My friend is a self-proclaimed New Orleans Know It All, and he claims that the bomb shelter at the end of West End Blvd. was once a women's prison. You're the real Know It All. What do you think?
I'm sorry to tell your friend his knowledge about New Orleans has failed him. I, too, have heard the story about the women's prison. But it ain't so.
Built in 1960 during the Cold War as a civil defense shelter, it was constructed to prepare for "disasters caused by enemy attacks or other hostile action, or by fire, flood, earthquakes or other natural causes." At that time our Mayor was de Lesseps "Chep" Morrison, and everyone was more than a little afraid of a nuclear holocaust. Whatever happened to the rest of us, though, the City of New Orleans administration and the City Council would be safe.
It is a massive circular concrete structure on two underground levels. The main area at the bottom level is a cavernous briefing room about 30 feet across. At the time it was state-of the art, but in retrospect rather low-tech. The walls were covered with various maps of the city. A main desk faced smaller desks like the ones schoolchildren used. On a stand was an American flag.
There were offices surrounding the briefing room. In them were lots of metal cabinets full of manuals with technical titles such as Disaster Operations, A Handbook for Local Governments and Civil Defense Activities for Local Chambers of Commerce. There were also films on the same essential topics. Other rooms were equipped with bunk beds, and there was a bath/shower/locker room and a food storage room.
When it was decided that the facility was no longer needed, Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti suggested that it would be a good idea to convert the shelter and use it to house his overflow of prisoners. The idea "bombed," and it was never used for this purpose.
Back in 1965, as Hurricane Betsy threatened the city, then-Mayor Vic Schiro delivered one of his most famous statements outside the shelter. Wearing an Army helmet and a raincoat, Schiro cautioned the media: "Don't believe any false rumors unless you hear them from me."
In 2000, a group of four men was allowed to explore the old bomb shelter. The place was pretty much as officials had left it, except for a giant roach nest. In 2008, some thrillseekers made a video called Buried Alive: Exploring an Abandoned Bomb Shelter. Watch it at http://noadventure.wordpress.com.
I always wondered why there is a lone old house on Lee Circle. What can you tell us about this house?
The last house standing — just barely — at 1032 St. Charles Avenue is a rather curious masonry house with a mansard roof. It was built after 1883 to replace an antebellum frame building. Its odd appearance is due to the combination of various forms of architecture: Greek Revival, Italianate, Second Empire and late Victorian. The building was once the office of Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, the first woman to practice medicine in New Orleans. Today, a different brand of "medicine" is distributed here, as it is the Circle Bar nightclub.