There's a big digital clock mounted over the bar inside Deutsches Haus, keeping a precise and rapidly diminishing countdown until the start of Oktoberfest 2009 this weekend. The anticipation, excitement and even the pressure to finish preparations are always so great during these last few days before the annual celebration, some Deutsches Haus members really do seem to track the passing minutes.
But this year, something is different: That countdown clock is ticking away time to the last Oktoberfest at the historic building the club has called home since 1928. Deutsches Haus leaders are convinced that before next autumn, their sturdy brick clubhouse on South Galvez Street will be demolished, along with hundreds of other buildings in the 37-acre section of lower Mid-City slated for the new Louisiana State University (LSU) hospital.
Since plans for a new state hospital in the neighborhood emerged after Hurricane Katrina, club members have feared each Oktoberfest could be the last. But after a meeting earlier this month with state attorneys and land acquisition specialists, Deutsches Haus leaders say the fate of their club's longtime home is sealed.
"It is official, this will be the last Oktoberfest at that site," says Deutsches Haus president Keith Oldendorf. "We don't have a move-out date yet, but that's about it."
In interviews, Deutsches Haus members express heartache and incredulity that they will soon lose their clubhouse. For some of them, the Haus — as the actual building and the organization itself are interchangeably called — has been the center of their social lives for decades. Many members devoted countless volunteer hours rebuilding the Haus after the Hurricane Katrina levee failures, racing that countdown clock to reopen the club in time for Oktoberfest 2006.
"It's very hard to accept," says club member Ursula Jackson, a native of Cologne, Germany, who moved to New Orleans in 1964. "When I think about it, I feel like crying. After Katrina, the way people came back to this place and did so much together to bring it back, it's never looked better, you can see that. So, yes, it's very hard now to think about what's going to happen. It hurts very much."
But there is also a current of quiet pragmatism and magnanimity as club members explain their feelings about the future. While a "Save the Haus" campaign emerged, with lawn signs and bumper stickers, Deutsches Haus leaders say they recognize the hospital's potential impact on the city's health care picture and economy and don't want their club holding up such progress. Their approach has not been to protest hospital plans, but rather to raise awareness about their club and try to find some way to keep it alive once it's displaced.
"I'm 48. I know I'm going to need a hospital in this town some day, and we don't do surgery at the Haus," says Joe Stephany, the club's second vice president. "If I put the straight black-and-white to it, the city needs this hospital. So we haven't been against it. Our position has always been the hospital and the Haus together."
Oldendorf says the club's goal is to find a location to open a new incarnation of Deutsches Haus. He says the club wants to stay in Mid-City to honor historic ties to the area and will try to salvage as much building material as possible from the original Haus to use at a new address.
"Our other goal is to be ready for Oktoberfest next year wherever we are," he says. "That won't be easy, but we did it once after Katrina and we can do it again."
Deutsches Haus traces a long and deep history in New Orleans, dating back to 1848 when its predecessor, Deutsche Gesellschaft von New Orleans (or German Society of New Orleans) was formed to help German immigrants who were then pouring into the city. At that time Germans made up the largest group of foreign-speaking people in the state, according to local researcher Ellen C. Merrill's 2004 book Germans of Louisiana. They were so prevalent in the city that part of the 9th Ward was known as "Little Saxony." The West Bank railroad town called Mechanikham, later absorbed into Gretna, was another hub, as was lower Mid-City.
Strong German identity became a liability when America entered World War I, however, and expressions of German culture around New Orleans were submerged. In 1918, the Louisiana Legislature even passed a law making it illegal to speak German in public or teach German in schools. But 10 years after the war, Deutsche Gesellschaft and several other German groups merged to form Deutsches Haus and help reaffirm their heritage.
In recent years, the club's Oktoberfest has grown into its largest annual event and its most important source of funds and new members. A record crowd of approximately 19,000 people attended last year's celebration, held over the course of five weekends. It's an all-ages event that for many locals has become a rite of autumn, complete with traditional Bavarian food prepared by club members, lots of imported German beer and oompah bands performing countless renditions of the "Chicken Dance" song, which always fills the beer garden with dancing families.
Bonds formed in the effort to rebuild Deutsches Haus after Katrina, and the successful Oktoberfests that followed helped swell club membership to at least 600 people, more than twice the pre-Katrina rolls of 275 members. The men and women come from all over the metro area, representing a diverse range of ages, professions and even ethnicities. Many can trace full German family heritage, while others are simply drawn to the culture of the club, its events and camaraderie, or what Germans call gemütlichkeit. Those close ties will be key as the club tries to relocate.
