How an 1874 romance story gave one of the oldest French Quarter buildings its name

By Mike Scott, contributing writer

New Orleans has long been an uncommonly literary place. That’s mostly because it’s also an uncommonly uncommon place, an irresistible inspiration for countless scribes who often end up borrowing real Crescent City locations to breathe life into their works.

But it works both ways.

Sometimes, a real New Orleans place, after decades of relative anonymity, is given new life by a writer. Exhibit A: Madame John’s Legacy, at 632 Dumaine St. in the heart of the French Quarter.

When the building at that address made a only brief cameo appearance in George Washington Cable’s racially fraught 1874 romance “Tite Poulette,” it didn’t just get new life. It got the name by which it’s still known today.

In real life, Madame John’s Legacy was never owned by a Madame John. But that doesn’t make it any less significant, considered as it is to be one of the country’s finest examples of French Colonial architecture.

According to the Historic New Orleans Collection, records indicate the property was owned by ship captain Jean Pascal – and, later, by his wife, Elizabeth Réal  — as early as 1728, just seven years after Adrien de Pauger laid out the French Quarter’s street grid.

Dating to 1788, the building on Dumaine Street known as Madame John’s Legacy has New Orleans’ multi-cultural history embedded in its very DNA: It was built by an American for a Spaniard and is considered one of the finest examples of French Colonial architecture in the country. (Photo by Mike Scott)

Its application for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places estimates that the site’s original house was built between 1722 and 1728 on an eight-foot ground-level “basement” – not unusual at the time to protect the living areas from flooding.

Various outbuildings went up and came down over the years as the building changed hands. Among its former owners: Rene Beluche, a confederate of the privateer Jean Lafitte, adding yet another layer of romance to the house’s history.

In 1788, while owned by Don Manuel Lanzos, that original house was destroyed, presumably by the fire that consumed much of the Quarter that year, and rebuilt by American builder Robert Jones using much of the same materials, records show. Although the city was under Spanish rule at the time, it was also rebuilt in the previous style – briquette-entre-poteaux, or “brick-between-posts” – so common during the French Colonial era.

Atop, two dormers protruded from the slate roof, with a lush garden courtyard out back.

An outbuilding dating to 1826 housed stables and a kitchen on the ground floor and servants quarters above. Half of that building was sold with part of the property in 1845, leading to construction of another outbuilding, described as a “garçonnière.”

At the time Cable’s story was published in the 1870s, the main house still featured that ground-floor basement. The second floor, where the living areas were located, was characterized by “a deep front gallery over which the roof extends,” Cable wrote, although his description more or less ends there.

Lafcadio Hearn would add to that description in his 1883 book “Scenes of Cable’s Romances,” calling it “a very peculiar house, half brick, half timber.”

Hearn continued: “It creates the impression that its builder commenced it with the intention of erecting a three-story brick, but changed his mind before the first story had been completed, and finished the edifice with second-hand lumber, — supporting the gallery with wood posts that resemble monstrous balusters.”

The years after Cable’s story was published saw it change hands multiple times, including being owned for nearly 100 years by the family of W.C.C. Claiborne II, the son of the former governor and statesman.

In 1947, its then-owner, Stella H. Lemann, donated it to the Louisiana State Museum, with a key stipulation: that it be “managed, maintained and preserved as a landmark, museum and memorial of the early days of New Orleans without changing its architectural integrity.”

By then, though, it needed help, having fallen into deep disrepair. The state kept good on its promise, though.

Madame John’s Legacy has undergone multiple restorations over the years, including in the early 1970s and again in 1998. In 1972, the discovery of an old privy pit was the subject of an archeological dig by students at the University of New Orleans – then LSUNO – that turned up some 2,000 artifacts, ranging from tobacco pipes to broken dishes to old toys.

Currently, Madame John’s Legacy is undergoing another restoration, according to the Louisiana State Museum website. Consequently, it’s closed to visitors.

The curious, however, can catch glimpses of it in such movies as 1991’s “Interview with the Vampire” and 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” – or they can read the 10-page Cable story that started it all.

Thanks to reader EdnaMarie Campbell Sevin for suggesting Madame John’s Legacy as a topic. Do you know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or are you just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at moviegoermike@gmail.com.

Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carré Digital Survey; the National Register of Historic Places; “Tite Poulette,” by George Washington Cable; “The Scenes of Cable’s Romances,” by Lafcadio Hearn.

This story was originally published in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate and on NOLA.com in May 2021.

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