By Mike Scott
In the beginning, when it first rose around 1926 from the remote area that would become New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood, people called it “The Palace,” and it’s not hard to see why.
Constructed entirely of stone in the image of an old London home, the imposing edifice with the Tudor-like embellishments at the corner of Porteous and Milne streets did, indeed, evoke a castle feel.
By the time it fell to the wrecking ball in spring 1975, however, it had become known by an altogether different name that evoked altogether different feelings: “The Haunted House of Lakeview.”
In the five unkind decades in between, the house at 214 Porteous bore witness to a slow-motion tragedy involving accusations of kidnapping, a public custody battle, repeated bouts of madness and, in the end, an emaciated body said to have been gnawed by rats.
To be sure, the family that lived in the house for its entire existence was, indeed, haunted. But not by ghosts and ghoulies.
They were haunted by a cruel public that misunderstood them, that jeered them for their eccentricities, and that tormented them relentlessly. In the end, as a final insult, that same public looted the house, looking for secrets and whispered-about treasures.
They found only sadness and decrepitude.
The family was the Orchards, and father Paul W. Orchard built the house himself by hand with the help of a hired workman.
As the story goes, Orchard was terrified of fire, so the house was built without a single stick of wood. Instead, he used brick and marble, all cemented together and reinforced with metal cut from the bodies of old automobiles.
“It featured double walls trapping a 14-inch air space that would help cool the house in the summer and keep it warm in winter,” read an account published in 1975 in The States-Item.
He soon moved into the house with his aging mother and his three children: 9-year-old Paul Jr.; middle child Rebecca, 7; and the baby, 5-year-old Martha.
Trouble soon followed. Her name was Lucy Weisiger Orchard, a former socialite from Richmond, Virginia – and the former wife of Orchard.
After their divorce in Florida, she claimed, he disappeared with the children. He said she disappeared first. It’s hard to say which is true. Likewise for the other salacious accusations that flew between the two. The upshot of it all was an ugly custody battle that played out in the newspapers.
A settlement to share custody lasted only a few years before, according to 1975 feature in New Orleans magazine, Orchard became aware of a Virginia law declaring a father couldn’t be charged with kidnapping his own children. He filed for, and received, full custody of the children.
By 1933, the children’s mother was committed to the Virginia State Hospital for manic depression. That’s where she would die 38 years later.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Orchards would over the decades earn a reputation as a family of odd ducks.
Martha fit in the best, attending Sophie B. Wright School for Girls – where she was voted brightest and most bashful — and Newcomb College.
Middle child Rebecca was developmentally disabled and followed Martha around “like a puppy.” Around 1947, Paul Jr. would be committed to the state asylum at Jackson.
Slowly, the Orchard house began to decay around Paul Sr., Rebecca and Martha. As vines grew over it, it began looking less like a palace and more like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Teenagers from throughout the region began paying the Orchards regular nighttime visits to catcall and throw rocks through the windows. Halloween night often brought particularly rowdy crowds.
Paul Orchard wouldn’t press charges, though. He would just repair the windows, eventually teaching Rebecca how to do it herself.
Then, on Christmas Eve 1974 – a year after Paul Sr.’s death – it all came to a troubling end.
After noticing their absence, representatives of their church paid a visit on the Orchard sisters. When no one answered the door, police were summoned.
There, according to newspaper reports – amid the squalor and the stench of rotting food and cat urine — they found a frightened Rebecca, sitting on the edge of a bed, muttering. On the floor nearby was the dead body of Martha, then 54.
Rats had reportedly chewed one of her ears and the tips of the fingers on one hand.
Rebecca was sent to the mental hospital in Mandeville. She died in 2003.
The coroner ruled Martha had died of natural causes, but a headline published in The States-Item blared “Starvation in a Haunted House.”
That’s when the frenzy started.
A stream of sightseers turned up at the house in the ensuing days. Broken windows led to kicked-in doors led to looting. A photo published The States-Item showed a throng watching as people filed in and out of the old ruin.
By the following spring, it was decided the house should come down.
Paul Orchard’s dream – which, in retrospect, was more of a nightmare — fell to the wrecking ball in March 1975.
This story was originally published May 9, 2020, in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.