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Finding Lost New Orleans

September 9, 2000

Judith Zwolak
Michael DeMocker

New Orleans, 1867. Bienville would be proud. Nearly 150 years after the French-Canadian explorer settled on the banks of the Mississippi River, the city is a bustling metropolis of 200,000 people. Its setting is striking. The St. Charles Hotel sits proudly in the center of the town's "American sector." Bayou St. John is a scene of rural, bucolic beauty. Steamboats chug along the Mississippi River's bustling shoreline. Industry and commerce fuel the city's economic engine.

Cotton mills, brickworks and boiler factories employ thousands throughout the area. Gasworks light the streets at night, and the French and Poydras markets offer an abundance of wholesale and retail goods. The city's residents also enjoy a variety of social services, religious offerings and entertainment venues. Widows' and orphans' asylums, hospitals, fire departments, churches and synagogues are among the city's prominent institutions.

The French Opera House, New German Theatre and Fairgrounds racetrack provide a variety of amusements. With all this to offer, who wouldn't want to live in the Crescent City?

Although it was only two years after the end of the Civil War and New Orleans was fast losing its river-based trade to the cities in the North on the transcontinental railroad, the 1867 New Orleans City Councilmen were the consummate boosters. To encourage immigration and investment in New Orleans and Louisiana, they hired the city's premier photographer, Theodore Lilienthal, to create a photographic survey of the area.

The photos, displayed for the first and only time at the Paris Exposition of 1867 and presented to French emperor Napoleon III, are a systematic study designed to present New Orleans at its best and encourage "the capitalist, the artist, the artisan and the mechanic and laborer" to move to the city. If the collection of 150 photographs elicited an overwhelming urge to pack up family and belongings and make a new life in the Crescent City, then Lilienthal and his benefactors had done their jobs.

The photos, some of the first ever taken in New Orleans, are also a gold mine to present-day historians of New Orleans, the South and 19th-century urban life.

Making them all the more intriguing is their novelty. No one alive today knew they existed until five years ago. This fall, all 126 remaining photos from the collection were on display for the first time in the United States--and the first time anywhere in more than a century--in a joint exhibition at Tulane's Newcomb Art Gallery and the New Orleans Museum of Art that ran through Nov. 19.

What Photos?

Little did Gary Van Zante know that a 1995 telephone call from Hans Peter Mathis, director of the Napoleon Museum in Arenberg, Switzerland, would start a five-year project resulting in his designing an international exhibition and writing a book on a largely unknown photographic collection.

Van Zante, curator of Tulane's Southeastern Architectural Archive in Joseph Merrick Jones Hall and an expert on print and photographic representations of New Orleans, recalls feeling nonplussed as he listened to the description of New Orleans photographs that the Swiss curator had unearthed.

Van Zante's interest grew as he methodically pieced together the story behind the unique set of prints and the photographer who created them. The tale begins in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War and a challenging time for the residents of New Orleans. The city was in the midst of Reconstruction and struggling to revive markets that existed before the war, particularly river-based commerce and the cotton trade with Europe.

"The city was surpassed by the great industrial cities of the North and railroad centers like St. Louis," Van Zante says. "The city was losing commerce and trade." The 18-member City Council of New Orleans decided proactive measures were needed to increase investment in the area and encourage European immigrants to view the Crescent City as the land of opportunity.

They commissioned Lilienthal to complete a photographic survey of the city, a study that would highlight the area's stable economy and industrial strengths but also show ties to familiar European institutions.

"In the photos you get a sense of previous generations' immigration to the city in the establishment of the German theaters and the French operas," Van Zante says. "It gives you a real sense of a multi-ethnic city."

The ultimate venue for the photographs is the Louisiana Pavilion at that year's Paris Exposition, an international exhibition of scientific, industrial and artistic advances. With an anticipated attendance of 11 million, the exposition promised a significant audience for the photographs. No expense was spared for Louisiana's participation in the event.

The council devoted considerable resources to the project, paying Lilienthal $2,000 for the commission, as much as his contemporaries would make in a year. The Paris Exposition was the World's Fair of its time, and Louisiana sent samples of its primary agricultural and commercial products for display.

When visitors entered the Louisiana Pavilion, they encountered cotton, moss, tobacco, pimientos from Avery Island, dress shirts from a New Orleans tailor, clocks made by Louisiana artisans as well as Lilienthal's portfolio of New Orleans photographs.

The pavilion itself was even a display item in the exhibit. Designed as a prefabricated cypress cottage in which immigrants could reside while they constructed their permanent house, the tiny 15-by-20-foot structure must have made cramped quarters for visitors who wished to see the fruits of Louisiana's bounty.

Although Van Zante says French newspaper accounts expressed confusion about the Louisiana Pavilion's tiny, prefab structure, the exhibit inside, nevertheless, won a gold medal at the exposition, with Lilienthal's photographs garnering a bronze medal.

