So Anne Rice has left us.
But has she really?
The prolific “Vampire Chronicles” author lives on as one of the great writers in a city filled with them, her legacy every bit as immortal as the vampire Lestat.
She leaves behind more than just a literary legacy, though. She also leaves an architectural one.
There are the Victorian gem at 3711 St. Charles Ave. and the Greek Revival-Italianate mansion at 1239 First St., both of which she once owned. There are the wealth of local real-life New Orleans buildings visited by the characters of her dozens of novels.
But if there’s one building that embodies Rice and her work, it’s the old St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage building at 1314 Napoleon Ave., where she lived, worked and threw lavish parties while at the peak of her storytelling powers in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The sprawling 55,000-square-foot, 93-room building — which, in addition to being home to the Rice family from 1993 to 2003, was also home to her famous (and, let’s be honest, kind of creepy) doll collection — is actually made up of three separate but connected buildings, each constructed at a different time.
The first was built in 1865-1866 as a school, St. Joseph’s Institute, run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul.
Designed by architect Daniel Mulligan, the three-story brick building was then, and remains, one of the more striking examples in the city of the Second Empire style of architecture. (That’s the ornate and eclectic style that arose during the reign of France’s Napoleon III, a nephew of that other Napoleon.)
That included a unique concave mansard roof, as well as a mass of arched windows, copper gutters and a two-story, plantation-style front porch.
On the same property, the nuns built a small wooden building to house a branch of their St. Elizabeth’s School, a “house of industry” formed to teach older girls the domestic trades and named after the daughter of one of their benefactors.
Within just a few years, however — and with outbreaks of yellow fever, cholera and the like creating a flood of orphans in the city — St. Elizabeth’s by 1872 took over the St. Joseph’s building and became St. Elizabeth’s Asylum, an orphanage.
“It is a model of neatness, order and taste,” read an 1873 item in The Daily Picayune. “The sixty-seven children look healthy and clean and receive great care. They are taught useful arts, etc.”
The orphans kept coming, however. And so, around 1875, the sisters hired architect Albert Diettal and builder Albert Thiessen to erect a new three-story wing complementing Mulligan’s Second Empire main building.
Seven years later, work began on another, identical wing on the building’s Perrier Street side. That gave the building its U-shape and created a central courtyard said to be popular among orphanages of the day. Four-story towers connected each of the new wings to the main building.
It was the depth of the Great Depression, and with a national unemployment rate of nearly 25%, President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed to figur…
Over the years, the buildings underwent numerous renovations, most of which were more utilitarian than decorative. For example: Drop ceilings hid the 15- to 20-foot height of some of its rooms. Fireplaces were covered up. Linoleum tile covered pine flooring. Decorative plasterwork was removed.
“Essentially, St. Elizabeth’s is about adaptation and change,” reads a history of the property created by the National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey in 1997. “Over the years, the large rooms, defined by their brick walls, have been subdivided and altered with cypress, then steel stud walls. The sisters constantly found different uses for rooms to suit their needs at a particular time.”
By the middle of the 20th century, however, advancements in medicine blunted the impact of various diseases. That meant fewer orphans. With a dwindling student population, the nuns in 1989 took the remaining 30 or so students of what was then a boarding school and moved to a new facility in Marrero, leaving the massive old orphanage vacant.
If you paid attention in elementary school — or during one of those annual airings of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” — you know Thanksgiving h…
Enter the Rices, who bought the complex and launched into a stem-to-stern renovation.
Some $1 million was spent solely to remove old plaster and expose pine beams. A grand dining hall/ballroom was added. A “Mardi Gras room” provided views of parades passing on Napoleon Avenue.
Rooms in the towers were converted to a writing studio for Anne Rice and a painting studio for her husband, Stan Rice. Galleries were added to showcase her collections of art, rosaries and quilts, as well as to showcase his paintings.
Perhaps most memorable was the transformation of the second-floor chapel on the Prytania Street wing that is said to have particularly captivated Rice. She dubbed it her “White Chapel,” with choice of paint color reflecting that name.
“Usually Americans have to go to Europe to obtain an old villa, palazzo or chateau,” she wrote in a news release announcing her purchase of the property. “We have found one right here in one of the most beautiful cities in America. And all our plans are in complete harmony with the lovely work of the architects who built St. Elizabeth’s Home.”
Thanksgiving 1852 was just around the corner, but the Methodists of New Orleans could be forgiven if they felt a little less thankful than usual.
As often was the case with places she lived, she worked the house into her novels. That generated no small amount of curiosity among her fans, prompting her to open it to tours in the 1990s. Proceeds went to charity.
Additionally, she would host her annual Memnoch Ball there at Halloween time. The house would also be rented out as an event venue, often for charitable causes.
Then, in 2003, six months after Stan Rice’s death, Anne Rice agreed to sell it for $6 million to a developer, who spent an estimated $8 million carving it up into upscale condos.
But it will always be Anne Rice’s old haunt — and that of her Lestat, who described it in Rice’s 1995 novel “Memnoch the Devil”:
“I entered the lower corridor cautiously, and at once found myself loving the proportions of the place, the loftiness and the breadth of the corridors, the intense smell of the recently bared brick walls, and the good wood scent of the bare yellow pine floors. … This had been a habitation and something of a hallowed one. I could feel it all at once.”
Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; “New Orleans Landmarks,” by Leonard V. Huber; National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey; AnneRice.com.
Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at email@example.com.