New Orleans

Luling Mansion: A house of tragedy hidden in a New Orleans neighborhood

The Luling Mansion has its own sign and an elaborate security system barring anyone from getting too close

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.

Peeling plaster can’t hide the beauty of those verandas.

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.

Hermann drowned in Mississippi but was brought back to New Orleans.

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.

The Lulings in 1870.

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.

New Orleans

The trouble with being mayor

New Orleans’ mayor is in a bit of trouble for partying at Mardi Gras without a mask. That’s a no-no when you’re the person who put a citywide mask mandate in place.

In the 1800s, the mayor of New Orleans had different problems: Orphans.

It was the mayor’s job to keep track of the city’s orphans and dispose of them. Fortunately, there were plenty of orphanages because there were countless children, from day-old babies to delinquent adolescents, to place. I do wonder: Did people bring babies in baskets to the Mayor’s Office? Were misbehaving children marched into the Mayor’s Office?

You have to wonder what happened to 14-year-old Bertha Guth, who got herself sent to the House of Good Shepherd for robbing a house and trying to set fire to it in 1875. She’s one of the entries in a transcription of the mayor’s records published on the New Orleans Public Library’s website.

Here’s a strange tale. Poor Mr. Brown didn’t even know the name of the lady who left her son with him.

Children ended up in orphanages because their mothers died, their fathers disappeared – or in the case of a 2-month-old with no name referenced in the above image – they were left at a stranger’s house for a short span of time that stretched into weeks.

The library has a lot of records like this in its digital collection. Enjoy:

New Orleans

A neighborhood cemetery among wedding cake houses in New Orleans

We drove to New Orleans at the crack of dawn (OK, 7 a.m.) Saturday to have breakfast with a former co-worker from my political days. She was in town for a wedding and couldn’t remember exactly what she’d had to drink the night before on Bourbon Street. All she knew was the drinking started at 1 p.m. and continued into the night.

After a bleary-eyed breakfast in the Central Business District, we dropped her off at the next venue in the 3-day wedding weekend and realized we still had the entire day ahead of us. So, we headed to Bourbon Street. Just kidding.

We went in search of an old neighborhood grocery store in Uptown New Orleans. It’s tucked between the wedding cake homes of St. Charles and the eclectic vibe of Magazine Street. It’s also catty corner to a cemetery that seems out of place.

Most cemeteries in New Orleans are sprawling cities with miles of mausoleums. I’ve always thought the mausoleums look like miniature homes. Some families even decorate them for the holidays.

Gates of Prayer – Joseph Street is different. It’s the third oldest Jewish cemetery in New Orleans, but it’s pretty small. The land was purchased in 1850. The gates were firmly locked when we visited, probably because of past vandalism.

We had to settle for peeking through the iron fence that encircles the cemetery. There wasn’t a mausoleum in sight. In fact, it looked a cemetery you’d see in the midwest with rows of headstones. In a city that usually buries its dead above ground because of the water table, that seems foreign.

Here, in a tree-lined neighborhood of an often violent city is where so many of New Orleans’ early Jewish immigrants found eternal rest. It should be a peaceful spot. It often hasn’t been with gravestones smashed by vandals.

Martha was the wife of Abraham Stabinksy. She died of a blood clot.

One of the first headstones I saw was for Martha Oppenheimer Stabinsky, who died in 1900 at age 33 after three years in New Orleans. She was a native of Germany.

Joseph’s gravestone is lying on the ground when it should be upright.

Three years after Martha died, Joseph Reitzes was laid to rest. Joseph died at just 48 from tuberculosis. His gravestone is really hard to read, but his death certificate says he was born in Romania.

The Goldenbergs have a pretty headstone with their names set on a stone scroll amid a vine of flowers. Dutiful Benjamin took on the care of his mother and siblings when his father died. He later married, got involved in the shoe business and lived in a pretty home on Camp Street.

His wife was Henrietta Weil, who went by Yetta. She died decades after him and now rests beside him in the city cemetery.

Josephine Mayer also has a rather elaborate gravestone. Josephine was already a widow when she died age 46 in 1901. She died in her son-in-law’s sprawling home in the Audubon neighborhood at 1404 Octavia St.

From her obit, I got the sense that her mother’s family, the Gumbels, were rather a big deal in New Orleans. Indeed, they were. The Gumbels immigrated to New Orleans from Bavaria and built a business empire that started in cotton and evolved into notions. They became millionaires with huge homes in the city and summer homes up north. Josephine’s son, Norman, didn’t do too badly himself. There’s a library at Tulane named for him.

We enjoyed our visit to the city cemetery even if we had to settle for visiting it through the bars that protect it.