Columns » Blake Pontchartrain: New Orleans Trivia

Blake Pontchartrain: Park Island in Bayou St. John

From "The Devil's Elbow" to city dump to Ray Nagin

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Hey Blake,

I recently had the pleasure of bartending at the former home of Ray Nagin, known as the Ashtray House, on Park Island. The architecture of a number of homes on the island is astonishingly postwar modern. I'm fascinated by this veritable island of modernity and would like to know more about it.

— Tommy

Dear Tommy,

  The area you discovered, located across Bayou St. John from City Park and accessible only from St. Bernard Avenue, wasn't known as Park Island until 1953, but has a history dating back to the city's earliest days. That's because of its location in Bayou St. John, the waterway that connected Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River and was crucial to the early development of the area. A sharp curve in the bayou known as "The Devil's Elbow" caused problems for shipping and was excavated and straightened after the Civil War. The soil dug up during that work formed the island we now know. In 1859, the land was given to surveyor Jules Allou d'Hemecourt and was known as the Isle d'Hemecourt.

  In 1866, he sold the island to James Joseph Demourelle, whose family owned it until 1905. For a time it was a hunting ground and home to a dairy and a city dump. In 1952, Demourelle Island was sold to Joseph Schiro, Jacques L. Fortier and Livingston S. Hiern, who formed Park Island Inc. Twenty-eight lots were offered for sale — at $18,000 each — and the first houses were built in 1957.

  Architect Albert Ledner designed the "Ashtray House" for the Sunkel family in 1962, adorning the outside walls with 1,200 square amber glass ashtrays. The home was owned by former Mayor C. Ray Nagin from 1998 until 2012. Ledner also designed a home on the island for Leonie Galatoire, who had spent years gathering architectural elements, including windows from a convent, remnants from the home of Archbishop John Shaw, pieces of Whitney Bank lobbies and cobblestones from the International Trade Mart site.

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