October 2010 / The House of the Rising Sun
Leonard Earl Johnson
The House of the Rising Sun
L. A. Norma crushed her cigarette on the kitchen dormer's ledge and dribbled the last of her coffee over the scar. "Coffee, best damn restoration there is." She pulled the window closed, and led us down the stairs of Squalor Heights, Faubourg Marigny, New Orleans. It was the first Spring day of 2005.
Our plans were to heel and toe it into the nearby-faraway French Quarter and eyeball addresses that might have been, "That house in New Or-leens they called The Rising Sun . . . "
We first learned about the Rising Sun, in the fabled Sixties, from a folk song recorded by Eric Burdon (Animals). The song created a musical Mecca during our college daze. A sort of classroom dream-escape that led Illinois college boys to drive to New Orleans for a randy weekend in search of . . .
After diligent research and a ten-cent martini lunch at Bacco, on Chartres, our leg work netted three addresses with possible connections to the House of the Rising Sun. The staid Historic New Orleans Collection owned one of them, at 535-37 rue Conti. Once, this site housed a hotel named House of the Rising sun. Today it is a fine and proper exhibition hall and storage annex to the Collection's Williams Research Center, also on rue Chartres. This site is the cause for much of the current speculation about "That house in New Orleans."
The Williams Research Center was an experience like college must have been for those who actually attended their classes. Hard-but-comfy straight-backed wooden chairs sat around well lighted tables, inside a room quiet, clean and serene. Save for the occasional loon bobbing about and bumping into the furniture while in pursuit of their own elusive truths. Such are the secondary rewards of library visits every where.
"Must you make such a racket?" L. A. Norma asked. The lanky youth glared back at her and said, "Yes."
The Williams Center's Pamela D. Arceneaux assured us, with the firm voice of a research librarian, "No ironclad evidence existed of any such Rising Sun ever existing."
"Not as she would ever know," Norma whispered, with a slight down turn of her eyes and nose.
Actually she would know. Arceneaux had been quoted on this very subject in many recent books and magazine articles. Because? During the annexe's renovation a multitude of rouge pots and wine bottles were found to have been discarded under the building over the past few hundred years. Naive drylanders writing in distant publications concluded these were indications of a certain joie de la vie in old New Orleans.
Not so, saith Pamela D. Arceneaux :
"Although it is generally assumed that the singer is referring to a brothel, there is actually nothing in the lyrics that indicate that the 'house' is a brothel. Many knowledgeable persons have conjectured that a better case can be made for either a gambling hall or a prison; however, to paraphrase Freud: sometimes lyrics are just lyrics."
Not to mention that one would likely find discarded pots and bottles under any building in New Orleans.
The second site we found named Rising Sun was an 1800's coffee house, at #9 Old Levee Street -- now 115 Decatur. From my own personal experience, more than a century and a half later as a Son of the Sea, I am inclined to place a small bet on this upper Decatur neighborhood being the site.
"It would surely have held similarities to Decatur Street, today," Norma said, as she placed her Camel Cigarette back in its package.
The third site was at 826-32 rue Saint Louis. It is listed in BIZARRE NEW ORLEANS, by Frank G. Fox, as having been owned, from 1862 to 1874, by a Marianne LeSoleil Levant -- a name that loosely translates from French to English as, "Rising Sun." Maybe. But my money stays on the coffee shop at 115 Decatur.
What is now the Williams Center's new annex was destroyed by fire in 1822. It had been a hotel by the name, House of the Rising Sun, for the preceding thirteen months. But it is not thought to have been a house of ill repute. It was a parking garage, in 1992, at the time of purchase by the Historic New Orleans Collection.
History can be a fickle pickle and no more confirming evidence than that exists as to where -- or even if -- such a house existed.
We think it did.
"Several of them always exist," Norma said, as we stepped out onto Chartres. She lit a Camel, and added through its smoke plume, "Ask Senator David Vitter, Republican from Louisiana!"
Copyright, Leonard Earl Johnson, 2010
Note: LEJ in ConsumerAffairs.com
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