"What we've built here is a cultural center and that will be continued somewhere else to pick up where we left off," says Deutsches Haus treasurer Al Bourg. "It's going to be hard, but we have a lot of momentum from these past years and we feel we can bring that with us. It's the German heritage organization that's important, the culture and the contribution that culture made to New Orleans. That's what we stand for and what matters."
The LSU hospital is slated to open in 2013, but the project has been controversial from the start and faces significant obstacles. Plans call for a $1.2-billion facility with 424 beds to be built adjacent to a new 200-bed hospital the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to build in a separate project. Together the two health institutions would form a 70-acre medical complex in lower Mid-City. The LSU hospital in particular is intended to replace Charity Hospital and, like Charity before it, would serve as south Louisiana's main teaching hospital, where medical students and others from LSU, Tulane and other area universities would receive training.
Hammering out a hospital governance plan to share control among the different players took a year of often-contentious negotiation. A deal finally was reached last month. Still looming is the question of funding. The state has set aside $300 million to build the hospital and hopes FEMA will hand over another $492 million as the replacement cost for Charity Hospital. So far, though, the federal agency has offered only $150 million to cover Charity's storm damages. The state is expected to decide by Oct. 30 whether to enter arbitration to reach a final compensation sum or go to court to settle the matter. Even if everything goes the state's way, it would still need to borrow $400 million to cover the LSU hospital's full price tag.
In addition, LSU faces several lawsuits from lower Mid-City residents, preservationists and others seeking to block the development. They argue the community would be better served by renovating Charity Hospital instead of razing a national historic district neighborhood to build a new facility from the ground up.
One area where LSU has not encountered much trouble, though, is Deutsches Haus. Don't think the university hasn't noticed.
"From the very first week the site was announced, the people at Deutsches Haus have bent over backwards to demonstrate support for the new hospital," says LSU spokesman Charles Zewe. "They've been a pleasure to work with, and LSU is very supportive of seeing Deutsches Haus survive somewhere nearby."
Zewe says LSU initially considered a plan to operate Deutsches Haus within the hospital, which would essentially give the facility an in-house beer garden, but engineers and security planners quickly nixed the idea. Deutsches Haus members say they doubt the club could survive where it is today as the hospital takes shape around it, since years of major construction would severely limit public access.
As part of the state's land acquisition procedure, the Louisiana Office of Facilities Planning and Control will decide reimbursement for the club's property. No such details have been determined, but Zewe says LSU will be rooting for Deutsches Haus through the process.
"We have a lot of doctors and nurses and staff who go to Oktoberfest and enjoy that place very much," Zewe says. "We want [Deutsches Haus] to succeed and want to help them relocate."
In the meantime, Deutsches Haus members are planning this year's celebration as a blowout, a grand last hurrah at the old South Galvez Street property. Attendance is expected to exceed last year's record-breaking total, and the club has expanded the festival with Saturday afternoon hours for the first time. It also has added a new VIP ticket package utilizing the building's newly refurbished (and soon to be demolished) upstairs ballroom. Club members talk excitedly about new beers joining the dozens of German brews on tap for this year's festivities, and about a new bratwurst burger on the festival menu. But everyone also acknowledges that the fate of the Haus will be the undercurrent of this year's party.
"I can guarantee you this, when the last Saturday of Oktoberfest rolls around and it's just us, the members of the Haus here having our last beer in the bar, there won't be a dry eye in the building," Stephany says. "It was like that for the Oktoberfest after Katrina, and I daresay it will be just like that again this year knowing what's coming for this place."
Deutsches Haus, 200 S. Galvez St., 522-8014; www.deutscheshaus.org
Begins Friday, Sept. 25, and continues each Friday and Saturday through Oct. 24
Gates open at 5 p.m. on Fridays and, new this year, 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays.
• Homemade traditional Bavarian foods, including meaty sauerkraut, red cabbage, sauerbraten, cabbage rolls, German potato salad, sausages galore and iced cakes
• More than 40 taps dispense imported German beers at indoor and outdoor bars, and club members in dirndl serve schnapps.
• Traditional bands play throughout the evening, and everyone does the "Chicken Song" dance.
New This Year:
• Try the new bratburger, a patty made from bratwurst.
• Check out the new Oktoberfest poster, featuring an image of the Haus and the inscription "Not to be Forgotten."
• Head to the imbiss stand at the back of the beer garden for sausages, pretzels and other grab-and-go German foods without the main food line's crowds.