It's a subtle but iconic part of the New Orleans landscape: the warm glow flickering inside patinaed copper lanterns adorning French Quarter streets, shops, courtyards, Garden District mansions and Creole cottages.
"A gas light is the jewelry on a house," says Drew Bevolo, third-generation owner of Bevolo Gas & