Have you ever considered what it would feel like to be a streetwise explorer strolling in the Vieux Carré, but in the 1920s? Well, a humorously narrative Times-Picayune article from February 15, 1920, written by famed French Quarter denizen and literary Renaissance man Lyle Saxon, reveals just that. Adjacent here is a clipping, a found relic: Saxon’s master-class syllabus of must-see locations of what he calls the “Old French Quarter.” Ninety-eight years later, the French Quarter is still “old,” but it’s also still largely there; aside from a few buildings no longer standing, today’s walking tour of important French Quarter sites is the same as it was 98 years ago.
In “Charm Of Old French Quarter Quickly Settles Upon Its Visitors,” Saxon takes his readers by the hand, having them embark at that auspicious golden hour of the day, because, as he writes, “…at that time the soft colors of evening will fall across the battered facades of the old houses and will treat them kindly.” Here he plays our prototypical tour guide as he attempts to serenade us throughout his inventive walking tour, as if he were our famous uncle, sipping on scotch and soda.
But his inventory is not dated as it works its way through an all-too modern preservation-minded checklist of stops. Throughout the piece, Saxon reveals his crystal-clear reverence for the built environment and respect, through historic knowledge and understanding, for those of every class, from the beggar to bishop, coexisting in some finely tuned ecosystem of culture, with each contributing to the continued (civic, architectural or artistic) preservation of the “old square.” Sound familiar?
Well before he was known as “Mr. New Orleans” and eight years before he wrote his book Fabulous New Orleans, his writings were chronicled in the local papers. But while often mentioned in passing, little of his newspaper writing appears to be referenced or cited in summaries of Saxon’s life. This leaves me pondering Saxon’s original assignment; he shows us how the power of the words of a writer in a daily paper can make a lasting impression on a legacy of preservation through the invention of a mythos.
He reminds us in closing, “The old New Orleans was a city of intense personality. Time and decay has not killed this pristine charm. The old houses today are as full of beauty as they wore in their prime. Architecturally, they are vastly interesting. Stay for a while in the old section of the city. Sit for a while in Jackson Square; let the old world soak in. Give the atmosphere a chance to reach you. Take your time and wander slowly. Look twice at the old houses. They are worth it.”
Could Saxon have painted us a picture any more fabulex?
Mr. New Orleans Tour of the “Famous Vieux Carré”
with tourguide and literary historian, Dr. Nancy Dixon, Professor of English at Dillard University
Saturday March 10, 2018 • 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. • $25 / $20 for PRC members
Space is limited! Click here to reserve your spot today.
Nola DNA is an original archive of over 30,000 historic New Orleans newspapers from 1888-1929, delivering history on demand through clever curation, graphics and print. Curator Joseph Makkos is using materials from the archive to write this special series for Preservation in Print in celebration of the Tricentennial.