Louisiana: Rebuilding after Katrina

New Orleans
Located in southeastern Louisiana, New Orleans is one of the few American cities to have been part of three nations. Founded by French explorers in 1718, it became a territory of Spain in 1762. It returned to French control in 1800 but soon became part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803. In the 21st century, it’s best known as an international seaport with noteworthy French and Spanish architecture — and of course, its rowdy annual Mardi Gras party. The ravages of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 mostly spared the French Quarter and other tourist areas.

Opened in 2000, the National D-Day Museum was renamed The National World War II Museum in 2006 after the U.S. Congress designated it the country’s official World War II repository. Interactive exhibits include oral histories from veterans worldwide, artifacts, documents, photographs and films. There’s even an example of a C-47 aircraft, which was purchased on eBay. A major addition now under way will triple its size by 2009.

The New Orleans Museum of Art is now open following structural repairs needed after Hurricane Katrina. Its permanent collection of more than 40,000 objects is valued in excess of $200 million. This museum is noted for French and American art, photography, glass, African items and Japanese works. The five-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden is home to 50 outstanding pieces of art. Femme, Femme, Femme: Paintings of Women in French Society from Daumier to Picasso, from the museums of France, is a special exhibit on display through June 3.

Located on historic Bayou St. John, the stucco Pitot House is the only Creole colonial-style house museum in New Orleans. It tells the story of life along Bayou St. John since the earliest days of settlement. The Pitot House has had a variety of owners, from prominent lawyers to austere nuns. One of the most prominent was James Pitot, the first American mayor of New Orleans who lived here from 1810-1819. Today, the Louisiana Landmarks Society uses the house as its headquarters and opens it for tours so visitors can see Louisiana and American antiques from the early 1800s. Specialty museums include New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, Tulane Museum of Natural History, Fire Department Museum, Louisiana Museum of African-American History, American Italian Museum, New Orleans Pharmacy Museum and the Confederate Museum.

Plantation Alley
In the 1850s the east and west banks of the Mississippi River were lined with about 350 plantations. Planters could load bales of cotton or bags of rice and sugar onto boats from a dock on their property. At that time this area was home to about two-thirds of America’s millionaires.
Experience a taste of Southern history by touring some of these plantations along Great River Road, a tree-lined route between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Laura Plantation in Vacherie has been selected “best history tour in the U.S.” by Lonely Planet. Creole Family Saga, a one-hour guided tour, gives compelling stories about the seven generations of Creole owners and slaves who called this typical sugar plantation home. Learn how the Creole culture set Louisiana apart from the rest of America for two centuries as you explore 11 historic buildings. See family heirlooms, Louisiana antiques and the slave quarters where West African folktales, later collected as Uncle Remus’ Br’er Rabbit stories, were written.

Also in Vacherie, Oak Alley Plantation has been called the “Grande Dame of the Great River Road.” The quarter-mile canopy of giant live oak trees, believed to be nearly 300 years old, forms an impressive avenue leading to the classic Greek-Revival-style antebellum home built in 1839 by a wealthy French Creole sugar planter. In addition to guided tours, the plantation offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations in 19th-century cottages. The 16th annual Spring Arts and Crafts Festival will be held March 24-25.

Completed in 1828, The Houmas House Plantation and Gardens in Darrow has the architectural style most people envision when they think of antebellum Southern plantations. Tour the 16-room home to see 1840s museum-quality Louisiana furnishings and then enjoy the 12 acres of lush gardens.

Note: It has been more than a year since Hurricane Katrina battered the New Orleans area. Although the plantations on Great River Road were not damaged, they are suffering a catastrophic loss of revenue. For example, Oak Alley Plantation averaged 736 visitors every day before Katrina and now has only 99 daily guests. This decline has led to the layoffs of 54 of their 75 employees. The tourism industry is vital to the economic recovery of Louisiana. Those of us who truly want to help hurricane victims should consider visiting Louisiana during 2007, especially the New Orleans and Plantation Alley areas. The Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism Web site has updated details about specific attractions and accommodations that are open.

Founded by German immigrants and named for a Scottish village, this tiny town just 10 minutes from New Orleans is one of the nation’s largest National Register Historic Districts. Begin your visit at the century-old Southern Pacific Railroad Depot which is now the visitors center. Find out how barges ferried the railcars across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Railroad buffs also would want to check out the 0-4-0F locomotive at the Louisiana Railroad Museum in the old Texas Pacific Depot.

The Mini Military Museum at Gretna Gun Work showcases the development of American and European firearms from the flintlock through Desert Storm era. The German Historical Society Museum Complex is home to five major attractions. An 1840s Creole cottage was home to local blacksmith William White. Known as the White House, this home is now a reception hall and entrance to the complex. Pottery, bottles and other everyday items unearthed during excavation of this property are on display.

Founded in 1841, the David Crockett Volunteer Fire Company is America’s oldest continuously active volunteer fire department. Its headquarters in the Louisiana Fire Museum include exhibits of 19th- and 20th-century firefighting equipment. Of special interest is an 1876 steam fire pumper, which was the first object in Louisiana to be placed on the National Register.

The Kittie Strehle House is another Creole cottage built in the 1840s. The nine children of Claudius Strehle were raised in its four rooms and garret. Youngest daughter, Kittie, was an area teacher for more than 50 years and lived here her entire life. Ignatius Strehle, a son of Claudius, built his Creole house in the 1860s. Tour it to find out more about the fascinating history of this community.