The last gasp of Storyville, in a single New Orleans photo

By Mike Scott

Every once in a while, we run across a photo in The Times-Picayune archives that’s so striking that it begs a simple question: “What in the name of Momus Alexander Morgus is going on in this New Orleans photograph?” When we do, we’ve decided, we’re going to share it — and to attempt to answer that question.

Date: March 23, 1955.

Photo credit: Photographer unknown, The Times-Picayune archive.

Crews demolish New Orleans’ Southern Railway Terminal at Basin and Canal streets in March 1955. The terminal was once the front porch of Storyville, with patrons arriving daily, ready to spend their time — and money — in the famed red-light district. This photo was taken from the rear of the building; the large arched window would have looked out onto Canal Street. (Image via The Times-Picyaune archives)

What it’s not: The result of an earthquake, explosion or similar catastrophe.

What it is: In a very real way, this photo — showing crews demolishing the old Southern Railway Terminal at Canal and Basin streets — represents the ultimate end of the line for Storyville, New Orleans’ infamous red-light district in which prostitution and jazz flourished from 1897 to 1917.

Granted, Storyville had been shuttered at the insistence of the U.S. military almost four full decades before this photo was taken in spring 1955. But by then the Southern Railway Terminal — sandwiched between the Saenger Theatre and Krauss Department Store, on land now marked by a monument to Venezuelan military hero Simón Bolívar on the Basin Street neutral ground — was among the last physical vestiges of the famed district.

In fact, for many Storyville patrons, the terminal — built in 1908 and designed by Daniel Burnham — was in a way the front porch of Storyville, the place where trains would deposit them for a night of debauchery in the district. According to reports, some particularly welcoming Storyville prostitutes were known to strip down nude and beckon to passengers from their windows as the train passed on Basin Street.

An illustration published March 23, 1955, in The New Orleans Item outlines the boundaries of the old Storyville red-light district.
An illustration published March 23, 1955, in The New Orleans Item outlines the boundaries of the old Storyville red-light district.

Covering the 15 square blocks bounded by Basin, Iberville, North Robertson and St. Louis streets, Storyville was named after City Alderman Sidney Story, who was instrumental in pushing through the legislation to create the district. Story was reportedly less than thrilled about having his name used for the city’s vice district; he wanted the district created as a way to confine and perhaps control such activity, not to help it flourish.

But Storyville soon took on a life of its own, dotted with all manner of brothels. Many of those who ran them became local legends, such as Tom Anderson, known as the unofficial mayor of Storyville; and Josie Arlington, whose place at 225 Basin was among the most famous of the district. Another one was Countess Willie Piazza, whose “two-storied mansion on the corner of Conti (and) Basin was the mecca for the high priestesses of brotheldom,” according to a florid piece published in The New Orleans Item. Then there was Lulu White, whose massive and elegant Mahogany Hall, a so-called “octoroon parlor” — specializing in women of color — reportedly employed jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton to provide entertainment.

The book was finally closed on Storyville in 1917, when the federal government prohibited prostitution within 5 miles of a military base as the United States entered World War I.

Even without Storyville, the trains still ran at the Southern Railway Terminal — for a while, anyway. But increased automobile ownership dramatically altered the transportation landscape, as evidenced by the Chevrolet billboard looming tyrannically over the demolished station in the photo.

By the late 1940s, it was decided that it only made good sense to consolidate the five railroad stations operating in the city into one mega-terminal. In 1954, the Union Passenger Terminal opened on Loyola Avenue, where it still operates today.

That meant the end of the Southern Railway Terminal — and the end of an era in New Orleans.

The Southern Railway terminal on Canal and Basin, between the Sanger and Krauss, in an undated photo. (Photo via New Orleans Public Library)

This story was originally published in February 2019 by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.

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