Egyptian mummies. An Ice Age-era bear skeleton. A castle, tucked away in a 7th Ward alley.
While doing research for his new book, "Secret New Orleans," author Chris Champagne came upon more than a few surprise discoveries.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and I kind of always had a fascination for the off-beat, to a certain degree,” Champagne said.
Even the most seasoned New Orleanian who styles themselves an expert on the city's lesser-known haunts will take something new away from this off-the-beaten-track guide, published in September by European outlet Jonglez Publishing.
The opportunity for the book arose when the Versaille, France-based publisher known for their quirky "Unusual Guides (Secret Paris, Abandoned Asylums, Forbidden Places)" approached Champagne. The publisher was relatively new to the U.S. market but expressed interest in doing a guide to New Orleans that went beyond the usual tourist traps and delved into the secret underbelly of the Crescent City.
And so, Champagne — a lifelong New Orleans resident and local comedian, poet and radio show host — got to work.
He spent a year researching the book, relying on his own personal knowledge of the city as well as culling tips from friends.
More than 100 spots and artifacts are listed in the book, which is divided by neighborhood into four categories — the French Quarter, Uptown, Downtown and Lake Area — but also includes some locations that fall outside those boundaries, including several north shore destinations.
Stumbling upon graffiti salvaged from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “surprised and delighted,” him, Champagne said, referencing some of the infamous signs from local rug merchant Bob Rue, including one that reads: “DONT [sic] TRY. I AM SLEEPING INSIDE WITH A BIG DOG AN UGLY WOMAN TWO SHOTGUNS AND A CLAW HAMMER.”
That sign, and other graffiti found after the storm and the federal levee failures, can be found in the Ansel Stroud J. Military Museum at Jackson Barracks.
“The signs are actually in the museum,” Champagne said. “That’s the kind of thing that I think should be preserved — spontaneous art.”
What Champagne calls “perhaps the most beautiful interior in New Orleans” can be found near the foot of Canal Street, in the middle of hundreds of tourist attractions and the French Quarter, yet known to few.
The towering Marble Hall, located on the second floor of the U.S. Customs Building, stands 55 feet high and 128 feet long with a cornice supported by 14 Corinthian columns. The hall, which dates back to 1881, has been called the finest Greek Revival interior in the country, and was at one time considered the most beautiful business hall in the country.
“It’s almost stunning, in a way,” Champagne says. “To think most people have never really seen this.”
And discovering a beret that belonged to his own personal hero, comedian Groucho Marx, was priceless, Champagne said. The artifact sits enshrined in a glass case in a narrow dining area in Antoine’s restaurant.
While most of the places listed in the book are easily accessible to the curious local and adventurous tourist, there are a few spots where calling ahead and asking for permission is recommended, including the resting place of a pair of ancient Egyptian mummies in a tiny room of Tulane University’s Anthropology Department.
Here, the “splendidly preserved” body of Nefer Atethu, a young girl of 16 who is thought to have died in childbirth, can be found, tucked into the bottom portion of two top shelves. The other mummy, thought to have been a 50-year-old male, was autopsied and remains out of sight, but was believed to have been a priest and overseer of craftsmen at a Temple of Amun in Thebes.
The mummies were a gift to the university from George Glidon, a former vice counsel to Egypt who paid looters to obtain them, according to the book. Calling ahead and requesting a special appointment to view the mummies is required.
The book also includes several “secret” spots that might not come as a surprise to locals, including the Backstreet Cultural Museum, Nicolas Cage’s tomb and the Lee Harvey Oswald plaque at Le Bon Temps Roule, among others. But even there, the author — who holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of New Orleans — delves deeper, providing additional insight into some of the city’s most treasured destinations and artifacts.
“As time goes on, some of these places will become more well-known,” Champagne said. “There’s nothing wrong with the tourist places — all those places are wonderful. But for people coming to visit the place who would like to see the real neighborhoods, and see how people live — that really enriches their experience.”
Champagne’s book reminds us that, no matter how much you think you know about a city, there is — and always be — something secret about New Orleans.