St. Vincent’s Guest House

Finding a hotel in another city on the Internet is a funny thing… it’s not so much like looking for something blind as it is trying to make a decision, a choice, based on secondhand information where everyone is lying to you.

When Candy was researching a place to stay in New Orleans for our trip last week she kept coming across a place called St. Vincent’s Guest House. We’ve stayed a handful of places in the past, most notably the Prytania Park, and the Mandevilla B&B (both highly recommended BTW) but the St. Vincent was a lot (a lot!) cheaper.

I didn’t get too involved in the planning, and while we were flying to New Orleans I was really curious about what this place would be like. It was in a great location – right on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District – close to downtown (and the quarter) and the St. Charles Streetcar.

But it was only going to cost us fifty dollars a night. What kind of Big-City hotel charges fifty dollars a night? In my mind I pictured an old run-down Motel 6, kicked out of the chain for excessive filthiness, occupied mostly by prostitutes, and a constant drug trade going on in the parking lot. Still, it’s only fifty bucks a night, we need to spend as little as possible, and all I need is a place to sleep – so I could deal with anything.

When we drove up and checked in, I quickly realized the truth could not be farther from this image. St. Vincent’s is a massive ancient brick edifice of classic New Orleans design with impossibly high ceilings, balconies with intricate cast iron railings, and one hell of a history to boot.

The imposing facade of the St. Vincent’s Guest House, facing Magazine Street in New Orleans. I had to move around a bunch of film crews and trucks to get this – they were shooting scenes for Treme. The St. Vincent must be a popular location – they did scenes for Red (the Bruce Willis film) there – now I’ll have to watch the damn thing.

The side of the St. Vincent Complex, from Race Street. We stayed on the second floor of the wing in the background, that’s the carriage house in the foreground.

From a faded clipping in the lobby:

History

St. Vincent’s was built in 1861 as an orphanage. It was founded by the Daughters of Charity order of nuns, however much of the funding was provided by Margaret Haughery. Margaret was an illiterate, Irish immigrant to New Orleans – she was a orphan herself and lost her husband and baby to yellow fever here in New Orleans. This was not unusual. Every summer up to 30.000 people here would die of mosquito born diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. Margaret’s tragic losses led her to dedicate her life to alleviating the suffering of children. She made a great fortune from her baking business and dedicated her wealth and compassion to philanthropic works. St. Vincent’s was among the greatest of these works. When Margaret died in 1882, the entire city closed down to mourn her loss and thousands followed her funeral parade, a fitting tribute to a truly great person. You will notice the clock on the roof of the carriage house at St. Vincent’s (across the courtyard) – this was willed to St. Vincent’s by Margaret as a final gift.

There is a lovely statue of Margaret between Prytania and Camp Streets, just near the 90 overpass. You may also like to visit St. Elizabeth’s orphanage, now owned by the Vampire novelist, Ann Rice. After the children turned seven, the girls were taken from ST. Vincent’s to St. Elizabeths. St. Elizabeths is in the Garden District on Napoleon Ave.

Still run by the Daughters of Charity in the 20th century St. Vincent’s became a refuge for unwed mothers. In 1901 it was discovered that mosquitoes were the cause of the summer epidemics and the city paved the streets and generally tried to eradicate the puddles of water in which mosquitoes breed. Without the annual epidemics New Orleans was in the happy situation of no longer having enough orphans for St. Vincent’s. St Vincent’s served as a refuge for unwed mothers and their children until the social revolution in the 60’s rendered such a refuge unnecessary. It remained empty for a couple of decades until brought back to life in 1994 as the Guest House you see today.

The clock on top of the carriage house, complete with cool sculpture hanging off the side.

Here’s a closeup of the sculpture on the clock on the carriage house. It’s called “New Orleans Gargoyle” by Thomas Randolph Morrison. Pretty cool, huh. You’re not going to see stuff like this hanging off the Hilton.

