by Henry Lane Hull
NEW ORLEANS, LA—As I am writing this item in our 12th-story hotel room overlooking the Mississippi River, a 15-story cruise ship passes on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. This trip is in part the fulfillment of several bucket list aspirations.
On the trip south we stopped at Birmingham, Ala., to visit the Beeson Collection of Wedgwood at the Birmingham Museum of Art.
The museum claims to be the largest repository of Wedgwood outside of Britain, but from my travels I have seen no greater collection even in England, thus I think the museum could say “in the world.” I was last there over 30 years ago and the depth and diversity of the collection has continued to expand. Walking through the many galleries, one is impressed by both the vastness of the collection and the many variations of the porcelain produced over the last two and a half centuries. In addition, Oscar’s, the museum restaurant, is one of the best in Birmingham.
From Birmingham we went on New Iberia, La., to visit Shadows-on-the-Teche, a magnificent Ante Bellum mansion on the Bayou Teche, built between 1831 and 1834. In 1958, Weeks Hall, a descendent of the builder David Weeks and the last private owner, bequeathed the property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The house and the three acres of gardens with ancient live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss were well worth the long ride to see them.
We went for a late lunch at the only restaurant we found open, Fromage, which serves excellent cuisine. Talking with the proprietor, Carl Boudreaux, we learned that he previously lived in Colonial Beach, was well familiar with the Northern Neck and when he pulled up a picture of the home his family had rented, I immediately recognized it as belonging to friends of long standing. The world is indeed an oyster.
Here in New Orleans for the first time in almost 20 years, I spent one day on a praline crawl, visiting the various candy shops that make the city’s famous confection. I undertook the same escapade on our last visit with my Good Wife’s late uncle. The permutations of pralines are extensive and one needs to experience the variety of what the many confectionaries offer. My Good Wife tends to be slightly praline-abstemious, but I do not and enjoy watching the delicacies being made as much as I do consuming them.
At present the most elaborate historic preservation effort being undertaken is the restoration of the Seignouret-Brulatour House on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Built 200 years ago to offer commercial space for furniture making on the ground floor and upscale living on the upper floors, the structure declined over the last decades, becoming a virtual slum. Now $30 million is being spent to bring it back both as a museum and as exhibition space, the goal being to have the project completed as a teaching project in itself and as a demonstration of the fruits of combined historic and archeological research by the time of the city’s tricentennial celebrations next year.
The rehabilitation of the building has brought forth greater understanding of the wisdom of earlier generations with respect to ventilation, foundations and masonry and most particularly in the methods of allowing moisture from the ground to escape without doing damage to the structure. I have enjoyed joining other sidewalk superintendents watching the work progress.
Both my Good Wife and I have New Orleans ancestry in our DNA and coming here evokes thoughts of what those earlier generations experienced, especially walking the streets that are virtually unchanged since our forbearers walked them. For the most part the modern buildings are not attractive, but the French Quarter, Garden District and Uptown have not been harmed by “progress,” and give one a vibrant glimpse into the city’s history, as well as some of the best candy anywhere.