As New Orleans picture-history books go, Missing New Orleans is different, breezier and more evocative than most. Most previous visual surveys of this sort were more formal in tone. Certainly they have their place: the Friends of the Cabildo coffee table tomes on historic New Orleans homes and neighborhoods were classics of the genre, as were Stuart Lynn's French Quarter photography books, Leonard Huber's pictorial histories and Henri Schindler's lavishly detailed volumes devoted to the floats and accoutrements of Mardi Gras past. But Phillip Collier's Missing New Orleans sets itself apart by being more elegant yet more populist in approach, focusing on not just buildings and rarified artifacts, but pop culture icons that may have once been commonplace but are now about as available as a can of Schwegmann's beer or a carton of K&B ice cream.
Not that historic buildings are given short shrift -- on the contrary, Missing offers some of the most vivid coverage yet of the evolution of long-gone landmarks such as the old St. Charles Hotel, including a rare daguerrotype of it as it looked shortly after it was built in 1842. A commanding, domed and colonnaded affair that could upstage most state capitals, it burned to the ground a few years later, to be replaced by a series of less imposing, if still grand, structures before finally becoming the vacant lot on which Place St. Charles was eventually erected. That's pretty much the sort of thing we expect from architectural history books, though the rare Daguerrotype is a nifty touch. But Missing distinguishes itself with its multi-layered treatment of landmarks like the old Maison Blanche department store.
Orleanians over 30 grew up with the once-mighty retail empire headquartered in the massive white marble wedding cake on Canal Street that now houses the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. A masterpiece of cascading beaux arts flourishes designed a century or so ago by local architect Sam Stone (who also gave us the Orpheum Theater), the Maison Blanche building symbolized the solidly middle class identity of a retail operation that weathered most national competition for decades only to succumb to the first wave of globalized competitors such as Wal-Mart and Target.
But that's all fodder for economists. Maison Blanche left a massive imprint on the collective psyche of the city mainly through its seasonal icon, Mr. Bingle. Appearing prominently on the faade every December like a slimmer twin of the Pillsbury Dough Boy decked out in sprigs of holly, red mittens and a silly pointed hat, Mr. Bingle epitomized the aspirations of every kid in town, at least when it came to what we wanted for Christmas. In Missing, he occupies a full page opposite a pristine, circa-1950, architectural photo of the Maison Blanche building in its resplendent mid-century glory.
But minor as well as major wonders are showcased, typically illustrated by memorabilia like the antique and luridly hued photo-postcard of Maylie's, a Poydras Street restaurant that for most of its century-long existence featured a huge wisteria vine covering its balconied faade. Sprouting from a hole in the dining room floor, the vine's trunk measured a foot in diameter at its base, a fact duly noted on the card. For a non-native, Collier displays a genius for ferreting out the landmarks that left indelible marks on local memory -- places like the Schwegmann's "giant" supermarkets located in former airplane hangers, or the old K&B drugstores with their signature purple bags and their own house brand of everything from cough drops to whiskey. A two-page photo depicts the old art deco Lenfant's restaurant on Canal Boulevard, where many of us as high school kids scored mixed drinks and gained first-hand knowledge of our date's anatomy while parked in their lot overlooking a cemetery.
Appropriate graphic tributes are paid to bygone brands of local beer and the like, but what makes this book so special is Collier's flair for graphic treatments that eloquently evoke their subject's mythic aura. So select views of Pontchartrain Beach not only illustrate the boardwalk atmosphere, but also something of the otherworldly mystery that we experienced there as kids, using vintage images to create a surreal, Felliniesque, flashback sensibility. And that pretty well sums it up: in Missing New Orleans, Collier displays a genius for making what was old and almost forgotten seem startlingly new again.
- What makes Missing New Orleans so special is Phillip Collier's flair for graphic treatments that eloquently evoke their subject's mythic aura, like the almost Felliniesque take on Pontchartrain Beach.