the Cabildo

until our trip to New Orleans, all of our Pi Phi Homecoming destinations took us places one of us did or had lived. consequently, I hadn’t much context into which I might fit excitement, anticipation, or plans for must-see sites. (beyond beignets. we knew beignets were #1 on our list of everything.) although generally I anxiously and enthusiastically plan out which historical or otherwise noteworthy places I want to visit, this trip saw me picking a guidebook up from the library on a whim mere days before the trip.

ultimately, that plan worked out pretty well. Gabrielle had visited the city before and knew enough about what to check out to give us a template to structure our weekend on, and the “top sights” provided us with the rest. as a result, I knew little of what to expect when suggesting we check out the Cabildo beyond the (in hindsight) vague blurb in the guidebook. a delightful and detailed tour through the city’s history through Reconstruction in one of its most historic buildings.

the Cabildo and its architectural twin, the Presbytere, buttress the St. Louis Cathedral on the northwestern edge of Jackson Square. fire destroyed the original structure in in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 and the present building went up between 1795 and 1799 to serve as the seat of Spanish governance for the territory. that role didn’t last long – the Louisiana Purchase transfer occurred in the Cabildo in 1803 and thereafter served as City Hall until 1853, as well as home to the territorial superior court (1803-1812). it also hosted notable visitors to the city, including the Marquis de Lafayette, who was granted use of the Sala Capitular during his stay. from 1868 to 1910 it served as State Supreme Court, where landmark cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson were adjudicated.

despite housing the Supreme Court, by the late 19th century the building had fallen into significant disrepair and was poised for demolition. artist William Woodward (known for impressionist paintings of the city and Gulf Coast) led a successful campaign to save and preserve the building. in 1908 ownership transferred to the Louisiana State Museum, which opened it to the public with historical exhibits shortly thereafter. it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1960 and underwent extensive restoration in the early 1990s following a fire in 1988 that destroyed the cupola and most of the third floor. it came through Katrina with relatively minor damage and served as temporary offices for Louisiana State Police as they patrolled the streets in the aftermath of the disaster. today the Friends of Cabildo run tours of the Vieux Carre, and the site hosts yoga in the second floor gallery that overlooks Jackson Square on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. (it sounded like fun … but we opted for a ride on the St. Charles streetcar, a long walk to Audubon Park, and run around the lake.)

Old U.S. Mint

the Mint in New Orleans is the only one in the United States to have produced coinage for both the United and Confederate States of America. the strategic location of the city, its bustling port, and sizable antebellum population made it a desirable location for a mint. in the 1830s, Andrew Jackson established several mints throughout the south, including the one in New Orleans, because he felt the Second Bank of the United States (the recharter of which he vetoed in 1832) benefited northeastern businessmen at the expense of common frontiersmen. combined with the effects of some of Jackson’s presidential acts and fiscal policy, by the end of the 1830s, the need for minted money necessitated additional mints. the red brick building was designed by William Strickland (who also designed the mints in Philadelphia, Charlotte, NC, and Dahlonega, GA) went up in 1835 and began making coins in 1838.

the New Orleans mint quickly became one of the most important in the country. its location made it convenient both to Mexican or and recently discovered gold mines in Alabama. while the Philadelphia mint produced more coinage, New Orleans could distribute its output much faster, particularly to the rapidly growing southern and western states and territories.

prior to Louisiana’s secession from the Union, the mint produced numerous denominations of coin, all from silver or gold. once the building and assets were seized by the Confederacy, operations were turned over to making Confederate half-dollars of the remaining gold bullion. once the bullion ran out, the building served to quarter Confederate troops until the Union occupied the city in 1862.

the Union flag raised above the mint after the city was captured resulted in a notable scandal. a professional gambler named William Mumford and several other people defied Marine orders to leave the flag alone, and entered the mint to rip the flag down, tearing it apart and stuffing bits into his shirt to save as souvenirs. the commander of U.S. forces in Louisiana, Benjamin Butler, arrested and charged with high crimes and misdemeanors. he was tried and convicted by a military tribunal in May of 1862 and was executed by hanging in the courtyard of the mint.

after the Civil War, the building was used as an assay office from 1876-79, during which time it was refurbished and damaged minting machinery was replaced. it continued to make coins until 1909. the mint was then decommissioned, much to the chagrin of then-governor Huey Long, and the machinery sent to the one in Philadelphia. responsibility of the building was transferred to the state in 1965 after serving as an assay office, federal prison, Coast Guard storage facility. it was refurbished and turned into a museum, in which capacity it has served since the 1960s. damage from Katrina closed the museum for two years and now showcases rotating exhibits and the Louisiana Historical Center and the Jazz National Historic Park hosts concerts periodically.

Mob Museum

although not precisely what I expected (though on reflection, I’m not sure what I expected), the Mob Museum was very interesting. it sketches the history of mob-law enforcement conflict in the United States from approximately the Prohibition era to the recent past — up to and including the apprehension of Whitey Bulger in 2011.

the government sold the building in 2000 (for $1) with the stipulation that the new owners restored it to its original state and develop into a cultural site of some kind. the creative director of the resulting project previously brought the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the International Spy Museum to the masses while a non-profit board supervises the museum in conjunction with the city of Las Vegas.

