When it comes down to it, a couple can exchange vows in a judge's chambers wearing street clothes, and once the ceremony is over, they'll be as legally married as someone who meticulously picks out a princess-type gown and stately tux and invites 200 friends to spend an afternoon sharing storybook nuptials.
The difference, of course, is in the experience. For the majority of couples, where they get married sets the tone for lifelong memories of their wedding day and makes the party after the ceremony all the more special.
For those who feel they need a religious setting in which to exchange wedding vows, there are numerous churches of all denominations in town -- including the most famous, St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square -- where you can arrange to hold your marriage ceremony. Some even have accommodations for a reception after the wedding on the same site.
Other couples want something more unusual and adventurous, and for those there also is a plethora of choices in the New Orleans area, from an old music hall to plantations and historic houses to courtyard and garden settings to a castle where you can stage the ceremony and reception or just the reception. Those who don't have the time or patience to seek out the perfect venue can turn to a party planner for help or a site specialist such as Meghan Donahue, who runs Locations Uniquely New Orleans (299-8300).
Donahue has compiled a large portfolio of locations that can satisfy a range of dreams and tastes, and she handles all the details of contracting the location and more. "Ninety percent of our business is out-of-town brides who are having destination weddings in New Orleans," she says. "They don't want to have it in a hotel; they want something intimate and special." Once the wedding couple gives Locations Uniquely New Orleans the criteria for the kind of wedding they want, Donahue will put together information on five to 10 choices of locations that will fit the bill, then will either take the couple on a tour of the spots or send detailed photographs to help them determine which place is best for them.
Rosy's Jazz Hall (500 Valence St., 896-7679) offers wedding couples several options for their ceremony and reception, all within a building that previously was home to a jazz club that booked musical acts such as Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Now it is a catering and special events venue managed by executive chef Steve Zwiebaum. Couples can have their ceremony in a picturesque atrium with glass windows two stories high and hold a reception in an outdoor patio and courtyard or book a band and let their guests dance in the jazz hall. The building is decked out with classic New Orleans components such as brick walls and hardwood floor, plus an indoor balcony that looks over the atrium. There is room for as many as 400 guests and outside caterers are allowed.
The bridal couple and their guests can all trip the light fantastic when the wedding is held at the unique Venusian Gardens (2601 Chartres St., 943-7446), an art gallery and party space that features the neon artworks of owner/artist Dr. Eric Ehlenberger.
Located just a few blocks from the French Quarter, the gallery is the realization of the artist-owner's vision of a fantasy Venusian world with neon jellyfish sculptures hanging from the ceiling and larger artworks on the walls. Originally built as a church in the mid-1800s, the building has hardwood floors, a 40-foot cypress cathedral ceiling and 16-foot windows. With a gallery exhibition space upstairs, Venusian Gardens has no dearth of intriguing things to look at and presents natural backdrops for special events. It can accommodate 200 people comfortably and can supply entertainment and photography services as well as catering from Partysist.
It is said that brides usually feel like princesses for a day, so why not intensify that feeling with a touch of reality at Louisiana Castle (47168 Hwy. 10, Franklinton, 455-8700; www.louisianacastle.com). Situated on 10 acres of lush land, the building itself is a replica of an English Norman Keep castle and is tailor made for big outdoor weddings, accommodating as many as 400 people. It also has a glass-enclosed ballroom and "throne room" decorated in the castle style, and special themed guest rooms are available for the bridal couple and whoever else wants to stay overnight.
For many people there is nothing more quintessentially New Orleans than the mansions along St. Charles Avenue, and The Van Benthuysen-Elms Mansion (3029 St. Charles Ave., 895-9200; www.elmsmansion.com) is a beautiful spot for weddings and receptions. The historical Italianate-style mansion, built in 1869, echoes a blend of European styles, with an emphasis on glorious. Inside, the building has a hand-carved marble mantle, rich mahogany, 24-karat gold sconces, period furnishings, Doric columns, jeweled windows in the grand ballroom and glamour dripping in every room. Outside, guests can stroll through meticulously manicured gardens and lovely patios, and many couples choose to exchange vows in the graceful gazebo.
No less historic -- it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- is the Degas House (2306 Esplanade Ave., 821-5009; www.degashouse.com), one-time home and studio of French impressionist painter Edgar Degas in the late 1800s. Built in the middle of that century, the house espouses Victorian colors and a Creole aesthetic with double parlors and a luxurious courtyard that is a favored spot for weddings and receptions of up to 200 people. Located about a mile from the French Quarter, Degas House also has several guest rooms for overnight stays.
Even the landmark Saenger Theatre (143 N. Rampart St., 524-2490; www.saengertheatre.com) can play host to a wedding by putting a temporary floor over the orchestra pit and outfitting it with tables and other decorations. With its baroque decor, statuary and elegance, it is a lovely backdrop for a ceremony and can even accommodate tables for several hundred guests.
Natural settings for weddings also abound in New Orleans and for the most options in one place, try New Orleans City Park (1 Palm Drive, 482-4888; www.neworleanscitypark.com). Here you can choose a location near the art deco Popp Fountain, among the fountains and blooms at the Botanical Gardens, at a picturesque turn-of-the-century Greek peristyle overlooking a lagoon, or under centuries-old live oaks in the massive park. The Pavilion of the Two Sisters at the Botanical Gardens provides an indoor space for the reception adjacent to outdoor gardens for the ceremony. For a more playful venue, have your ceremony at the beautifully refurbished carousel in City Park's amusement park. In addition to providing a breathtaking location, the park staff will help with all the details for your ceremony and reception. Longue Vue House and Gardens (7 Bamboo Road, 488-5488; www.longuevue.com) also stages weddings among its flora, with 8 acres of majestic gardens surrounding a Palladian-style mansion replete with English and American antiques and other historically significant effects. The former home of New Orleans cotton broker and philanthropist Edgar Bloom Stern, the gardens at Longue Vue were designed by revered landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman and were inspired by 14th century gardens in Spain.