We were bumping along New Orleans streets near the Fairgrounds this weekend (the city is sinking, taking the asphalt with it) when we stumbled across a mansion.
That’s not to say the Esplanade area of New Orleans lacks for mansions. There are plenty of columned beauties presiding over Bayou St. John near City Park. The Luling Mansion is different because it’s not on the water – at least not any longer.
In 1865, when the Lulings built their mansion, they set it on 30 acres that stretched all the way to the bayou. That bayou would supposedly be the scene of a great tragedy that caused them to lose interest in the city and their home. Now more modest, gingerbread-trimmed houses in all hues block the bayou view, hiding the mansion from those who don’t accidentally stumble across it while dodging potholes on Leda Court.
I thought the house was abandoned when I hopped onto the sidewalk to look at it. An impressive secure entrance – you enter through a cage and punch in a code to step onto the grounds – convinced me otherwise. As of a few years ago, the house was an apartment building. I assume it still is.
The house’s unique appearance intrigued me. I had to learn more because every house has a story. This house’s story is a sad one that teaches us there often is a seed of truth in stories passed down through the decades. I’ll explain.
Newspaper articles tell me that a wealthy businessman named Florenz Luling had the mansion built as his family home soon after marrying Georgine Hermann. Florenz was a German immigrant who moved to the U.S. and became a successful merchant. Georgine was a New Orleans native with an impressive pedigree. Her ancestral home is an impressive mansion in the Vieux Carre. The young couple lived on Bourbon Street while their Esplanade mansion was constructed. They would live in their mansion for exactly six years.
Why they left seems to be a source of confusion and speculation. From the New Orleans newspaper:
“According to a multitude of unsourced accounts, soon after the family moved in, Luling’s son — or, according to some accounts, both of his sons — drowned in nearby Bayou St. John. Heartbroken, the story goes, the Lulings sold the property and left New Orleans.
Newspaper accounts of the drowning(s) couldn’t be found. Neither is the event mentioned in F.A. Luling’s 1906 Times-Picayune obituary (which, incidentally, gives his first name as “Frederick” instead of Florenz for reasons unclear).
Regardless, whether because of the supposed drownings, some sort of financial reversal or another reason altogether, the Lulings did, indeed, move out of the mansion just six years after its completion.”
The Lulings had five children. Only one, Alice, would live into adulthood. Alice married into the English nobility and died a titled lady in London, where she’s buried along with her parents.
But back to the mansion … It was an opulent, 22-room concoction of Italian marble, frescos, cupids and imported carpet. There was a bowling alley, an observatory and cedar closets. The Lulings were the Spellings of their day. And they wouldn’t last 10 years in the house.
Here’s where legend creeps into the story. Like the newspaper published, legend has it that the Lulings left because they were distraught after two of their children drowned in Bayou St. John. And here’s where legend is like a game of Telephone. Something gets twisted in each retelling, but there’s still a bit of the original message. It’s just garbled.
According to a family tree on Ancestry, the Lulings had two sons: Carl and Hermann. Carl died age 1 in 1863, before the house was built. Hermann died age 11 in 1871, making his death coincide with the family’s departure from their mansion. Their deaths are recorded in the city’s records.
And, wouldn’t you know it? Poor Hermann did drown. Not in Bayou St. John in front of the palatial mansion, but in Mississippi, where, no doubt, the family was vacationing.
Hermann didn’t die alone. Another member of the household died with him that day.
A big house requires lots of servants. Certainly, the Luling Mansion had room for them. The 1870 census shows the Lulings were outnumbered by paid staff: There was a gardener, a watchman and four domestic servants for a family that numbered four.
See Margaret Egan on the census record? She was with little Hermann while he fished from a Mississippi wharf in April 1871. When Hermann fell into the water, Margaret jumped in after him despite not knowing how to swim. Little Hermann clung to the maid and drowned with her. The Lulings brought Hermann’s body back to New Orleans and put their mansion on the market just two months later.
And, there you have it: Two drownings in the same household followed by a family’s abrupt departure. We’ll probably never know if the Lulings left New Orleans because of what happened in Mississippi, but the timing lends weight to the story that they did.