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Hiding In Plain Sight

n_jockeyclub_pub2Among New Orleans’s more elegant and enigmatic homes is the Luling Mansion on Esplanade Ridge. Completed in 1865, the last year of the Civil War, and deeply touched by tragedy, it emanates mystery in a city celebrated for ghosts, vampires and other things that go bump in the night. Stashed on Leda Court, a half block off busy Esplanade Avenue, the house is easily missed unless you’re looking for it. This was hardly the case in its mid-nineteenth century heyday when it was showcased on eighty acres alongside Bayou St. John. Designed by legendary New Orleans architect James Gallier, Jr. for Florence Luling, a wealthy German cotton merchant, the plastered brick structure was three-and-a half stories of Italianate opulence taking two years to build. It topped a raised terrace approached by a grand granite staircase surmounting a rusticated basement with Baroque arches. The house was adorned with generous balconies, galleries and arched windows and counted 22 rooms, many with marble mantles and elaborate cypress millwork. There was even a bowling alley. A square cupola created a fourth level and reputedly housed an observatory. The apropriately grandiose grounds boasted subtropical flora, statuary from Italy, twin flanking pavilions connected by bridges, and a lake with its own island.

An Italianate fantasy on Esplanade Ridge,

An Italianate fantasy on Esplanade Ridge,

With New Orleans an occupied city under the yoke of Reconstruction, and deprivation rampant, many resented Luling’s brash display of wealth. Some were less than sympathetic when two of his sons drowned in Bayou St. John and the collapsed Confederate economy erased his fortune. Only six years after moving into his magnificent manse, Luling sold the property to the Louisiana Jockey Club and moved back to Europe. The Jockey Club merged the estate into the recently purchased Creole racecourse and converted the Luling Mansion into their private clubhouse. Glittering soirees and elaborate carnival balls made it one the city’s grandest social beacons as it welcomed such luminaries as President Ulysses S. Grant, French painter Edgar Degas and Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia.

“The loss of the Luling mansion is another bitter reminder that Creole society is crumbling fast in New Orleans.” –Creole Son

The Jockey Club flourished until the turn of the last century when it was sold to the first of a series of owners. The vast acreage was sliced into residential lots, with access provided by two new streets, Leda Court and Verna Court named for two sisters. Another tract was folded into the New Orleans Fairgrounds, site of today’s JazzFest. By 1934, the mansion had been divided into apartments, beginning a slow but steady period of decline for what has become the largest surviving Gallier house in New Orleans. Only a few of the ten apartments are occupied, most having slid into desuetude and decay. Provoking the curious passerby from behind a rusted but defiantly elegant iron fence, the building remains off-limits to all but tenants and guests fortunate enough to be invited inside. At night, with only few lights glowing, the Luling Mansion dispenses a spectral aura, but, as with most aging Southern beauties, good manners dictate that one not look too close.

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The Luling Mansion, majestic even in decline.

Edgar Degas visits the Jockey Club in my novel, Creole Son.

 

2 Comments

  1. Bebe Bahnsen
    Sep 14, 2016

    As always, magnificent history.

  2. Ciji Ware
    Sep 14, 2016

    All these snippets of history that you weave so seamlessly into your historical novels obviously have, as their foundation, your amazing research into the architecture and culture of the period. You are the Master of The Telling Detail! Great piece!

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