Sandra Baptie's tour of Tremé is supposed to be two hours long, but it's tough to cover 300 years of history in such a short time.
Even if the neighborhood lost many historic buildings when the Armstrong Park site was cleared, it retains an astonishing number of architecturally and historically significant buildings today.
“There are landmarks including Villa Meilleur, now the African American Museum, on Gov. Nicholls Street; the A.P. Tureaud house, St. Augustine (Church) and Perseverance Hall,” Baptie said. “And Congo Square is a historic site that everyone should know about.”
A graduate of the Friends of the Cabildo tour guide class, Baptie takes visitors on walking tours of the historic New Orleans neighborhood about eight times a year, using maps and historical photos as visual aids to help her audience picture what used to be there.
Baptie discusses the old Carondelet Canal, dug in the Spanish colonial era for bringing goods into the French Quarter from Bayou St. John.
She talks about Esplanade Avenue, which ultimately became Tremé's main thoroughfare as Bayou Road, the ancient Indian portage, was abandoned and the new avenue was extended.
“Esplanade did not always connect the back of the French Quarter to the Bayou,” she said. “Instead, it grew by blocks, cutting through the yards of the original Bayou Road concessions. The imprint of the original properties can be seen in the lot lines and orientation of many of the homes in Tremé.”
“I take them past the Backstreet Museum and the African-American Museum; both help illuminate the history of Tremé,’ she said.
Missing from the cityscape, of course, are 24 square blocks Creole cottages, masonic lodges, centerhall houses, churches, shotgun doubles and more in the area bounded by North Rampart, St. Philip, North Villere and St. Ann streets.
“Urban renewal plans were popular in the 1960s, and that section of Tremé was bulldozed with the thought of building a new civic complex,” Baptie said. “The only part of the project that was ever built was the Mahalia Jackson Theater, and after a few ideas (for its future) were rejected, it became a park."
The tour explains the impact of early settlers, many who fled slave revolts in Saint-Domingue, who helped to build Tremé.
“Take the Dolliole brothers. They were free men of color who built Creole cottages on St. Philip, adapting the design to the conditions of the lots. They were not just gentlemen; they were businessmen, designers and developers. They were entrepreneurs,” she said.
A graduate of the Friends of the Cabildo tour guide class, Baptie first visited New Orleans with her husband Lawrence Linder in 1984.
“We’re both architects and like the work of Charles Moore. We wanted to see his Wonderwall in the World's Fair setting,” Baptie said. “From that one trip, we knew there was too much to take in about the city on a single visit.”
The World's Fair may have been a financial flop, but it gave the couple a sense of the city’s indigenous culture, that inimitable mix of architecture, music and food. After a re-introduction to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina by their daughter who had moved here to help with rebuilding, Baptie and Linder followed suit.
Baptie developed the tour of the neighborhood after watching the HBO series "Tremé." “I read everything I could get my hands on about it and decided that people need to know the full story,” she said.
As much as Baptie enjoys giving the tours — she also leads a Marigny tour — she said she doesn’t lead them in the summer months, with good reason.
“It's far too hot to tour then,” she said. “You would be much better off taking a guided tour of the Cabildo — it is air-conditioned.”
The next tour is at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 14, departing from the Tremé Coffeehouse, 1501 St. Philip St. For tickets, which are $25, go to friendsofthecabildo.org.