After the exposition closed, the New Orleans photographs became part of the emperor's personal possessions. (Napoleon himself reciprocated by sending the city council a book he wrote on the life of Julius Caesar.) After his death a few years later, Napoleon's widow took the photographs and other possessions with her to the emperor's boyhood home in Switzerland.

The house and its holdings became state property following her death, becoming known as the Napoleon Museum. The photographs had long been in storage when the museum's new director discovered them in 1995.

Although the existence of the collection was unknown to anyone in New Orleans, the name of the photographer was a familiar one. The Southeastern Architectural Archive possessed numerous Theodore Lilienthal prints from the mid-19th century, including some stereoscopic images of the same scenes in the Paris Exposition collection.

These double images, when viewed through an instrument called a stereoscope, present a three-dimensional representation of the photograph being viewed. They, like the photos in the exposition collection, consisted largely of buildings and scenic views of the city.

Photography, invented only 30 years earlier, was still a complex and intricate endeavor, particularly in the unstable outdoor environment. Van Zante says the middle-aged Lilienthal, who had emigrated from Germany a decade earlier, faced a grueling task when making photos of the city's buildings and the area's rural environs.

"This is an enormously labor-intensive process," he says. "The camera is as big as a computer and the glass plates are the same size as the photographs, 11-by-15 inches. This is a huge project for a man in his 40s, to go all over town, into the bayous, down river, up river. And the threat of yellow fever was always there."

Also dangerous was the process of making the photographic plates. Lilienthal used collodion, a highly flammable gum-like chemical that reacts with silver halide when exposed to light. The reaction forms a latent image on the glass plate, which the photographer then fixed to a permanent image with an albumen mixture before traveling back to his studio to print the final photo.

In the 1860s, as Lilienthal traveled about town and to remote locations via unpaved roads in his horse-drawn wagon, he risked disaster--or at least ruined plates--as he bounced over each pothole and bump.

Taking on these risks not only earned Lilienthal a medal at the Paris Exposition, Van Zante says, but also served his business. The photographer sold stereoscopic views of the city--taken on the same outings as the exposition photos--for years to come.

"His was probably the most profitable studio in New Orleans at the time and employed at least a couple of dozen people to manufacture stereocards," Van Zante says. Lilienthal moved to Minneapolis in the 1880s and died there in 1894.

Van Zante and his fellow researchers have located the photographer's descendants but no personal records of the survey commission. The current location of his bronze medal is also a mystery.

The Story Of A City

City surveys such as Lilienthal's New Orleans collection were popular at the time, Van Zante says, particularly as a means of encouraging European immigration. Due to the New Orleans photographs' brief exhibition at the Paris exposition and subsequent storage in a personal collection, it is one of the most complete and largest mid-19th-century surveys of an American city in existence.

"Unfortunately, it was kind of a text without a narrative," Van Zante says. Although brief captions accompany each photo, Van Zante and his team of student interns painstakingly researched the location and history behind each building photographed. As is typical in other city surveys, the New Orleans photographs follow traditional themes. They represented the city's culture, history, prominent institutions, religious organizations, social welfare agencies and industrial and commercial enterprises.

Lilienthal shot locations from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to the West Bank, from downriver as far as military encampments in Faubourg Franklin to the town of Carrollton upriver. About 20 of the photographs presented buildings or views that were previously unknown to Van Zante and other New Orleans historians. One such photo shows a sprawling white building seen through an archway that sports the word "restaurant" in huge letters. "Lake end Pontchartrain" reads the caption.

"That's the only known photograph of that building," Van Zante says.

Other prints offer earlier views of areas or buildings than previously seen in historic collections, such as Lilienthal's photo of a tree-shaded street in the town of Carrollton from the vantage point of the Carrollton Hotel. Water scenes also figure prominently in Lilienthal's collection and his photos show everything from the lowliest tow barge to the launching of the Great Republic steamboat, at the time called "the grandest boat on the water."

Shots of bathing houses on Lake Pontchartrain reveal the area as a popular resort. And his views of rural Bayou St. John, a busy thoroughfare for logging boats, show the photographer at his most artistic. The industrial images from the collection also impressed Van Zante.

"There are sugar refineries, factories, boilermakers and gasworks," he says. "When you think of 19th-century New Orleans, that's not the first thing that comes to mind, although it's clearly part of the fabric of the city of New Orleans."

Also part of ordinary life are the shots of the city's firehouses and firefighters. "It was important to demonstrate that the city could protect itself," Van Zante says. "Everyone was afraid of fire in the 1860s." Lilienthal's photo of the French Opera House on Toulouse and Bourbon streets includes a small building gutted by fire in the foreground. Perhaps the tiny structure serves as an omen for the grand landmark, which also burned to the ground in 1919.

