First, a couple quick notes:

*The author is desperately hoping that the lovely woman who approached her at the Studio in the Woods’ FORESTival this past Saturday, who once lived in the Luling Mansion (!), is reading this post. Dear Kind Woman, I have lost your business card! I have been searching for it all week! If you would email me, I would be so grateful and would love to talk to you about my favorite mysterious mansion.

**The author has been engaged with much post-election reflection, and is also currently reading Lydia Davis’ translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way. This is probably evident enough in the post below.

As might be obvious by now, I am deeply interested in the history of spaces and places: what has unfolded in this exact spot—in this house, on this city block, along this bayou—since its beginning? What have time and time’s residents (that’s us) enacted upon this particular space?

Then I find myself wondering: what makes a space the space that it is? What of its original properties does it retain, given the assault of time? For example, a three hundred year old house. What about it hasn’t been changed? What, as they say, is still “original”? Let’s say that, except for in one room, the flooring is no longer original. Nor is the sheetrock, moulding, windows, doors, or any of the exterior features. Say the house has had a hard life, and has required resuscitation by modern hands. What makes this house this house then? Where in its tangible body is its three-hundred-year history housed? A few beams and studs, hidden beneath the house’s skin? A few floorboards, refinished, but nonetheless holding the energy—the DNA even—of the many hundreds of feet that have crisscrossed its surface? Perhaps a few bricks in the foundation, perhaps they remember all the way back to the beginning, having napped in the dank clay since then, sinking imperceptibly deeper and deeper as the house thrums with activity above….

Or take a bayou, for example. A swampy trickle; a river’s flung-off limb; the tiny drainpipe of a brackish estuary slithering through the clay in myriad directions: this was our bayou to begin with. Now it’s a frozen feature of a previous landscape, a feature as common to that previous landscape as a single capillary among millions. Now, at least within city limits, it’s the only one left.

But it’s been dredged, widened, straightened, leveed, drained, cleaned up and hosed-down, laced with pipes, stitched with bridges, fixed with locks. Slack as it may be, its water has turned over probably a million times by now. A thousand generations of fish. And yet, I remain convinced that, like a house, a bayou remembers.

A bayou remembers all the boats: smooth-bottomed, keeled and un-keeled, some with groaning motors, some with oars. It remembers every submerged grocery cart, every beer bottle, every car. It remembers every alligator, turtle, catfish, every bear sipping at its edge. Every stray bullet, every fishing lure. All the human bodies—some naked, some dressed in layers of fabric, the limbs jerking and flailing, the fabric swirling. It remembers, right now, as we speak, the duck’s floating oval of feathers, the measured shushing of its webbed feet.

* Photo by Andreas Steinhoff, Wikimedia Commons


I just plunged down a deep, deep rabbit hole, and am now writing myself out. Yesterday, I stumbled across a mention of the Luling Mansion, located on Leda Court near the Fairgrounds. This 1865 Italianate behemoth, built by the famous architect James Gallier, Jr. for cotton merchant Florence Luling, now stands faded and almost abandoned-looking, hidden from view just off Esplanade.

photo by author

Its interior has been converted into apartments, and as recently as January 2015, a few of them were up for rent. What inspired the rabbit hole for me, though, was the mention of Bayou St. John in this story.

photo by author

In 1871, Luling sold the mansion to the Louisiana Jockey Club, which had recently acquired the race track we all know today as the Fairgrounds. The mansion and its 80 acres fronting Esplanade became the Jockey Club’s headquarters, in which they threw fancy parties of all kinds. Why would Luling sell the mansion he’d just spent $24,000 to build after only six years? Because, according to all the sources I came across, Luling’s two young sons drowned in Bayou St. John soon after they moved into the mansion, prompting him to sell it.

Oh! I thought to myself. Maybe I can find the newspaper article on the boys’ drowning to flesh this out a little bit. Over the course of my bayou research, I’ve been simply amazed by the number of bayou drownings mentioned in the newspaper—freak accidents of all kinds, involving members of all classes, with the most bizarre circumstances surrounding them. And yet, no such article appears to exist—or at least I can’t find it. So the story is left to its bare bones.

Luling Mansion in its heyday; 1908 postcard by C. B. Mason, New Orleans; public domain

The poet in me (sometimes inclined toward the morbid and occult) considered writing a post in which I reimagined the boys’ death—playing on the edge of their property (did their property extend to the bayou?) one day in, say, 1870, maybe searching for turtles in the grass along the shore, digging their little sticks in the mud. I’m imagining them as twins now, each in his own little nineteenth-century suit, maybe four or five years old. They’re speaking to each other in nonsense phrases that are nonetheless completely clear to each of them, since they’re twins, and since the adults are often too busy filling ships with cotton (their father), or else fulfilling domestic duties (their mother) to speak to them much. But where is the governess meant to be looking after them? Who is she? What is she up to? The day is warm. The bayou slips along, brown and sluggish….

Louisiana Jockey Club House (Luling Mansion), New Orleans, 1884; from souvenir booklet “New Orleans,” unknown author; public domain

Ok! I just did what I said I wasn’t going to do. Really I’d planned on including another Times-Picayune article of a sad and mysterious drowning, hoping that others would find it as interesting as I did.

To be continued….