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If Walls Could Talk

September 12, 2007

No. 2 Audubon Place [as told to Suzanne Johnson]

People used to call me “the house that United Fruit built” but, as usual, they were wrong.

sum07_no2I think in fragments and echoes, not in terms of years—what is time, really, when you aren’t bound by age or lifespan? But humans have a most peculiar fascination with anniversaries and dates, and the people whose lives have crossed paths with mine mark my years as 100.

I’m quite fond of these people whose lives have been so inextricably entwined with mine, even when they want me to do something uncomfortable such as reminisce. Their lives are messy, irregular things, while mine is a smooth track from past to present to future.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because, first of all, I’m not the house that United Fruit built.

My Birth As A Belle

I have good bones. Over the years, as people tried to flatter me with fresh paint and what they consider the latest fashions, I try them on and must admit I look good no matter what I’m wearing. Only good bones can account for that.

If you really want to know how I came to be, start with William Theodore Jay. I’m told that W.T. was a first-generation American who had built an empire as owner of a big lumber company and sawmill north of Lake Pontchartrain. When he sold the company in 1906, he left his Madisonville mansion and came to New Orleans.

Along with two architects, Albert Toledano and Victor Wogan, who were known in their day for designing such local landmarks as the Monteleone Hotel, W.T. Jay seized on the idea of building a grand house in a new residential area to be called Audubon Place.

And so I was born, a large Beaux Arts beauty, three stories tall and positively grand.

I started out wearing a coat of dark brown pressed brick and Bedford stone. My interiors were hewn from exotic hardwood forests abroad, hand-sawn from Louisiana yellow pine and chiseled from rock-hard virgin cypress. My exteriors were baked in the brickyards of New Orleans and, if you must know, carved in plaster by the finest masters of a craft long past. This was to be my wardrobe for the first 50 years of my life.

I was quite a beauty, if I do say so myself, and I was able to see so much more because I had front doors on two sides. Humans, I’ve learned, can be very stubborn, and W.T. Jay had wanted me facing St. Charles Avenue, while the neighborhood planners wanted me to face east toward Tulane University.

It seems only appropriate to me now that I should face in both directions, with two main entrances and a faux circular drive from the Avenue. After all, how better to watch the world as it swirled around me year after year?

I don’t go on about such things as money—a bothersome human invention—but I’m told that W.T. Jay paid $36,000 to have me built and received $60,000 a decade later when my new family, Samuel and Sara Zemurray, moved in.

Here’s Where United Fruit Comes In

I was 10 years old, and Samuel Zemurray was 40 when he and Sara moved in with their children, Sam and Doris, in 1917 and began my first major renovation. They created a beautiful ballroom on the third floor, complete with a built-in player organ. And on the second floor was the most spectacular bathroom in the city, complete with a steam bath. An elevator and dumbwaiter made traveling or taking things between floors easier.

sum07_zemurray_bananas_1For the next four decades, I became a major part of the social swirl of New Orleans and even some backroom power discussions revolving around New Orleans, Boston and Latin America. Funny how when the doors are closed, humans think no one is listening.

Oh, I heard all the stories about Schmuel Zmurri, born into a poor Russian farming family that scraped together money to send him to America at 14, riding steerage to New York and then changing his name to Samuel Zemurray.

How he first worked for an aged tinkerer in Selma, Ala., chasing down the pigs customers gave him in exchange for tinware, and then worked his way into a small business selling bananas out of Mobile.

How he brought his family over from Russia in 1896 and settled them in Selma, and then moved his operation to New Orleans in 1899. How he married Sara Weinberger a month after he met her.

I heard how Sam formed the Cuyamel Fruit Co. in 1910, and the rumors of his part in the overthrow of government in Honduras. I heard how he sold Cuyamel to United Fruit, becoming its major shareholder, and then taking charge of the company when he saw his investment draining away. I heard that in Latin America they called him the “fish that swallowed the whale.”

What I didn’t hear for myself, I heard on the wind that blew through the open windows of the rich and powerful.

My memories of those years flow together in a river of images. Of the Zemurray’s niece, Lillian Hellman—who I hear later became quite a famous writer herself—running in and out of the house on visits. Of young Doris and Sam, who both grew up with me and then went off to college in Boston before pursuing their careers.

I remember Doris’ fine wedding to Roger Thayer Stone in my third-floor ballroom—the same room where her mother Sara would play the organ, the balcony doors opened up to St. Charles Avenue.

I remember how quiet it became when news reached us that Sam Jr., a captain in the Army Air Corps, had died in a plane crash over the western coast of Africa during World War II. I don’t think the old man was ever the same afterward, although when Sam Jr.’s children, Sam III and Ann, came here to live I was happy to hear their laughter as they played hide-and-seek or slid down the banister when they knew no one but me could see.