Now, the place was far from luxurious. It is primarily a hostel – with a constant flow of young hitchhikers and lost souls (some working at the house in one form or another for discount or free rent) and a wing of dormitories. They do have a spate of regular rooms and ours, being the cheapest, was pretty run down. The usual amenities were non-existent. The sheets had holes, the hot water sporadic, the walls were painted a bilious purple, the towels mismatched, the door key and lock of dubious quality and security, the television ancient and lacking a remote and the curtains didn’t come close to covering the entire windows. The drawers in the dresser didn’t fit, the ventilation rumbled, black sheetrock screws half-screwed into the molding provided clothes and key holders. The pool was covered in black plastic, the furniture mismatched, and empty whiskey bottles littered the common areas.

The only thing that bothered me, really, was a decidedly musty smell in the room, and it went away with a couple days of activity. To be fair, St. Vincent’s was obviously still being repaired from the damage inflicted by the last hurricane and a lot of water had gone through those old walls. We realized that, really, the whole city had that musty smell.

So it wasn’t the Hilton, it wasn’t even the La Quinta… but, my God, what history. New Orleans is a city accommodating and welcoming to spirits and everyone spoke about the ghosts of the orphans and their parents – yellow fever victims – still floating around the place. The hallways were lined with fine polished bronze sculptures. It seems a New Orleans sculptor – Thomas Randolph Morrison – displays all his bronze work in St. Vincent’s. Art – paintings or interesting old photographs – covered the walls.

The sculpture-lined hallway at St. Vincent’s.

A sculpture facing a mirror.

A view out a hallway on the third floor. Like a lot of old buildings built in tropical climates it has very high ceilings (I estimate 20 feet high), balconies, and an open plan for ventilation.

Our wing at St. Vincent’s. If you look closely on the horizon you can see the winged stack of a Carnival Cruise Ship on the Mississippi river.

The carriage house at St. Vincent, with downtown New Orleans and the Superdome in the background.

Now, I certainly can’t recommend the place – it sure has its share of bad Internet reviews – but if you have a little imagination, a sliver of adventurous spirit and, most of all, an open mind, it’s a pretty damn cool place.

Plus, it’s in a great location and it’s only fifty dollars a night.

An old photo on the wall at St. Vincent’s Guest House, showing the original tenants, the young orphans that lost their parents to yellow fever, posed on the stairs.

The same spot, on the same stairs, today.

A tomb from Lafayette Cemetery #1

Everywhere in New Orleans you run into the ghosts of the yellow fever. This is a tomb from the Lafayette Cemetery #1 (not far from St. Vincent’s). I had to mess with the image, the top part was in deep shade. It reads:

Died of Yellow Fever
Sercy,
Born Aug. 29th 1878,
Died Aug. 30th 1878.
 
Mary Love,
Born Oct. 7th 1876,
Died Aug 30th 1878.
 
Edwin Given,
Born Dec. 3rd 1873,
Died Aug. 31st 1878.
 
Such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

In two days that family lost three children, age newborn, three, and five years old.

New Orleans – Lafayette Cemetery #1

When you visit New Orleans for the first time, you can’t help but notice the cemeteries. Because the city is built on a swamp below sea level, you can’t bury anything underground. The cemeteries consist of cities of elaborate above ground crypts and mausoleums instead of grids of tombstones.

Right in the middle of the Garden District, one block off the St. Charles streetcar line is Lafayette Cemetery #1. It was established in 1833, when that part of the city was called Lafayette. I had wanted to take a tour of the cemetery but I wasn’t able to get away until Sunday – and the cemetery was closed on Sunday.

Something to do on my the next trip.

The Lafayette Cemetery #1 was closed, but I still could take pictures from the gate.

Across the street from the cemetery is Commander’s Palace, one of New Orleans’ best and most famous restaurants.

Ferns grow from the ancient wall around the cemetery across the street from Commander’s Palace.

The crypts are elaborate and showing their age. You can see how the legends of ghosts and supernatural come from places like this.

The elaborate vegetation-covered tombs stick up over the wall surrounding the cemetery.

New Orleans Architecture – Lower Garden District – Kayak Storage

In art – in the life worth living – there is always a struggle between beauty and functionality. I love finding examples that combine the two.

In the Lower Garden District – St. Andrews and Chestnut – Someone is using a beautiful old wrought iron balcony to store a couple of kayaks. I’m not sure why, but I really like that.

