To understand the Garden District, head to the second floor of the House of Broel, home to owner Bonnie Broel’s exhibit about her father’s Jefferson Highway frog farm and her vast dollhouse collection, which includes a 72-room miniature version of the Russian villa that her father’s family owned before World War I.
Broel’s “Russian Palace” dollhouse is extravagant and large: 10 feet high and 12 feet wide. In each room, behind a Plexiglass facade, is a carefully created scenario: guests in a grand ballroom, a ballerina in her boudoir preparing to make her entrance, cooks in the kitchen preparing the midnight meal, seamstresses in another room putting the final touches on the latest fashions.
Of course, Broel, 76, never viewed the palace’s workings during its heyday. “It’s how I imagine it,” she said.
Most who walk the streets in this heavily residential neighborhood must use their imagination to understand what happens here. Broel’s is the only Garden District mansion open on a regular basis.
Though it is now bordered by high-poverty areas, the Garden District, once considered a garden suburb for New Orleans’ wealthy merchants, remains a step back in time: a tranquil, leafy area lined with spectacular mansions, some of them home to famous residents like John Goodman, Beyonce and Jay-Z, and Sandra Bullock.
Postman Steven Colar delivered mail recently near a house on First Street where Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, died during a visit in 1889. Not from the mailbox, a rectangular granite monument to Davis lies in the grass next to the street. “Take to thy heart, O! Southland, this thy son, the Christian chieftan who strove for thee in life,” the inscription extols.
Colar’s route is different here, more shaded and with fewer mailboxes per block, because Garden District blocks were divided into four square lots instead of the dozen or so long, skinny, rectangular lots seen in other parts of the city. But despite fewer mailboxes, there’s more volume: Garden District residents seem to get more catalogues and magazines than other routes where he delivers, which makes his bag heavier, he believes.
Curious tourists hoping for a glimpse of what happens here in the Garden District often approach Colar to ask where Beyonce or Anne Rice lives, information he can’t give out. Even if he, the postman, saw a famous neighbor here, he couldn’t make a fuss. “We’re told to put the mail in the box and keep going,” he said.
Cemeteries and celebrities
One of the more bustling areas of the tranquil Garden District is the City of Lafayette No. 1 Cemetery, where Bob Bell from Livery Tours gave his spiel recently, showing Mexican tourists Jorge and Mariela Candila what he thought was the burial ground’s “saddest grave,” wall vault 162: the final resting place of eight young members of the Clavarie family ranging from 2 days old to 7 years. Over their names is an inscription that reads: “In memory of my children.”
Still, it’s clear that the grief of anonymous parents pales to the draw of famous neighbor Anne Rice, as Bell leads the couple to the cast-iron tomb that was the model for the tomb for the Rice character Vampire Lestat. Bell urges the Candilas to knock on the tomb, a common tourist practice. But there is no response. Like a typical Garden District resident, Lestat prefers not to put himself on public display, Bell said.
But Britton Trice has become part of the neighborhood during the 35 years that he’s run Garden District Book Shop from the Rink, at the corner of Washington Avenue and Prytania Street. So his knowledge goes beyond the historic antebellum homes to those who live inside them. With some families, he’s now sold books to four generations and so he often orders with neighbors in mind. “One for Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Brown, and Mr. Morrell,” he said.
About half of his customers are now tourists, said Trice, who saw the area become a tourist destination about 20 years ago, when the U.S. National Park Service began offering tours here. Today, his most common questions from visitors are “Where’s Anne Rice’s house?” “Where is the streetcar?” and “Do you have change for the streetcar?” he said.
‘A crazy mix of the haves and the have-nots’
Bookstore customer and lifelong New Orleanian Laurie Laura, 63, raised her children on the West Bank and during that time, the Garden District was “a little out of her range.” But when she became an empty nester, she bought a condo nearby, though she still feels a little pretentious saying that she lives in the Garden District, so she sometimes just says Uptown.
Laura loves how central she is, able to take the streetcar from her condo or walk anywhere she needs to go. Yet clearly others are attracted to the location, Laura said, noting that The Grocery, one of her favorite lunch spots, will soon be closing, due to new owners who tripled the rent. Laura and other neighbors are hoping that someone else in the neighborhood will rent a space to the deli’s owner. At The Grocery, owner Marcie McCall confirmed Laura’s account.
Over 12 years, McCall has created a special atmosphere here. From behind her counter, Tharrison Boykin, 28, has served up soup, salad, po-boys, and pressed Italian sandwiches for customers for five years, all while spinning the trademark mix of music that he’s known for on WTUL as DJ Cockratease.
During that time, Boykin became a Garden District fan. “This is the most awesome place ever,” he said, raving about the passing streetcar, the lush green environs, and the neighbors he’s befriended.
He’s a native New Orleanian, who grew up looking at houses here, with no idea who lived behind the doors. He’s been enlightened from his perch at The Grocery, at the edge of the Garden District. “It’s a crazy mix of the haves and the have-nots,” he said. “It’s interesting everyday.”