table but, probably because of the rain, we walked right in.
It still serves only beignet and drinks. We had beignet and cafe au lait, because deep fried squares of dough covered in powdered sugar and chicory coffee for lunch make bad weather tolerable.
Hyped on fat, sugar and caffeine, we moved on to the next Louisiana State Museum building: the 1850 House. It occupies #8 Saint Ann Street, in the Lower Pontalba Building. The Pontalba buildings, you may remember, were commissioned by the Michaela, Baroness Pontalba, in 1849. The Pontalba family sold the Lower Pontalba Building in 1921 and the philanthropist who bought it donated it to the Louisiana State Museum in 1927.
The Baroness designed the Pontalbas so that there were commercial spaces on the first floor and residences that spanned the second and third floors. #8 Saint Ann’s had a hardware store on the first floor, in 1850. There are still retail shops on the first floor of the Pontalbas, and residences on the second and third, although the residences are now apartment units instead of two story townhouse type homes.
I was curious as to how much it would cost to rent a Pontalba apartment now. A 2017 market rental study puts the average rent for one of the 28 Lower Pontalba apartments at $3000 a month. The price of the Upper Pontalbas, owned by the City of New Orleans, is about the same.
Because the Pontalba townhouses were rentals and several families cycled through #8, the 1850 house doesn’t represent the home of anyone in particular but “reflects mid-19th century prosperity, taste and daily life in New Orleans.” Mid 19th century census shows that rich merchant families lived in the building, with an average of nine people in each unit, including (mostly Irish) servants.
The first tenants of #8 Saint Ann were the Soria’s — mom, dad and two adult children. Dad was involved in cotton, sugar and railroads. The furniture is of the period and many of the pieces were made in New Orleans — like the table in the parlor and the silver on the dining room table.
The parlor and dining room were on one floor, with the bedrooms above. There was a kitchen was on the ground floor, at the back of the back of the courtyard.
Also at the back of the building, on the far side of the courtyard, were four rooms used as slave quarters. Most Pontalba families, including the Sorias, had slaves.
And speaking of slaves, a story board on enslaved people who lived at the Pontalba and in New Orleans in general, included the photo below. It intrigued me, so I looked up “Rebecca: A slave girl from New Orleans” and came across an interesting tidbit I’d never heard (though after some digging, I learned that the story made the modern news cycle –Huffington Post, New York Times — in 2014).
Starting in 1863, there was an effort to fund Louisiana schools for freed slaves by selling photos of slave children with “white” features. They were also taken on tours through the north, to raise support for the Union cause (the children stayed in a “white” hotel in Philadelphia until the proprietors found out that they weren’t white and they were evicted). Rebecca Hugar was one of those children. She was enslaved by her father, a New Orleans merchant, and lived in his home in the Upper Pontalba. She was freed by Union General Benjamin Butler, during his occupation of New Orleans.
An 1864 Harper’s Weekly article accompanying this photo says of her “Rebecca Hugar is eleven years old and was a slave in her father’s house, the special attendant of a girl a little older than herself. To all appearances, she is perfectly white.” So abolitionists weren’t above using northern prejudices to fuel their fundraising.
The rain had slowed by the time we finished with the 1850 House. Which was a good thing because our next Louisiana State Museum was several blocks away. Onward to the New Orleans Jazz Museum.