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St. Charles: The Avenue of Dreams

June 30, 2002

Kerri McCaffety and Cynthia Reece McCaffety
tulanian@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

The Legacy of River Nymphs


If the people of New Orleans can come to Carrollton in twenty minutes, and by steam...they will come by the thousands,...the intervening avenue will, like the street of palaces in Venice, be lined on both sides with magnificent abodes, the luxurious homes, either of wealth retired, or wealth yet in its industrial harness.

So stated railroad manager Thomas Harper about the future of the boulevard that would run alongside his young rail line. More than a century and a half later, St. Charles Avenue stands as a glorious fulfillment of that prediction. Venerable, maternal live oaks arch protectively over five miles of avenue, shepherding the streetcars along between the palm trees and azaleas.

The first time you turn onto St. Charles, you're overwhelmed with a sense of green--ancient, fecund and rich, a leafy, living tunnel. Then you see the houses. The Queen Annes and the Colonials, the colleges and churches, massive stone manors and dignified villas rise along the avenue in the verdant ribbon connecting the oldest area of the city to the newer enclaves at the other end of its river-drawn geography.

It weaves through the neighborhoods in both a linear and a chronological progression, from Canal Street through the early-19th-century commercial buildings of the Central Business District and around Lee Circle into the Lower Garden District, where many houses have stood since the 1850s.

Continuing upriver, it moves through the sites of old plantations and settlements, where scattered rural villas were joined by newer construction in the 1870s, and then into the last stretches of the Avenue, with the universities and Audubon Park, a section of residences that appeared at the close of the 19th century. Rolling into what was once the far-flung village of Carrollton, St. Charles Avenue has connected both ends of the fabled crescent, neatly spanning five miles and almost 200 years.

The stem of what would become St. Charles Avenue appears in the 1759 map--a dirt road leading straight out into the swamp from the western end of Nouvelle Orleans' Rue Royale. Beyond that rudimentary sketch, the trail likely veered down toward the river, where a rough road ran along what was then called the Tchoupitoulas Coast. Through most of the 18th century, the colonial village occupied only the area that is now the French Quarter, less than a mile square.

After a devastating fire in 1788 that destroyed most of their structures, the citizenry looked to the land just west of the town, to what is now the Central Business District, for expansion. A Frenchman, Bertrand Gravier, had acquired the section nearest Nouvelle Orleans through an auspicious marriage. He began carving out lots after the 1788 fire, with a Spanish royal surveyor named Don Carlos Laveau Trudeau, and initially dubbed his new faubourg (suburb) Ville Gravier.

After the death of his wife, Marie, he renamed it Ste. Marie. Gravier named some of the streets in his faubourg after landmarks, like Magazine, from the French magasin, or warehouse, and Champ, after a slave encampment. Others were named after early residents, like Poydras and Girod. But the street running along that vestigial dirt trail, the one that would have been Royale if not for the gap between the settlements, was named to honor King Carlos III of Spain, who held title to the colony at the time.

Calle San Carlos--St. Charles--would become the main street of the new faubourg. As more and more Americans and other non-French flocked to the busy port colony just before and after the Louisiana Purchase, Ste. Marie expanded and became the logical place for them to settle. The French Quarter was a dense stronghold of Creoles whose concept of the Anglo population had been tainted by the adventurers and speculators.

The Creoles liked their little colony just the way it was--French. A vacant wedge known as the Commons lay between the rectangle of Ste. Marie and the French Quarter. Just wide enough for the old Spanish fort on the river's edge the open area broadened slightly going inland, but its wide end measured less than the length of three blocks. Still, the streets of the Faubourg Ste. Marie were not mated in name with those in the old quarter.

Perhaps the residents thought it unlikely that the twain would ever meet, what with the vaunted Creole/American animosity. And there was a canal on the drawing board in that space--a canal that never materialized except as a street name. The forgotten canal lane embodied the tension between the French Quarter and the encroaching Americans. Even after Ste. Marie bulged into the vacant Commons and the double lanes of Canal Street had been laid out, the citizens saw the resulting median as a neutral ground between the cultures.

Eventually, every street median in the city would be known as a neutral ground. St. Charles was just one of the streets to change identity upon crossing wide Canal. Yet for the former San Carlos, the confusion wouldn't stop there. The street would become an avenue in its next extension, with yet another name--Cours des Naiades. In 1807, a visionary French architect and surveyor, Bartheleme Lafon, designed a classical plan for the faubourg beyond Ste. Marie, roughly in the area that would become the Lower Garden District.

With a circular park, where Lee Circle now stands, as a pivot point, he angled the new street slightly to parallel the curve in the river, made it double the width of the other streets, and named it Cours des Naiades (later spelled Nayades in English) after the river nymphs of Greek mythology. A few streets inland toward the cypress forests, he evoked the mythical spirit of the wood sprites in Dryades Street, and named the parallel streets in between Apollo, Bacchus, and Hercules--now Carondelet, Baronne and Rampart.

His cross streets, named for the nine muses of Greek mythology, still survive: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Thalia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Euterpe, Polymnia and Urania. Lafon's plan included tree-lined canals and streets, fountains and parks, and classic schools and theaters, all within an intricate grid deftly fitted into the curving terrain. ... While Lafon's grand plan was never fully realized, his Greek-inspired label for Nayades Avenue endured for 45 years, and the wide dirt road stretched ahead running through the suburban communities of Lafayette and Jefferson City, where it ended, until a real-estate venture and its railroad pushed it onward.

Until the unification of the city in 1852, the street called Royal turned into St. Charles at Canal but became Nayades at the circle and even First Street at its Carrollton end. With unification, the City Council declared that everything above Canal Street would be called St. Charles. Old Royal and the other French Quarter street names remained intact behind their neutral ground. Articles and text excerpted from The Majesty of St. Charles Avenue, photographed by Kerri McCaffety, 2001, used by permission of the publisher, Pelican Publishing Co. Inc. 

About the authors: Kerri McCaffety has become the quintessential New Orleans photographer with her series of books chronicling the familiar and not-so-familiar aspects of her hometown. Called "one of the great photojournalists in America" by John Mariani of Esquire, McCaffety was the first-place winner of the 1999 Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas Award, and her work has been widely published throughout the country.

A 1989 graduate of Tulane, McCaffety's first book, Obituary Cocktail, was named Book of the Year by the New Orleans Gulf South Booksellers Association. She followed that book with The Majesty of the French Quarter. Her newest book, Masking and Madness: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, will be featured in the books section of the summer issue of Tulanian.

Text for The Majesty of St. Charles Avenue was provided by McCaffety's mother, Cynthia Reece McCaffety, their first collaboration. The two also collaborated on Masking and Madness.

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