“New Orleans is a city that dwells within its own aura, and that aura is one of mystery and uniqueness.” So begins the introduction to writer Jon Newlin and photographer D. Eric Bookhardt’s Geopsychic Wonders of New Orleans, a curious and wonderful collection of evocative photographs and delirious prose first published privately in 1979. A 1992 reprint of the volume given to me by one of the authors became my road map of sorts when I first moved to New Orleans, despite the fact that several of the phenomena mentioned by Newlin and Bookhardt had already disappeared by then. But its practicality is besides the point: it’s more an idiosyncratic survey of New Orleans’ “secret realities” than the ones the visitor or resident can expect to find while walking down the street anyway.
The book is long out of print and hard to find (though used copies pop up online from time to time). But in the spirit of my Marigny walking tour last week, I wanted to share some excerpts with you here to give you an idea of what New Orleans is “really” like. As you look through through this set of photos, though, remember: “These phenomena, these wonders of New Orleans, are for the most part simply not explainable in terms of history and culture alone. There is obviously another force at work here, another system, a world of secret realities which is continuously and quietly in confrontation with our own.” In other words, folks: we’re not on Bourbon Street any more.
“In perfect counterpoint and equipoise, on a severe plain black facade, the sign for the Wonderful Boys Pleasure Club promises cackles, smirks, a prankish sort of mirth and hints as well at riotous jocundity. But against this changeless and unchangeable wall, with no structural variations, this invitation to semi-Masonic jollities looks chilling. What goes on inside this building?”
“The Brown Derby, or should one say The Original Brown Derby, is but a soft felt hat’s throw from the Robin Hood Hotel; in its decorations and exterior charms it evokes the entire Amos-n-Andy cosmology of an earlier day; a mirrors-within-mirrors reflection—a black vision of a white vision of black life.”
“This mauve bovine with floral patterns kept watch, as did the animal god-guardians of Egypt, over the ant-like chaos of Franklin Avenue. Was it only painted and stationary? Look again at that cloven hoof protruding through the pickets of its diminutive fence and wonder why that creature is no longer on its perch and where it can be running riot now—perhaps carrying some gum-chewing Europa off the shores of Lake Pontchartrain at this instant.”
“The S&M Iron Woks: more lewd speculation must arise—scenes from Caravaggio or Pauline Raege illuminated by the light of leering 8th Warders with arc-lights and acetylene torches. But the facade despite its bars is a dead giveaway: business as usual.”
“A view of the court of miracles at the Campo Santo Shrine of St. Roch—an old-world scene of devotion, fervor, immortelles and plaster casts of newly-whole physical parts, reminders of physical transience, all of them together in a side room off the altar in the Chapel.”
“The Dixie Madonna, a fortuitous arrangement of the religious and the brazenly secular, depicts within one limited shop window tableau all that needs to be known about New Orleans Catholicism. Behind the fashionable forties miss and the symbolically bulky Jack Falstaff, rise in a velvety Veronica’s veil of perpetual grief both the Man of Sorrows and the Mater Dolorosa. And of course this is exactly how it is: in the background, a spiritual mist crowded with figures of pain and redemption, and in the foreground, bright lights and Dixie on tap.”
“Derived from the Egyptian eye of Horus, the Masonic Seal, in blue neon, watches silently over Poydras Street at night; Sam Stone’s design for the 1926 Masonic Temple was years ahead of its time. Along with the Italian Plaza—a recent monument to certain local cultural innovators, done in a style that combines Palladio, di Chirico and Cine-Citta—the Masonic Temple is the most awesome creation surrounding Poydras Street, the alleged Park Avenue of New Orleans.”
“The crenellated, dragon and bullock-encrusted Gate of Ishtar swings open, and the swarm surges through—not onto the battlement-lined Avenue of Marduk, but upon Canal Street, Royal and Chartres and Bourbon and Dauphine Streets, Rampart and Basin and La Salle Streets, St. Charles Avenue in front of Gallier Hall. They caper and convulse to the accompaniment of tambourines and bass drums and whistles and the chaos of flutes and beggars’ fiddles, and the constant background roar, like that of thousands of beasts, greeting or waving farewell to a royal procession on Shrove Tuesday—either Rex, the most egalitarian and revisionist of monarchs, or Comus, most aristocratic and venerable, whose parade passes with a swiftness that only briefly gilds the lengthening shadows of Carnival Night.”
“Appropriately enough, the finest Egyptiana is reserved for the local necropoli—New Orleans and the Nile Valley are both centers of a death cult that is immensely and carefully theatrical in its expression … A gentleman with the most un-pharaonic name of Lucien Brunswig is honored in Metairie Cemetery by a sepulcher in the form of a pyramid, by the doors of which couches a suitably dour sphinx while, on the other side, a gowned Ptolemaic figure raises a hand in perpetual grief.”
“Among funerary curios, this is one of the most curious—the Metairie Cemetery Monument (distinctly suggestive in form) to Police Chief David C. Hennessey … The monument was not placed until 1893, some three years after Hennessey’s death; executed by Weiblen, it is the Friends of the Cabildo volume on New Orleans cemeteries slyly notes, a twenty-six foot high ‘shaft of Hollowell granite.’ The inscription at the base provides the cream of the jest—’Erected by his countrymen.’”
“The Rock House of Louisa Street is an outstanding example of Ninth Ward lily-gilding and architectural fantasy that defies classification—it was the avocation of its stone-worker owner to compete with Gaudi’s Barcelona extravagances on a smaller scale.”
“These steel balls gathered like discarded toys or a broken strand of pearls or abandoned space-travel machines lurk disused and sinister (like something out of the early diChirico) in the Warehouse District in uptown New Orleans; no still life could give an indication of their size—enormous, they are like the toys with which the giants tested the god Thor on his visit at Jottunheim.”
“The elegantly peeling Greek Revival facade and the distressed-looking weatherboards rising from a mantle of foliage—a spectral apparition in full daylight, a sight mundane in New Orleans where spectral apparitions are in every block of every street.”
John D’Addario is a veteran blogger (since 1996), adjunct professor of arts administration at the University of New Orleans, professional arts educator, photographer and man of the world. You can visit him at jonno.com.
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