People, Parties, and Parlor P

The St. Charles Hotel
“The St. Charles Hotel from Canal Street”
Photographed by William Henry Jackson
Detroit Publishing Co.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

For over 100 years, one of three St. Charles Hotels stood at No. 215 St. Charles Street and in the heart of New Orleans society and politics. From the opening of the first hotel bearing the name in 1837 until the demolition of the last in 1974, the St. Charles was one of New Orleans’ most prominent embodiments of luxury, comfort, and merriment. The hotel also served as headquarters for the judicial, political, and fiscal business of both the city and the nation in which it resided. After a stay at the first St. Charles Hotel (pictured below), a future mayor of New York, A. Oakey Hall, remarked:

“Set the St. Charles down in St. Petersburg and you would think it a palace; in Boston, and ten to one you would christen it a college; in London, and it would marvelously remind you of an exchange; in New Orleans it is all three.” (Footnote 1)

The establishment of the St. Charles as a gathering place for New Orleans’ high society, businessmen, celebrities, and politicians was largely a consequence of the fact that at the time the first St. Charles Hotel was constructed there was little precedent for a building of its magnitude and and enterprise in the United States. Simply put, in the early 1800s Americans were not yet “a hotel-building people” (2). There were no Ritz Carltons or Peninsula Hotels. The St. Charles was the first of its kind, and it soon became a nationwide sensation.

Photo Source: The Old St. Charles Hotel

Also at play was the fact that “New Orleans was entering upon the period of its greatest growth and expansion prior to the Civil War” (2). It was what William H. Coleman referred to as the “flush times” of New Orleans – a time of prosperity unhindered by panic or crisis “until the beginning of the [Civil] war” (3). This rapid growth which began in the 1830s and continued into the 40s was predominantly a consequence of equally rapid technological advancements, most notably the advent of steam powered travel.  New Orleans’ growth continued into the next two decades, with an increase in population from 116,375 in 1850 to 168,675 in 1860 (4).

Alongside population growth came tourists – those intrigued by and drawn to the mystery of an esoteric city filled with strong drink, lively music, and exotic people. They were “the visitors from other parts of the United States and foreign travelers whose curiosity was aroused by the city which had the cultures of the old and new worlds existing side by side” (5). In each of its incarnations, the St. Charles Hotel existed to be a safe haven for its city’s guests. Notable guests of the hotel included  Henry Benjamin Whipple (a bishop in the Episcopal church),  Frederick Law Olmsted (American landscape architect), James Silk Buckingham (author, journalist, and traveller), and Fredrika Bremer (Swedish author and feminist activist), Matilda Houstoun (social reformer, writer, and traveller), and Charles Mackay (author) (6).

ralph_goodrich_1
“Ralph Leland Goodrich, 1858”
Photo Source:
The Ralph Leland Goodrich Diaries

The St. Charles also played host to those who would fight the Civil War in the years leading up to it, as well as those who did fight the War in the years that followed. From high ranking officers to the men that they commanded (and the families thereof), the hotel provided beds, balls, and banquets to the soldiers of the Confederacy. For example, in October of 1860 the St. Charles (now the second of its name after a fire destroyed the first in 1851) was host to one Ralph Leland Goodrich (pictured to the right). Though not yet a Confederate solider, Leland would go on to join Company A of the 6th Arkansas Infantry in September of 1861 (7).

During a period from 1859 to 1867, Goodrich kept a nearly daily diary of his life and experiences – including his stay at the St. Charles. His diary entry on October 5, 1860 mentions the great hotel and Goodrich’s impression of its grand architecture:

“[We] passed the [1812] battle ground just on the south edge of New Orleans [and] got into the city about 2; steamboats all along the shore. Went with Major Hayward to the St. Charles Hotel. [I experienced] innumerable difficulties getting my baggage out [of the steamboat] until I had given the baggage man a quarter. The hotel is a magnificent building; lofty Corinthian columns up beyond the second story.” (8)

Jefferson Davis – the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War – is yet another noteworthy guest of the St. Charles. While traveling with his second wife, Varina Howell, in 1868, the couple spent time in New Orleans. Pictured below is a News/Opinion article from the Times-Picayune which places the Davises in New Orleans as guests of the St. Charles in March of 1868:

Time Pic Article

Article Source: Times-Picayune Historical Archive

By the time of this visit, Jefferson Davis already had a long standing relationship with the St. Charles hotel – especially with the famous “Parlor P. ” Parlor P was  room in the St. Charles in which many important historical moments occurred. It was where Davis held his caucus on the way to the Charleston convention in 1860; it was “used as the headquarters for the South [during the Civil War]. After the fall of New Orleans to the Union, Northern officials used the very same room as their headquarters. During the Reconstruction, it was again used by government leaders and was utilized as a sort of Chamber of Commerce for the city.” (9)

Parlor P was also host to “no less than six congressional commissions sent to New Orleans to investigate different phases of the radical regime” (10). One of these congressional commissions  was held to investigate the race riots that occurred outside the Mechanics Institute in July of 1866. Investigations of eye witnesses were held in both Washington and at the St. Charles in New Orleans. (For more information on the race riot, see James G. Hollandsworth, Jr’s book An Absolute Massacre: The New Orleans Race Riot of July 30, 1866.)

Following the close of the American Civil War, the St. Charles transformed it’s purpose from one of luxury and politics to one of charity. As the city was flooded with soldier coming home from war, the hotel became an asylum for its once wealthy patrons. Below is a excerpt from William H. Coleman’s Historic Sketchbook and Guide to New Orleans describing the St. Charles’ role in rebuilding the morale of New Orleans’ citizens:

“In 1865, after the city was filled with returned Confederate soldiers, thousands of whom came back to their old homes without a cent in their pocket, and with a very scanty supply of clothing to their backs, the whole population of the city went earnestly to work to make them as comfortable as possible, and all kinds of charitable schemes were devised to aid them. The hotels did their share of this good work, for they threw open their doors and welcomed home these long-lost sons of Louisiana, with the understanding that those who could pay should do so, but that those who could not should be entertained free. Both the St. Charles and City Hotels thus gratuitously entertained several thousand ex-Confederates, and the books of the former establishment show bills amounting to $30,000 that were never sent in or collected.” (11)

Lands of the slave and the free

Photo Source: The St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans

Though the St. Charles Hotel is gone today, its legacy as a place of gathering lives on. Renowned for its luxury and remembered for its part in American history, the St. Charles wore many hats throughout it’s three incarnations and overall lifetime. But at the core of it all, the St. Charles will forever stand as a image of Southern social and political life  –  if only in memory.


Footnotes

  1. Coleman, pg. 71-2
  2. Peters, pg. 191
  3. Coleman, pg. 72
  4. Nystrom, Dr. Justin A. “Glimpses of the Antebellum North.” HIST 338 – Honors. WordPress. Web. 25 Aug. 2015.
  5. Peters, pg. 191
  6. Peters, pg. 192-3
  7. Griff. “Ralph Leland Goodrich, 1836-1897.” The Ralph Leland Goodrich Diaries. WordPress. Web. November 28, 2015.
  8. Griff. “October 1860.” The Ralph Leland Goodrich Diaries. WordPress. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.
  9. St. Charles Hotel.” Media NOLA. Tulane University. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
  10. Thayer, Bill. “Chapter XLIII: Hotel Life in New Orleans.” The University of Chicago. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
  11. Coleman, pg. 76

Sources

Featured Image Source: Robinson’s Atlas of the City of New Orleans, Louisiana