New Orleans Architecture – The Garden District

The Garden District in New Orleans is one place where time has ceased to exist. The ancient, worn mansions, massive greenery, and unique architecture keeps sitting there in the humid gulf air, sticking a middle finger at floods, storms, and modernity itself. The best place for a peaceful afternoon walk. It’s no wonder so many rich and famous end up there.

The Garden District is famous for its collection of giant stately mansions. But I like some of the little details the best. Look at this beautiful little curved porch off a bedroom overlooking Magazine Street. I would like to have a morning coffee on a balcony like this at every dawn for the rest of my life.

Look at the iron railings and the colors on this building. I love the lime green on the underside of the porch overhangs. All through New Orleans you see the little round punched tin lights like you see here – they are beautiful at night.

Another cool overhang. this one is painted sky blue and you can clearly see the round lights.

The trees and the porches – they seem to be growing together.

I never get tired of looking at the intricate and beautiful details on the wooden overhang bracing.

New Orleans Architecture – Fauberg Marigny and Frenchmen Street

The French Quarter has become too touristified for my taste. Filled with grimy bars, expensive antique shops, tacky trinket emporiums, and overpriced food the Vieux Carré isn’t always what it promises to be. Immediately downriver, however, is another neighborhood that is.

New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods and one of the best is the Fauberg Marigny. At the start of the 19th century, Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville (also famous for “inventing” the dice game craps) divided his plantation into residential lots, and the Fauberg Marigny was born. In the middle part of the twentieth, the neighborhood fell into decline, with the area around Jackson Square being called “Little Angola” – after the prison due to the extreme crime. In the eighties, however, commercialization in the French Quarter drove a lot of the residents downriver into Fauberg Marigny. The Marigny became what the Quarter used to be with Frenchmen street becoming ground zero for New Orlean’s essential live music scene.

The neighborhood is a good twelve inches above sea level and escaped the worst of Katrina’s ravages. There is a wide variety of classic New Orlean’s style architecture there – early Creole cottages and townhouses, American cottages, American townhouses, shotgun houses , 19th century corner store-houses, and various modern additions.

If I could live anywhere… I think I would live in Fauberg Marigny.

The Balcony Music Club isn't actually on Frenchmen Street. It's twenty feet down Decatur Street - but it's one of my favorites.

Standing outside the Balcony Music Club last Mardi Gras (I had stepped out for a second simply to catch my breath) a large group of German Tourists came down the crowded sidewalk. The man in the lead asked me in a thick accent, where to find, “Some real jazz music.” I lead them around the corner and pointed them up Frenchmen Street, telling them to stop by each club and pick the music they liked the best. He thanked me and said in very excited broken English, “Goot… Now Ve will get to see the Real New Orleans!”

Entrance to a jazz club on Frenchmen Street.

The Spotted Cat Jazz club on Frenchmen.

A row of shotgun houses in the Faubourg Marigny.

A mermaid stained glass window.

New Orleans Architecture, French Quarter

I love the wrought iron railings throughout the French Quarter. They are beautiful even when they are not crowded with Mardi Gras crowds showering topless women with cheap plastic beads. Most of the balconies are decorated – many with tacky sports stuff – but some are particularly attractive with loads of live plants.

Something you see in tropical climates is the idea of a shaded green interior plaza or atrium with a water feature. The water and plants add a coolness, making the mid day heat almost bearable and the rest of the day delightful. These are wonderful and usually hidden living spots.

A bare balcony showing off the beauty of the elaborate wrought iron.

New Orleans is the most original of all American Cities. The French Quarter has become a tourist Mecca, but in the mornings it still feels like the natural heart of the city.

My Favorite Bit of Street

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
wife
And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?
—-David Byrne

It’s not a street, just a strip of a few houses. They aren’t even big houses, they are classic New Orleans Shotgun Houses – these have a second floor in the back, called Camelback Houses. It’s at Sixth and Camp in the Garden District.

(click to enlarge) Sixth and Camp in New Orleans - a beautiful row of Camelback Shotgun Houses

I love the colors. I love the front porches, so close to the street. I love the floorplan. I really love the brackets supporting the roof apron over the front porch.

I first saw this street at night when Candy and I walked through the area from the Saint Charles Streetcar on the way to eat on Magazine Street. Under the streetlights the houses looked like they were made of icing – so bright and delicate. I came back during the day to see if they looked as nice under the sunlight.

They did.