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Blake Pontchartrain: What was the first residence on Bayou St. John?

The history of the old Spanish Custom House


Hey Blake,

What was the first residence built on Bayou St. John and does it still stand?

Maddy Freeman

Dear Maddy,

  With the city preparing to celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2018, we are reminded that French settlers were living along Bayou St. John in 1708, 10 years before New Orleans even was founded. Historian Cassie Pruyn, author of an upcoming book about the bayou, says that doesn't include the structures built by early Native Americans who populated the lower bayou or the part that sits on the higher ground of Metairie Ridge.

  Early French settlers numbered only five or six men, Pruyn says, and their dwellings likely were little more than thatched huts. All but one, a Canadian named Antoine Rivard de la Vigne, eventually left the area. "He ended up buying up a bunch of property on the bayou and became a prominent and wealthy citizen," Pruyn says. "Most likely his would have been the first 'official' structure on the bayou"  

  While that building no longer stands, the Spanish Custom House at Moss Street and Grand Route St. John is the oldest surviving structure from that period. It is described in an inventory compiled after the death in 1784 of Don Santiago Llorens, a planter believed to have built the house in the mid-1700s. It has stayed in private hands since then, and was purchased in 2009 by Lyndon Saia for more than a million dollars.

  Saia's research concurs with other historians who have said the structure never was formally a custom house but more likely a spot where confiscated goods and smugglers were jailed until they could be transferred to the French Quarter.

  Another important structure on the banks of the bayou is the Pitot House. Built in 1799, it was home to James Pitot, the second mayor of New Orleans. It is now the headquarters of the Louisiana Landmarks Society.

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