Libraries Round the World – Celebrating in NOLA

Ready to travel back to New Orleans to see some more unique libraries? We have three house museums with libraries and a final visit at the new Sazerac House for its namesake cocktail, the official drink of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Happy 300 NOLA – keep on rolling on the Mississippi River!

NOLA celebrated its 300th birthday in 2018, and during my trip in February, I did too. I’m not quite as old as NOLA, but some days, I feel like it. A local surprised me when she overheard it was my birthday at Tujague’s, where I started the night with the world’s best Grasshopper cocktail (a mix of light and dark crème de cacao, white and green crème de mint, brandy, and heavy cream). Happily, no insects were harmed! 

Mardi Gras decorations are everywhere

The friendly local pulled out a dollar bill and a safety pin, explaining the tradition to wear a dollar bill near your heart on your birthday for good luck. Which I had to do, and it’s an amazing way to celebrate. Strangers all over town wished me a happy birthday. The tradition, called dashing, originated in West Africa. So, when COVID blows over, dash to NOLA for your next birthday!

Dollar bills aren’t just for spending!

Now back to the libraries. The Historic New Orleans Collection has thousands of documents and half a million photographs, prints, drawings, and paintings. It’s worth wandering through to see some of their artwork and furnishings on display. 

Typical French Quarter building used for the Historic NO Collection

The star of their collection is the William Research Center, which features Kemper and Leila Williams’ former residence. They combined two Italianate brick townhouses dating from 1889. This prime location in the French Quarter has been in use since the 1700s. First, as a barracks, later as stables, then a residence, and finally a hotel before the last transformation in 1889. 

The photo shy Wiliiams townhouses

Avid collectors and Louisiana natives, the couple bought the two properties in 1938 to help the neighborhood recover from its severe decline.

Leila loved NOLA & was a Mardi Gras Queen

After extensive renovations, this was their home with an eclectic collection of art and a fantastic personal library until 1964. Nine years later, it transitioned to a house museum with some furnishings still from 1889.

The Hermann-Grima Federalist style house with Creole adaptations was built in 1831 for the German immigrant Samuel Hermann. Back then, he was the richest man in town. But in 1844, after losing money in the cotton market crash and from a sinking ship, he sold his residence to the Grima family. 

The Hermann Grima house – too big to photograph!

The Grima family lived here until 1921, and Widow Grima’s bedroom is now furnished as the library.

The house still includes NOLA native Felix Grima’s original 2,000 book collection. Their 1870 carriage house and stable, a rarity in the French Quarter even back then, is now the gift shop.

The Gallier House, built in 1860 with a modern Victorian look, has a beautiful French Quarter style wrought iron balcony.

The Gallier House (narrow streets make exterior house photos a challenge!)
Upstairs view from the Gallier House balcony
Always at home in a library

James Gallier, an architect and the son of an Irish immigrant, also designed the city’s opulent French Opera House in 1859. Unfortunately, the Bourbon Street landmark fell on hard times and, despite a brief comeback, burned down in 1919. 

The still simmering grand Opera House

The Gallier House has unusually modern innovations, including indoor plumbing with hot and cold water and a double skylight. Three of his unmarried daughters lived here until 1917, and I can see why. They had a much better bathroom as compared to what was the norm back then.

For more information on this house and the Hermann-Grima house check out their website:

Gallier House bathroom – yes!
Hermann Grima House bathroom – hmm?

The Sazerac House is an opulent multi-level museum and showroom with tastings that opened in 2019. The company repurposed a historic warehouse on Canal Street across the street from the French Quarter. During the coronavirus shut down, the company hosts virtual cocktail parties with details on their website: They also sell bitters and other gifts to bring a taste of the Sazerac to you.

The Sazerac cocktail is the official cocktail of NOLA. Initially, the cocktail was made with French cognac from the Sazerac’s family vineyard. The legend goes that Antoine Peychaud, a local Creole apothecary from Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, created the first Sazerac in the 1800s. He mixed drops of his signature root and spice cure-all bitters with cognac, which took off in popularity. After the French vineyards got attacked by a phylloxera insect invasion, they turned to the next best and closest thing, American rye whiskey. 

Looks like magical drops from a genie!

Today’s cocktail includes whiskey, drops of Peychaud’s Bitters (based on his original recipe), and some Herbsaint. This last ingredient is an anise-flavored liqueur and an absinthe-substitute, but if you have a bottle of absinthe handy, go with the original! A sugar cube, lemon twist, and some ice cubes round it off.

Recipe books? Even bartenders have some to keep things straight.

On their Sazerac website with a recipe for their infamous cocktail, they say, “Here’s to always having a good drink and a better story.” I’d echo this and add, “Yeah, baby! Always a fun time in NOLA.”

Here’s a glimpse of the Krewe du Vieux, which took place on February 8th. This small-scale old-fashioned Carnival parade uses horses and mules to pull the carts instead of modern-day trucks and 18-wheelers unable to fit on the narrow streets of the French Quarter. This year’s theme for the Krewe du Vieux was Erection 2020, so the floats spoofed the upcoming election. 

Unfortunately, I don’t recommend a special trip to see it. The streets were packed, crowds kept walking into the streets, and the animals were frightened. But NOLA is a great city to celebrate your birthday!

Poor scared unicorn!

Karen Stensgaard is a novelist who loves to travel and visit libraries. With the coronavirus keeping her stuck at home, she will share stories and photos from earlier library visits. Stay safe, everybody!

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