A hidden, centuries-old well. A self-playing organ. A virtual-reality elevator ride. An interactive map of the French Quarter.
Treasures from the past have been combined with the latest technology to bring to life the newest exhibition space at the Historic New Orleans Collection, which opens to the public on Saturday.
Founded in 1966, the museum has grown to include 10 historic buildings on two French Quarter campuses, one on Royal Street and the other on Chartres. The latest addition is a 19th century Creole townhouse which the museum has been transforming over the last five years to further its goal of preserving and presenting the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South.
It will house the city’s first permanent exhibition about the history of the Vieux Carre.
“We wanted first and foremost to create a facility that would help visitors engage with the history of the French Quarter beyond the typical tourist experience,” said Daniel Hammer, deputy director of the museum. “Our goal was to connect everyone to all 300 years' worth of the Quarter’s authentic culture.”
The property at 520 Royal St., known as the Seignouret-Brulatour house, was purchased for $4.1 million in 2006. At the time, it consisted of a 2½-story townhouse with a mezzanine level, two rear service wings (one built in 1820), a warehouse across the back, a Chartres Street building that housed a self-service parking garage, and two buildings on Toulouse Street.
In all, almost 37,000 square feet were added to the collection’s holdings when the deal was done.
The property, which was the home of WDSU-TV for many years, was attractive because of its proximity to the museum's existing buildings and its colorful past.
The townhouse was built in 1816 by wine merchant Francois Seignouret, who made exquisite furniture, pieces of which are highly coveted today. It was then purchased in 1870 by Pierre Brulatour, another wine merchant who was also the grandfather of Universal Studios co-founder Jules Brulatour.
In 1918 it was acquired by tobacco tycoon William Ratcliffe Irby, who began buying buildings in the Quarter to save them from demolition. Irby installed a self-playing organ, made by the Aeolian Co. of New York, in his private quarters on the third floor.
He also offered space in the building to the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, a seminal group of artists, musicians and writers whose work defined early 20th century artistic expression in the city.
After Irby’s death in 1926, the property changed hands several times before WDSU moved its studios and offices there in 1950. The television station occupied the building until 1998.
Over the past five years, the townhouse and its two service wings have been meticulously restored and updated. Structural repairs have addressed long-standing issues, and previous ill-advised attempts at maintenance, such as the use of Portland cement on soft red bricks, have been corrected.
“I don’t think that there is a single brick in the whole building that has not been touched by someone," Hammer said. “They have all been re-pointed with lime mortar, and in some cases inside we left some brick exposed with a light lime wash over it so that visitors can get a sense of the building materials.”
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Now, the complex features an expansive welcome center, a spacious gift shop, a cafe operated by the restaurant Carmo and state-of-the-art exhibition spaces. Galleries on the mezzanine level offer experiential learning opportunities aimed at young visitors; those on the third floor showcase the permanent French Quarter exhibit.
A new pavilion
The past, however, is just part of the story. Because the French Quarter is a neighborhood that continues to evolve, planners of the project ensured the museum would look to the future by inserting a contemporary, glass-walled structure at the rear of the courtyard to house changing exhibitions.
The Tricentennial Pavilion, designed by Waggonner & Ball architects, offers 15,000 square feet of space for rotating exhibits. It includes a secure, climate-controlled area where artwork and artifacts are protected when they arrive at or leave the facility.
“Our research showed that the warehouse at the back of the courtyard had been built by WDSU and that it replaced an earlier building that replaced an even earlier building,” said Hammer. “The challenge was to decide to what era to restore the building, and we concluded that doing something entirely new, as had been done in the past, was the best alternative.”
The resulting glass-walled “pavilion” was designed to match the scale of the existing wings of the Seignouret-Brulatour building, with a horizontal band of windows set back from the facade to minimize the appearance of the new structure. A second welcome center occupies the ground level off the courtyard.
The pavilion's inaugural exhibit, titled “Art of the City: Postmodern to Post-Katrina,” features works by 75 artists including Krista Jurisich, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Gina Phillips, Brandan “Bmike” Odums, Douglas Bourgeois and Robert Tannen. The galleries are spacious, well-lighted, climate-controlled and flexible; interior walls can be added or removed from the open gallery spaces depending on the sort of works on display.
The exhibit will remain on view through Oct. 6.
Conveying the realities of the past to audiences in the present requires using all available media to make the past come alive.
When museums were built decades ago, it was without the benefit of current technologies such as virtual reality and three-dimensional maps.
“That may be the single element that sets our new French Quarter history galleries apart,” Hammer said. “We’re using cutting-edge tech to help museum visitors connect with the past in a way that wasn't possible 20 years ago.”
Visitors will encounter one of the museum's features immediately upon entering the Royal Street welcome center, where an immense glass-topped map of the French Quarter awaits. Visitors can touch the screen for a 3D representation of each building, as well as information about it.
Several self-guided walking tours of the Quarter, devised around a handful of themes, can be downloaded to a smartphone to aid in exploring the area.
“The information in the map is from the Collins Diboll survey that the Collection undertook in the 1960s,” Hammer said. “It’s continually being updated in the sense that we now have access to information on buildings' earliest origins that we didn’t have when the survey was completed almost 50 years ago.”
Lookout stations in galleries afford virtual-reality views of what the famed Brulatour courtyard — familiar to many thousands of New Orleanians from WDSU's long-running "Midday" show — looked like at various points in time. Similar technology is installed in the elevator so that it is possible to “look through” the walls of the building as the elevator rises.
In the galleries themselves, an audio narration of the art work is triggered when sensors detect several visitors are gathered around a single object. Xiao Xiao is the new-media artist behind these groundbreaking features.
The museum will also have an immersive theater experience by Glen Pitre and Michelle Benoit of Cote Blanche Productions that depicts “The French Quarter at Night.”
A secret well
Archaeology played an important role in guiding the restoration of the site, including details such as the type of bricks used on the ground level of the original building and the pattern in which they were installed (herringbone, as visitors will see when they enter from Royal Street).
Findings of the various digs not only guided the restoration but provide subject matter for galleries where artifacts are displayed.
Chief among them are bottles, shards of pottery and battered metal items dug out of a well in the much-photographed Brulatour courtyard.
“The ground level was a couple of feet lower when the well was installed hundreds of years ago,” said Hammer. “But the well itself was a surprise — we didn't know it was there.”
Now, however, everyone will know, as the well is covered by glass and visible beneath visitors' feet.
“The water you see in the well is at the level of the water in the river,” said Hammer.
The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday though Saturday, and 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
A free block party from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday will celebrate completion of the $38 million project.
More information is available at www.hnoc.org.