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Garden District is rich in history


NEW ORLEANS—If you want to see a bit of the Old South in the United States, take a tour of New Orleans' Garden District.

The majestic mansions in this residential area not only are rich in history but also provide marvelous examples of Italianate, Greek Revival and Victorian architecture.

And almost as stunning as the homes of the living are the homes of the dead, whose remains are housed in lavish aboveground tombs at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 located in the heart of the Garden District.

Although the Garden District experienced wind damage from Hurricane Katrina, it escaped the catastrophic flooding that plagued the majority of the city. However, electrical lines to the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, which provides an easy and fun way to get to the Garden District from the central business district, are still under repair and run only between Canal Street and Lee Circle.

A short cab ride will get you to where you need to be, though, and a good place to start is the Garden District Book Shop at Prytania Street and Washington Avenue. There you can find first-edition signed books from regional authors as well as maps and information on the area for self-guided tours.

A Garden District walking tour with a knowledgeable guide, however, provides the best vantage opportunities and costs about $15.

A recent two-hour walking tour from the Historic New Orleans Tours,, began at the Garden District Book Shop and headed to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 across the street.

New Orleans' high water tables and below-sea-level elevation prohibit conventional burials underground, so the city buries its dead aboveground in rows of lavish crypts that resemble miniature houses, hence the nickname "cities of the dead."

Tombs in the cemetery are constructed with a shelf near the top where recently deceased bodies are placed in coffins. According to local ordinance, as long as the previously deceased family member has been dead for one year and one day, that person's remains can be moved into a special burial bag and put to the side or the back of the vault, making room for the next family member to be buried.

As a result of this economical burial system, a number of family members can be buried together. One crypt in the cemetery houses the remains of more than 60 family members.

In instances where deaths occur more frequently, there are temporary tombs known as "storage ovens" that line some exterior walls in the cemetery. This proved especially useful in 1853 when the yellow fever epidemic hit New Orleans hard. Many of its victims are buried in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.

Not surprisingly, the city's cemeteries have become quite famous and generate a lot of interest from historians, the general public and Hollywood.

On the recent tour, the upcoming film "Bolden!" a drama about the life of African-American jazz signer Buddy Bolden, was filming a traditional jazz funeral in the cemetery.

The cemetery also figures into Anne Rice's popular "The Vampire Chronicles" and "Witching Hour" series. One particular tomb was featured in the movie "Interview with the Vampire" and the film "Double Jeopardy" also used the cemetery for one of its scenes featuring actress Ashley Judd.

Across the street from the cemetery is a residential neighborhood full of opulent mansions and tree-lined streets.

Once plantations, the residential area was developed in the mid- to late 1800's by wealthy Americans who swarmed to New Orleans after the completion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to take advantage of the boom in Mississippi River commerce.

Tension between the "new" Americans and the mostly Creole residents of the crowded French Quarter resulted in the snubbed newcomers moving upriver, where they found residential spaces large enough to build prestigious homes and gardens--hence the name Garden District--to rival the architecture in the French Quarter.

A tour will bring you past the home where Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederate States of America, died; the childhood home of New England Patriots Quarterback Peyton Manning; and the home Ms. Rice lived in and used as the setting for her "Witching Hour" novels.

Actor Nicolas Cage also owns a home in the area, but is not there very frequently. Actor John Goodman, however, who recently bought Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor's home, waved to the tour group standing across the street.

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