Restoring St. Anthony’s garden (behind St. Louis Cathedral)

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Nearly one year ago George Rodrigue moved his New Orleans gallery from its rented location of twenty years at the corner of Royal Street and Orleans Street to a permanent location at the corner of Royal Street and Pere Antoine Alley, adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral.

Although by outward appearances this is a simple move across the street, the change holds resounding significance for an artist who longed for a gallery of his own and who remains deeply connected to an historical city. The week we signed the purchase papers, the Monseigneur himself called to ‘welcome us to the neighborhood,’ despite a relocation of no more than twenty feet.

The new Rodrigue Gallery takes up an enormous space on the bottom floor of a four-story historic French Quarter building. The upper floors overlook both Royal Street and Pere Antoine Alley, named for a popular pastor, from 1774 to his death in 1829. Together with his friend, Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau, they focused their efforts on assisting New Orleans’ large slave population, especially women and children.

Portrait of Pere Antoine, Edmund Brewster, 1822
  • Portrait of Pere Antoine, Edmund Brewster, 1822

Across Pere Antoine Alley, our vantage grants an excellent view of St. Anthony’s Garden, the green space directly behind St. Louis Cathedral. The area dates back to the early 1700s as not only a garden, but also a place for gatherings, markets, meals, rental property, and even a temporary church. Pere Antoine used the space as a kitchen garden, feeding the church’s monks.

St. Anthonys Garden, as it looks today
  • St. Anthony's Garden, as it looks today

According to a recent excavation project by the University of Chicago’s Anthropology Department, this peaceful French Quarter anomaly holds secrets to American history.
“The site exceeded expectations in its ability to reveal how the early city was constructed — from its earliest temporary architecture (ca. 1717-1726) and the meals that Governor Bienville’s pioneers were eating, to the unexpected influence of Native Americans in the form of hybrid pottery, decorated pipe bowls, and a hut with an axe-hewn rectangular European form and possible palmetto thatch walls of Native American technique.”

Furthermore, the excavations turned up interesting finds of clothing, accessories, coins, and other items from late eighteenth and early nineteenth century New Orleans, when Orleans Street and its raised sidewalks* continued past Royal Street, ending at the church’s back door.

(*Early man-made levees along the Mississippi River reached a mere four to six feet in height, meaning that the city often flowed with water.)

With a significant purchase of property in this, a unique and historical American city, comes responsibility. Like many French Quarter property owners, Rodrigue recognized this from the start and spent nearly a year shoring up walls, replacing dangerous and outdated electrical wiring, and above all else, focusing on general clean-up. With the building near-completed (although admittedly an indefinite work-in-progress), we now focus our attention on the green space known as St. Anthony’s Garden, named for Anthony of Lisbon and Padua (1195-1231), ‘finder of lost things’ and ‘protector of childless women,’ located behind St. Louis Cathedral.

St. Anthony of Padua with the Infant Christ, painted by Guercino in 1656; St. Anthony lived during the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
  • St. Anthony of Padua with the Infant Christ, painted by Guercino in 1656; St. Anthony lived during the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

We feel responsible for this space not only because of our building’s proximity, but also because it sits at the heart of New Orleans, a city we adore and call home. In addition, it is the backdrop for dozens of artists who hang their work on the iron fence, continuing a popular and venerated New Orleans tradition.

Spearheaded by New Orleans resident and garden authority Sarah Dunbar, a local committee aims to restore this green space to plans sensitive to the area’s diverse history, as laid out by French landscape architect Louis Benech, who lead the restoration of the Tuilleries Gardens in Paris during the 1990s.

Plan for St. Anthonys Garden
  • Louis Benech
  • Plan for St. Anthony's Garden

Benech’s plan uses native plants as well as “centuries of botanical exchanges between Louisiana and its settlers, among whom are the French, Spanish, English, German, West Indians, Native Americans, Africans, Irish and Italians,” ultimately celebrating the different ages of this unique site.
a small sampling of the many plants within Benechs plan for St. Anthonys Garden
  • Louis Benech
  • a small sampling of the many plants within Benech's plan for St. Anthony's Garden

Furthermore, the garden’s restoration looks long-term, towards up-keep, security, and docents, so that the space becomes beautiful not only as viewed through the gate, but also up close and personal, open to the public.
With Mr. Benech’s completed plans in hand, the committee’s timing involves significant fund-raising this year, culminating in ‘La Fete du Jardin’ with Monsieur Benech in April 2012, when we cut the ribbon and begin the garden’s transformation. I’ll keep you updated with our progress throughout the year, including the launch of our website this spring and a presentation at the Montleone Hotel, coordinated by Penny Edwards, and appropriately coinciding with Earth Day on April 22nd, 2011.

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

Suggested reading: Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba by Christina Vella, 1997, Louisiana State University Press; Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau, 2004, University Press of Mississippi

For related posts by Wendy Rodrigue visit “For New Orleans” and “A Gallery of His Own

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