The scale of Oktoberfest at Deutsches Haus is measured over three weekends in beer kegs by the hundreds, sausage and schnitzel by the thousands, and German potato salad by the ton.
This year, however, the German cultural group behind Oktoberfest is on the cusp of something even bigger, and it goes beyond the party about to unfold on its grounds.
Oktoberfest is back on Bayou St. John, at the site where Deutsches Haus has been building its new home for the past few years. That building won’t quite be finished in time for this year’s celebration, so the party will go on around it.
But this new Haus for Deutsches Haus, with its high-peaked roof, great hall, long bar and Alpine appearance, will still be the unmistakable centerpiece. Rising between the green bayou banks, a tangle of live oaks and ranks of stone crosses lining the adjacent cemetery, it’s shaping up to be a major new addition for this neighborhood and a game-changer for an organization with a long history.
“This is a new time for us, but we also see it as continuity,” said Jack Gonzales, president of Deutsches Haus. “This is a generational club. One generation keeps it going and moves it forward, and we bring up the next generation. Everyone is excited to come home to the Haus now.”
The sense of history and generational exchange is all the keener during this Oktoberfest, as 2018 marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of Deutsches Haus in New Orleans.
After Oktoberfest wraps this year, the club plans to put the finishing touches on the Haus, and has scheduled an official opening for Nov. 18 — the same day the club was formed in 1928.
While it's an important milestone for club members, the new Haus will be open to the public, planting a new venue for formal or anytime social gatherings right on the bayou.
The Haus will have a main bar supplied with 20 taps for an all-German beer list and a kitchen serving traditional German food every day.
That kitchen has been designed to cook for festival crowds, with big walk-in coolers and low burners to accommodate huge cooking pots for those mountains of potato salad. But Mike Larkin, a board member, said the new Haus is also intended to provide a year-round welcome to visitors.
“We don’t look at this as a one-time event space, like people will just come to Oktoberfest," said Larkin. "When the festival is over, we hope people will come back and make it one of the places they visit for a beer, for good German food, to talk with people.”
The festival hall, a great room that rises through open rafters to a peak 32 feet above, is designed for events. The Haus also has a second, smaller bar, called the Bierstube. When the hall is rented for a wedding or some other private event, the Bierstube will still be available for members and visitors to drop in for a beer. Deutsches Haus members can also access a wall of stein lockers to keep their decorative German mugs between visits.
The new building has a separate space for language classes and film screenings and such, and even an office for the local German consul, for passport needs and similar requests.
Razed, then renewed
Deutsches Haus (literally, "German house") was formed to uplift German heritage, a cornerstone of the region’s immigrant story that had been largely suppressed during the First World War. In the decades that followed, it became an important social hub for its members.
The group is best known for its Oktoberfest, and this year’s edition will follow a familiar format. The event has evolved into a rite of autumn for New Orleans, with all the rib-sticking Bavarian cooking prepared by the club’s volunteer members, German beer and wine and schnapps served from outdoor bars, and happy children twisting to the “chicken dance” song as oompah bands and other acts take the stage.
The original Deutsches Haus was located not far away on South Galvez Street, in a sturdy brick structure that was once the Cumberland Telegraph and Telephone Co. The home of Oktoberfest celebrations in those days, it was also a low-key, family-friendly spot to drop by for a German beer, an especially valuable asset before the modern craft beer trend gained traction in New Orleans.
Deutsches Haus lost that property when the state razed its neighborhood to make way for a new medical complex (its former address is now a hospital parking lot). The club persevered in the ensuing years with a rented hall in Metairie and a berth for its Oktoberfest in Kenner's Rivertown area.
The club acquired the Moss Street property from the state and developed a plan to bring this key but long-neglected piece of bayoufront property back to life. Mathes Brierre Architects designed it, and Trimark Constructors is completing the build.
Back in the 19th century, the property was known as the Soldiers’ Home, a residence for Civil War veterans. In more recent times, there was a police station here, but the site had been vacant for years.
Today, the soon-to-open Haus is gleaming new but also embroidered with touchpoints of the past. The bars are built with nail-pocked lumber salvaged from the original Galvez Street structure. In the Bierstube, the bartop is salvaged flooring from a bowling alley the Haus once sported. Even an old telephone company manhole cover made the trip to the new address.
As the building has risen, so have the ranks of Deutsches Haus members. From a low of about 400 members a few years ago, after the loss of its original club house, memberships has doubled to nearly 800.
“This is a special time, because it’s really a family here," said Gonzales. "We have stories that we share when we get together over a beer. There are characters from the past, and current characters too. We can add to the story. That’s how the tradition grows.”
1700 Moss St.
Oct. 5 and 6, Oct. 12 and 13, Oct. 19 and 20
Fridays 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturdays 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Admission: $8 (12 and under free)
See details and band schedules at oktoberfestnola.com
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