A short ride along the scenic St. Charles streetcar line from the French Quarter to the Garden District reveals distinctly different worlds sharing shade under the same oak trees. Mid-19th-century Victorian homes with manicured English-style landscaping sit next to rustic, working-class cottages for a stunning collision of lush gardens and diverse cultures set in the quaint Garden District.
The neighborhood’s history is steeped in fertile ground. As this port city’s downtown area grew overcrowded in the 1800s with the promise of prosperity, opportunistic landowners contracted with colorful surveyor Barthelemy Lafon to subdivide their massive estates up river. A lover of the classics, the eccentric Lafon christened his new cobblestone streets after the Greek muses: Calliope of epic song; Clio of history; Euterpe of lyric song; Thalia of comedy; Melpomene of tragedy; Terpsichore of dance; Erato of erotic poetry; Polyhymnia of sacred song; and Urania, muse of astronomy.
These roads soon stretched around large parks, gardens, basins, fountains and canals that meandered from public spaces to luxurious private porches of Greek Revival residences. A semi-urban suburb was established under romantic oak canopies, and a new culture of rail transportation, cuisine, music, art and architecture filled the streets between the grandeur of St. Charles Avenue to the north and the buzz of Magazine Street to the south.
Colliding with the rich manors and gardens, another side of the Garden District tells the story of rustic simplicity. One famous figure in particular embodies this dichotomy. Known as the Bread Woman of New Orleans, Margaret Haughery was an immigrant who devoted her life and self-made fortune to caring for orphans and those less fortunate, often with carts of freshly baked bread and open arms. A recently restored statue of Haughery stands at Margaret Place at Clio and Prytania streets, a forever reminder that inspiration still strolls both sides of these contrasting cultures.
On St. Charles Avenue, Hotel Indigo New Orleans Garden District pays homage to all sides of the neighborhood in its locally inspired design. Boardroom art includes a portrait of Margaret Haughery, and a lobby mural reflects the live oaks outside. The city’s more recent history is recalled at the hotel’s Babin’s Bar & Bistro, where a portion of the ceiling is constructed from wood reclaimed from homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Throughout the Garden District today, the area’s storied gardens intertwine with ornamental ironwork beneath weathered windows and louvered lavender shutters. White porch swings sway in the warm breeze, a familiar streetcar rolls by right on time, the oaks rise above it all and everything is as it should be. A neighborhood comparable to no other has itself become the muse of many.