You can see the floor in the Saturn Bar. You can sit at a table in back. And there's a new toilet.
To those who haven't visited the storied neighborhood dive on the north side of St. Claude Avenue, these revelations won't seem like much. But to anyone familiar with the world-renowned Bywater bar, always crammed with a fascinatingly surreal mix of artwork, kitsch and straight-up junk, the news might be astounding, even alarming.
A big part of the bar's draw, for locals and so many tourists, was all that stuff -- collected over 67 years by the late owner O'Neil ("just Neil") Broyard. He was a tinkerer, gardener, collector and pack rat, and he filled the place with things he liked. Filled, as in floor-to-ceiling filled. Add the irrepressible character of Broyard himself -- a plain guy with a gruff exterior, generous to a fault, with a sharp sense of humor and a soft spot for kids and animals -- and folks kept coming around.
Broyard died of a heart attack on Dec. 22. News of his death prompted tributes and reminiscences from around the world. Broyard's family had the sad task of cleaning out the bar (which had taken on several inches of floodwater) and deciding what to do with it.
Not surprisingly, Broyard's relatives are likable people, working-class folks who pitch in unconditionally to help each other. Cleaning "Uncle Neil's" bar was a family project. His nephew, Eric Broyard, had offers to sell the building, and figured that's what he'd do. He'd lost his house in Arabi after Katrina, but all the rebuilding in the area kept his flooring business as busy as it could be. He didn't need to mess with any bar.
Then the family started going through Broyard's things. That's when they realized how many friends he had and how much the Saturn Bar meant to people. "When we went behind the bar, we found all kind of stuff back there," niece Eileen Broyard says. "Money, oranges -- But we found all these envelopes. Envelopes and envelopes." They were from people around the globe, asking Broyard to send them a Saturn Bar calendar. He mailed the calendars and kept the letters. They found countless photos of Broyard posing with customers, many of them celebrities.
Then locals started coming by and asking the Broyards to keep the bar. "They were telling us, 'Don't clean it up too much. We like it the way it is,'" niece Bridget Broyard Massey says. Family members, too, were reluctant to let it go. The place was too much an extension of Broyard himself.
So with his family, Eric Broyard will reopen the place next month. Though building repairs are ongoing, the public got a preview on Jan. 28 during a memorial gathering for Broyard. The bar looks almost preternaturally clean, though by most standards it's still a dive. The family threw away everything that was broken or ruined and kept the rest. Now, without the busted Cardio Glide machine or ancient printing press in the way, one can see more of the paintings and postcards and photos, the animals in all of their taxidermy splendor, the Statue of Liberty lamp, the mummy on the ceiling, the truly random stickers and ads tacked around.
It's also easier to see the building is, actually, architecturally lovely -- another homage to Broyard, as he built much of it. The catwalk in back holds tables and chairs, on top and in the recessed nooks below, and there's a fireplace that surprised the hell out of those who uncovered it. "I didn't even know it was there," Eric says, "and I've been coming here my whole life."
The memorial was packed with hundreds of Broyard's friends, many trading stories and choking up at the sight of certain pieces of memorabilia. People recalled how Broyard took care of everyone, whether that meant feeding them or hiring them or giving them a smack on the head when they needed it.
They talked about Mike Frolich, whose paintings cover the walls. He was a deep-sea diver down on his luck. Broyard gave him a job. One day Frolich picked up some spray paint and started going to town on the ceiling. "We didn't know what the hell he was doing up there," says family friend James Narvaez, "but look how it turned out." The result -- an ethereal galaxy featuring a big hippy-trippy Saturn -- provides one of the bar's defining visuals.
Eric Broyard hopes the place will resume its role as a good-time spot for all ages. He thinks his uncle would approve. "This is my uncle's bar," Eric says. "Even though he left it to me, it's still his bar."
- Eileen Loh Harrist
- Guests at the memorial service for the late Saturn Bar owner O'Neil Broyard crowd the front room of the iconic bar.