My grandparents had a movie theater/French school in the 900 block of North Rampart Street called L'Union Francaise that burned in the early 1950s. What can you tell me about it?
The French Union — L'Union Francaise — was organized on Oct. 12, 1872, by a group of local residents interested in preserving the French language and culture in New Orleans. Initially, its objective was to help natives of Alsace and Lorraine who might want to leave their native France rather than live under German rule. These two provinces had been taken by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.
As it turned out, New Orleans didn't have the appeal the French Union expected, and there were far fewer immigrants from France than anticipated. The society turned its attention elsewhere: helping victims of yellow fever. The yellow fever epidemic of 1878 was disastrous, and the French Union gave aid to 845 people.
Members of the French Union were noted for their charitable works. For many years they provided assistance to the elderly residents of the Maison Hospitaliere in the French Quarter.
In 1879, the organization bought a building on North Rampart Street to use for social receptions and theatrical productions. Several years later, the French Union opened an elementary school for girls, and an important part of its curriculum was instruction in French. Later, boys were admitted as well. By 1952, the union shifted from educating young people to French language instruction for adults.
The building on North Rampart Street was destroyed by fire in 1953, so L'Union Francaise bought a building at 4522 Prytania St. The group continued to teach French language classes in its new home, where even today you can learn to parler Francais.
What's the story on 709 Jackson Ave.? It's a grand old building.
The building originally was a synagogue, the second-oldest in the city. The congregation, Shaarei Fifilah, was organized in 1850 and was Orthodox and mostly German. Its first temple was on Seventh and Tchoupitoulas streets, but the congregation moved temporarily to another location in 1857, and later that year moved into the synagogue you mention. The building was designed by architect J. Thiele, and bricks from the previous buildings were used in the construction. Today the building is derelict.
I get so many questions about the old riverboat S.S. President — many of them from people who live far away from New Orleans — so I thought I'd answer them all at once and give local readers an update as well.
The President was retired from service in 1999. At that time it was owned by Isle of Capri Inc. The riverboat sat on the Yazoo River in Mississippi for some time and was for sale, at first for $500,000, then the price went up to $1 million. No one seemed to be interested at those prices, and the old riverboat was finally sold to David Campbell of Effingham, Ill., for $1. Yes, that's right: $1.
Today, the boat is at Tower Lake in St. Elmo, Ill. Campbell plans to have it restored by late this year or early 2010. Fans of the S.S. President will be able to see it on television. The Discovery Channel is filming a documentary that should air this summer.