The collection's goal of presenting New Orleans as a destination for workers and investment produces an incomplete story of the city at the time, Van Zante says. "You don't see plantation houses," he says. "There is also not worker housing or vernacular buildings. And most of the views are not in the old quarter but in the American sector. This was the commercial district, where there were banks, wholesalers, merchants and the retail shops. So many of the city's oldest buildings are not included."

Although people appear in numerous photos, shots of African-Americans and women are especially rare even though blacks made up half the city's population. The photos also show little evidence of the military occupation of New Orleans after the Civil War. A federal flag flying over the Mechanics Institute on Dryades Street is one of the few signs of federal forces in the city. The missing 24 photographs from the portfolio may have presented a more complete story, Van Zante says.

Obvious omissions, such as the St. Louis Cathedral, are known to have existed in the original 150-photograph collection, he says. Documenting the location of each of the remaining 126 photos involved the detective work of dozens of archive staff members, interns and volunteer researchers. Only the address of a two-story residence in one of the photos remains a mystery.

"There is a great deal of discipline required for this type of research," Van Zante says, "but you can't predict where it will go. Trying to organize it is impossible; it's going to lead you to something unexpected."

For instance, to research the date of a photo that features a storefront bearing the name of Simmons and Hirsh, researchers turned to the New Orleans city directory--the precursor to today's phone book--to see in which years the company listing appeared. Another resource at the archive provides the urban context to the photographs.

Fire insurance map atlases, which were published by the Sanborn Map Company from 1876 to the 1960s, are extensive drawings of urban areas that included information on all structures, including construction material, height and function. Although initially designed to assess fire risk and published every 10 to 12 years, the maps have provided an invaluable narrative of the city, Van Zante says.

With Lilienthal's photo of the New Orleans City Railroad Stables, for instance, researchers used the Sanborn atlas to identify the direction of view of the photograph and date the building by seeing whether the building was listed in previous or subsequent atlases. "The atlases allow us to date a building, at least within a range, which we couldn't do any other way," Van Zante says. The photos themselves provided a variety of clues.

Olivia Fagerberg, who was an intern and then a curatorial assistant while working on the project in 1996, says the process involved a thorough examination of each print. "We brainstormed various areas where we might approach the research in terms of city planning," she says. "For instance, was there a canal visible? Was there street lighting? Was there a paved road shown? What kind of buildings were shown?" A particular challenge for Fagerberg was the photograph with the caption, "U.S. Sedgwick's Hospital."

"We knew nothing about it. Although we knew it was an Army hospital, I could find no references to it," she says. "I spent a year with this photograph as my nemesis." Fagerberg exhausted the resources of the archive and other reference centers in New Orleans. A trip to the state archives in Baton Rouge just before she left her position finally revealed that the hospital was built by the military in the undeveloped area next to the river where the Uptown Square shopping center now sits.

"I had grappled with that one the entire time I was there," says Fagerberg, who so enjoyed her experience on the project that the classics major from Vassar decided to take up a career in historic preservation. She began her graduate studies in Texas this fall. Newspaper reports also provided invaluable information.

For this research, Van Zante primarily relied on volunteers from the Tulane University Women's Association, an organization of women employees of Tulane and wives of university employees. "They enjoyed reading about New Orleans in 1867 and we learned a lot about Lilienthal and the photographs from their work," Van Zante says.

On Display

After nearly three years of research, Van Zante and his researchers have documented virtually all 126 photographs from the Lilienthal collection and welcome the visitors to view them at their first showing in over a century. Erik Neil, director of the 4-year-old Newcomb Art Gallery, says the exhibition was an opportunity for the gallery to highlight the research of a Tulane staff member.

"I am very pleased that the gallery was the forum where the intellectual life of the university was displayed, where Gary's work has become known to a much broader public," Neil says. "And it was exciting to host the 21st-century premiere of these photographs."

Both Neil and Van Zante credit the other organizations that were involved with the exhibit--including the Swiss government, the Napoleon Museum and NOMA--for bringing the event together. Van Zante also was able to use the exhibit in some courses at the School of Architecture this fall and hopes to eventually send the exhibition on an international tour. His book, which contains prints of all the photographs and the stories behind them, will be published next year.

As fascinating as we find them today, Van Zante says it's difficult to measure whether the photographs achieved the outcome that the 1867 City Council of New Orleans desired. As in all major cities in the latter part of the 19th century, European immigrants arrived in New Orleans in great numbers, nearly 1,000 a month in 1867. The Louisiana Pavilion exhibit may have encouraged some immigrants to choose New Orleans as a destination, but it's impossible to know for sure.

It's also hard to gauge how visitors to the Louisiana Pavilion at the Paris Exposition regarded the photographs, whether they believed Lilienthal presented a "true" portrait of New Orleans. But Van Zante says the audience likely accepted the collection at face value. "The question of photographic truth wasn't as complex in 1867 as it is today," he says. "The camera was seen as an instrument for recording visual fact."

Judith Zwolak, a former editor in University Publications, is now a free-lance writer based in Magnolia, Ark. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Tulanian.


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