as I mentioned previously, the second-floor courtroom was the space I found most interesting as it best retained its 1930s character. in 1950 and 1951, the courtroom hosted one in a series of dramatic public hearings about the state of organized crime in the United States — spearheaded by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. resulting from the frustration of local governments at their inability to stem the growth of organized crime (often due in part to the rampant corruption among local politicians and police departments) the Senate Committee set out to address the problem as it pertained to interstate commerce, something over which the federal government claimed jurisdiction. an important component of the Kefauver Hearings were their televised nature — for the first time, Americans saw crime bosses responding to accusations and presenting their true natures, rather than gathering impressions through media reports.

in the courtroom, the judge’s bench has moved back to the north side of the room with bar and observer benches taking up the remaining space. three screens descend from the ceiling over the judge’s bench and a narrative of mid-twentieth century Mob courtroom drama is projected onto them.

the Museum boasts numerous other artifacts, some infamous, some pedestrian, some interesting, some disquieting. as we wound our way through the third floor, several of the other visitors to the museum seemed quite engaged by the more macabre displays on offer — notably the still blood-stained wall against which seven men were gunned to death in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and a barber chair in which another mobster had his throat slashed. one woman in particular relished the opportunity to riddle a cutout with virtual bullet holes from a Tommy gun.

the Museum offered lots of information on an impressive array of topics — wire tapping, money skimming, gambling tricks, Mob killings, Mob hierarchy and succession, the Mob in movies (including a story of how a consultant on one film ended up recreating his own crime for the movie) — but, in the end, as an historian, I found myself wanting much more about the history of the Mob in Vegas. maybe I should have gone to the Nevada State Museum instead? (though their website does nothing to convince me I made the wrong choice.)

Chihuly Garden & Glass

Detail of the centerpiece of the Sealife Room

for the last several years (starting with Los Angeles/Santa Monica) we’ve gone to oddball museums — places I’d never think to visit if traveling on my own. we’ve gone to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the Argo Gold Mine, House on the Rock; this year we happened upon the Chihuly Garden & Glass museum on our way to the Space Needle. it wasn’t what we had in mind and wasn’t as weird or oddball as the last few museums of our weekends, but it was a fantastic surprise! 

I’ve seen small Chihuly installations in many places (the V&A in London, the Kohl Center in Madison, the Bellagio in Las Vegas) but this was a chance to see a huge array of his works — different styles, different colors, different methods of installation, indoors and outdoors, spanning the length of his career which stretches back to the 1970s.
Mille Fiori

it’s not shocking to have found a Chihuly exhibition in the Seattle area — he grew up in Tacoma, attended the university in Seattle and has had more permanent and temporary installations in the area than anywhere else in the world. after his undergraduate work in interior design at UW in Seattle, he moved on to the other (dare I say superior?) UW in Madison for graduate work in sculpture, and finally to the Rhode Island School of Design. (he earned money to pay for grad school by working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska). though he seems rooted in the Pacific Northwest at heart, he’s traveled all over the United States and world working on projects — from London to Paris to Venice to Finland to Ireland to Jerusalem and beyond.

Detail of the bottom of one of the chandeliers

in 1965, a Fulbright Fellowship took him to study glasswork in Venice at a studio known for a group technique which he brought back to Washington in 1971 when he established a studio with support of others. he continued to travel back between Washington, Rhode Island (where he was working at RISD) and Europe, touring all manner of art studios and glassblowing projects. while in England in 1976, a car accident cost him his left eye and damaged his right foot, but he persisted in expanding his artistic output. a surfing accident three years later, in which he dislocated his shoulder, forced him to give up the “gaffer” position in his glassblowing team but he continued to draw and provide conceptual artwork for projects. in 1986 he became the fourth American artist to have a one-person exhibition at the Louvre.

Persian ceiling as seen from beneath

some of the pieces I find most interesting are the outdoor installations — chandeliers over Venice, one at the Olympic Park in Salt Lake City, and a number in botanical gardens all over the country (Missouri, New York, Atlanta, Phoenix, Nashville Pittsburgh). Chihuly Garden & Glass is the latest exhibition (it opened in May of this year and is billed as “long-term” and exquisite care was put into lighting the pieces for maximum effect. from beneath, from above, reflecting in the black glass bases… it includes an array of pieces from across decades of glass art series — a glass forest, the Northwest room (illustrating early influences from tapestry and baskets of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest), a sealife room, Persian ceiling (seen above), Mille Fiori (also above), Ikebana and Boat Float, Macchia bowls… the general consensus as we wandered through the gardens below the Space Needle, already awed by what we’d seen inside the museum, was that it was the best place in the city to have any kind of photographs taken — especially on a day as gorgeous as the one on which we visited.

Looking up through the Glasshouse at the Space Needle

busts galore

though the museum’s pride in occupying the same building as a McDonalds seems somewhat overdone, the Museum of Communism in Prague does a remarkable job of illustrating the hardships endured by the Czech people under communism, from the end of World War II until the success of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

an array of busts took up a portion of the middle of the museum; ones completed in bronze, studies in plaster and clay, half-completed relics of Stalin and Lenin. a display explains the development, construction, and demolition of the world’s largest Stalin monument, which was located in Letná Park across the Vltava from the Jewish Quarter. construction began in the early days of the new communist regime, when adoration for Stalin remained high. the process took five and a half years, however, and the accelerating rate of anti-Stalin sentiment during the period mean that even upon its unveiling, the statue quickly became an embarrassment for the Czechoslovak Communist Party. all the same, the state unveiled the monument in 1955 under even greater stigma than produced by mere anti-Stalinism — unable to endure the pressure exerted by the party, the secret police, and hate mail from Czech citizens, sculptor Otakar Švec killed himself three weeks before the unveiling. in 1962, the monument was demolished. a new sculpture, the Metronome, now stands on top of the plinth.

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