I remember dinner parties and frequent visitors from all parts of government and business. I particularly liked when “Tommy the Cork” came calling. Thomas Corcoran was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s righthand men. But the “Tommy the Cork” I knew enjoyed a good party, and would whip out his accordion when he came to visit.

And the food—good thing I didn’t mind the smell of cooking all the time. I know Sam Zemurray III likes to joke that they had bananas at every meal, but his grandmother Sara was quite the hostess and collector of recipes, both with and without bananas. She even wrote two books while living here—A Thousand Useful Hints for Every Household became very popular.

And I remember when Sam Sr. died in 1961; he and Sara had already decided that I should be passed on to neighboring Tulane University as a residence for the university president. Not an educated man himself, Sam Sr. admired the university and saw its continued welfare as an important part of his legacy. So I sat patiently, waiting for the next chapter in my life to begin.

The President’s Residence

It was a kind of confusing time when I first became a part of Tulane, so I just sat back and enjoyed the peace and quiet for several years while the people figured out what to do with me.

The problem was, as I understand it, that Tulane President Herbert Longenecker, and his wife, Jane, had already settled into No. 12 Audubon Place, a neighboring house belonging to a board member. Finally, in 1967, they arrived at my door.

It’s always quite a chuckle to see people’s reactions when they come to me for the first time, especially if they’re expected to live here. The Longeneckers were no exception.

Their furniture didn’t quite fill my space, and they were concerned that I needed a lot of upkeep.

But Jane Longenecker was up to the task as she set about to make me both an elegant place to entertain and a comfortable family home. Architect Charles Gresham did a rendering of the living room to blend with the Zemurrays’ silk-walled dining room. My elegant plaster ceilings were restored by the sons of the master craftsmen who had first created them.

Someone gave the university a few beautiful pieces of Prudent Mallard furniture and a fine desk that once belonged to historian Charles Gayarre, grandson of Etienne de Bore, on whose long-ago plantation lands I now stand.

It was a new role for me to play—as the host for university affairs—and I took to it readily. The Longeneckers decided to make my first floor the public spaces and took the second floor as their living space. My third floor was used for occasional dinners or large meetings, but no one quite knew what to do with the ballroom, and my organ became something of a novelty.

I also had a major change to my appearance. After 50 years with my brown pressed brick, I was painted white. My columns gleamed and I truly became the jewel of the avenue.

The next eight years were filled with university life—parties around football games, faculty meetings, women’s meetings and even a grandparent’s association that met on the third floor. The Longeneckers were ebullient hosts–they never met a stranger, and through them I quickly became an important part of Tulane life. There were huge bowls of punch, finger sandwiches from Gambino’s Bakery, and whiskey sours for the adults.

One of my first events for Tulane was an engagement party for the Longeneckers’ daughter, Marjorie, on New Year’s Eve 1968. And my largest event of the Longenecker years was Marjorie’s wedding reception—with 500 people filling my rooms and grounds and everyone so filled with joy.

Things weren’t always so festive. There were tense times in those years of transition, and I saw many changes before Herbert Longenecker stepped down in 1975. I heard voices of righteousness, fear, anger and conciliation in many meetings as the university went through desegregation and then became a center of student unrest over Vietnam.

What I—and the Dog Door—Saw

I clearly remember the first time I met Sheldon and Lucy Hackney—they had come down to look at Tulane from Princeton, where he was provost and she had just finished her degree. His hair was a bit long, and her dress was a bit short—and they thought I was seriously overdressed, in an architectural sort of way.

I knew we would have fun together.

The Hackneys lived with me during 1975–80, along with two of their children, Elizabeth and Fein, who were 11 and 14 when the family moved in. A third daughter was in boarding school.

By now, the Tulane community considered me as much a public space as a private home, and I think the Hackney children found the idea of tourists exiting the streetcars out front and posing for photos by the front columns a bit disconcerting. I’m used to being the center of attention, but for families it seems to take a little getting used to.

But I enjoyed having children in my halls again, playing what they called “knee football” in the upstairs hallway and shooting baskets in the back driveway. And, as young families do, they got caught in some amusing situations.

They may think no one knows this, but I clearly recall the evening when Sheldon and Lucy had gone to a formal affair and came home late without their house key. There was nothing to be done but for the tuxedo-clad president to enter by climbing through the flapping dog door in the back.

My third floor was generally used only for the children’s parties—which had to be chaperoned after it was discovered that the young whippersnappers could climb out onto the roof and sit.

But I do recall one formal event on the third floor. Jordan’s King Hussein came to dinner, passing students silently holding pro-Israeli protest signs along the way. I think the king was a bit tense about it all, but everything went smoothly once he settled into the reception on the first floor and then the dinner in my third-floor ballroom.

