Until the 1850s, the celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans was limited to private balls and street revelry consisting of maskers on foot, on horseback and in carriages. Though immensely popular, early Carnivals were so fraught with violence that certain members of the press called for an end to the annual festivities.
With a mind to reinvent the celebration they so loved, 19 civic-minded locals joined on Jan. 10, 1857, to form the Mistick Krewe of Comus, Carnival’s first secret society. The group coined the word krewe and presented the city’s first “modern” parade, with floats, a theme and a tableaux ball designed to inspire a more collegial atmosphere among parade goers.
The land upon which that eventful meeting transpired enjoys a colorful history. The 3½- story brick building at 127-29 Royal St. was built between 1834 and 1837 as the residence of commercial merchant Gilbert Vance, whose wife, Eliza McNeil Vance, inherited the property from her parents.
From 1847 to 1968, it was home to the Gem — a coffeehouse, saloon, oyster bar, restaurant, cigar store and hotel. Like many early French Quarter hot spots, the Gem claimed legendary connections, many of them contained in a promotional brochure issued by the company in 1893.
William C. Claiborne, the first American governor of Louisiana, is said to have frequented the coffeehouse. Unfortunately for the Gem’s mythmakers, Claiborne died in 1817, nearly two decades prior to the building’s construction.
Another popular tale claims that the state Legislature met on the property during Reconstruction, but the closest historical match to this event was a five-day 1872 gathering of a splinter faction of House Republicans.
In the days when restaurants opened only in the evenings and all business ceased at noon so merchants could return home for lunch, the Gem is credited with the introduction of the midday meal, served free with the purchase of a drink.
Ownership of the building has changed hands several times. In 1969, Golden Cleaners replaced the Old Gem Bar Tavern, ending the Gem’s 122-year presence at 127 Royal. A donut shop and a tie shop would occupy the building until 1982, when the current occupant, the Unique Grocery Store — renamed the Unique General Store in 1996 — moved in.
It wasn’t until 2001 that a commemorative plaque was added to the building’s façade, in the hope that shoppers as well as casual passersby wouldn’t overlook the little place just off Canal Street, home to one precious page of old New Orleans history and reams of old New Orleans lore.