By Mike Scott
Even if it didn’t have an intriguingly macabre backstory, the massive 3½-story Greek Revival abode at Dauphine and Orleans streets would be noteworthy from an architectural standpoint.
At 183 years old, it boasts a half-basement with a row of sidewalk-level windows and the kind of striking cast-iron filigree balconies on its upper levels that have won it bragging rights as one of the most photographed buildings in the French Quarter.
That haunting backstory, though — one that includes a sultan, a stolen harem and mass murder — only gives the Gardette-LePretre House, as it is known, that much more unique a place in New Orleans history.
It also gives it the other name by which it is commonly known: The Sultan’s House.
That the details of the story behind that name are unverified do little to erode its allure. But here’s what we know for sure:
According to a 1979 story in The Times-Picayune, before the current house at 716 Dauphine St. was built, the site was home to a small brick-and-wood dwelling dating to 1780 and owned by a free woman of color named Victoire Durrilet. She sold it in 1811 to a Francois Darby, who reportedly lived there until her death in 1816.
By 1835, the original house had been razed and work on the current house had begun for a dentist named Joseph Coulon Gardette, according to the Historic New Orleans Collection. Four years later, in 1839, it was sold to planter and merchant Jean Baptiste LePretre, who owned it until 1878.
It was LePretre who had the cast-iron balconies installed around 1850.
Here’s where the history of the place gets a little fuzzy. And bloody.
As legend holds, at some point — the year is unclear — LePretre was approached by a Turkish merchant and asked if he would rent his city house to the brother of a sultan.
LePretre, who spent much of his time on his Plaquemines Parish plantation anyway, agreed. Soon after, the sultan’s brother moved in, complete with a boatload of exotic decor, a harem of five veiled women and a bounty of gold and jewels.
What LePretre didn’t know was that the man was a fugitive, having apparently stolen the riches and the harem from his brother.
Then, one night — presumably a dark and stormy one — a gang of assassins believed to have been dispatched by the sultan descended upon the house and cut down the brother and the harem with swords. According to one story, the bloody bodies were discovered together with a message reading: “This is what happens to traitors.”
Some say the ghost of the sultan’s brother still walks the halls of the house today.
How much of that story, if any, is true is anyone’s guess. But skepticism is understandable.
For starters, there’s the conflicting dates. That 1979 Times-Picayune article pegs it all to “the middle of the 19th century.” The fact that there’s no mention of it in the archives of The Picayune — which would have certainly seized on such a crime — suggests either that date is wrong or the story is poppycock.
An earlier, more florid version of the story was published in local historian and novelist Charles Gayarré’s 1867 “History of Louisiana.” Gayarré said the events played out in 1792 — which, it should be noted, predates the current house.
Over the years, the building — encompassing 7,441 square feet, according to Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office records — would change hands, and uses, numerous times.
In the 1930s, it was subdivided into the Saba Apartments. It housed the New Orleans Academy of Art for while in the 1940s. Later, falling victim to neglect, it became a squatter’s haven.
In the late 1960s, it was rescued, renovated and again became an apartment building, which it remains today.
But to romantics — and tour guides — it’ll probably always be The Sultan’s House.
This story was originally published Dec. 26, 2019, on NOLA.com and in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.