A couple of times, humorist Art Buchwald came to visit, and talk show host Dick Cavett and other famous people. And it was during these years that I had the chance to renew my acquaintance with Lillian Hellman, who you already know ran through my halls as a youngster growing up in New Orleans.

Don’t Call Me a Fraternity House

I met Eamon and Margaret Kelly before they ever came to live with me, but when he became Tulane’s president in 1981 I must admit I was a bit taken aback when he and Margaret arrived with Margaret’s mother, Sue Ellen, and the four Kelly teenage sons in tow. I knew that Martin, Paul, Andrew and Peter would be entertaining inhabitants. In fact, visitors once wandered mistakenly into the family’s living area and commented that it was very kind of the Kellys to allow a fraternity to live with them. The young men were quite indignant about this, as was I.

Other than a bit of painting, the Kellys made few changes to me. But they used my spaces differently, incorporating their family into the whole instead of limiting their personal space to the second floor. This was rather good for me, as I was better able to stay involved with everything—after 80 years, you rather get used to having people around. In my third-floor ballroom, which was rarely used except for large events, the boys had a pool table and pinball games.

As I look back, I realize the Kelly years were among the most interesting periods of my life. They entertained at least three nights a week for university functions, so I was always filled with the sounds of laughter and the clink of china and fine glasses. I met students, faculty members, athletes and alumni. I met famous guests, particularly, as I recall, a lot of politicians—Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson. I don’t remember all their names—only that most commented on my grandeur and beauty.

And there was a spectacular wedding, as Paul Kelly was married with about 600 guests enjoying themselves throughout my rooms as well as in air-conditioned tents on my lawns. And an old friend, Doris Zemurray Stone, came back and celebrated her 80th birthday.

There was sadness in my halls during these years too, as the Kellys’ eldest son, Martin, died in an automobile accident. The family retreated inside these walls as they mourned such a horrible loss.

After 17 years with the Kellys—the people I’d spent the most time and space with since the Zemurray family—I felt in my bones a transition period was coming when I heard that a new president was headed to Tulane.

I Get a Facelift

I was surprised when the new Tulane president, Scott Cowen, first visited me with the new “first lady” of Tulane, Marjorie Cowen. On the one hand, they recognized my beauty and grandeur. On the other, they said they thought I looked tired. Hmph!

But maybe they were right, and I had to admit as they set to work to bring me “up to date,“ I began to shine as I hadn’t in many, many years. It took 13 months, and during most of that time the Cowens lived elsewhere so the workers would have the freedom to come and go as they needed. It also gave me a chance to reconnect in a way to Sam Stone, Sam Zemurray Sr.’s eldest grandson, who used to visit his grandparents here as a boy and who funded all of my renovations. Sam passed away recently, but I’m glad that he was able to see me brought back to the grandeur he remembered as a child.

What did they do to me? One big change was in my third-floor ballroom, which no one had really figured out how to use since the grand days of the Zemurray parties. Now it is an elegant living and dining area, with a solarium overlooking St. Charles Avenue and Audubon Park. There’s a small kitchen installed on the third floor so that late-night snacks don’t have to be prepared in the big catering kitchen on the first floor.

The old organ purchased for Sara Zemurray has gone into storage now—it no longer worked, though I have hopes that someday it will be restored.

The greatest changes occurred on the second floor, where the Cowens spend their time. I now have a sunlit study where the president checks his e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night—it once was Sam Zemurray’s state-of-the-art bathroom. A sitting room creates a transition between the stairway and the private living spaces. Closets were carved out of the vast expanse of the second floor.

The first floor remains my public space, where visitors come to dine and to bask in the elegance of gleaming hardwoods and intricate plasterwork, and enjoy the university art and the fine antiques. And this is where most of the visitors come, and they do so about four times a week when the Cowens are in town. I particularly remember a visit by Alan Lomax, the famous musicologist, who sat in my sitting room telling tales of the great blues music of the 1920s.

And there are still special family occasions. When the Cowens’ grandchildren come to visit I once again enjoy the sound of small, running feet. The rest of the time, I settle for the softly trotting feet of Gibson, the family’s golden retriever. And, recently, I held another wedding reception, with 125 out-of-town guests both inside and spilling onto my grounds to celebrate the wedding of the Cowens’ daughter.

Happy Birthday to Me

It has been quite a satisfying first century, now that I think back on it, and my transition from private home to university icon has been an interesting one. Yet I always will remain a family home for the Tulane presidents and their families. And the university’s history—and the history of New Orleans—will always live in me.

“If walls could talk,” people like to say.

Ain’t it the truth?

Editor’s Note: Information for this article was taken from transcripts of oral histories as part of Marjorie Cowen’s No. 2 Audubon DVD project.

Summer 2007

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000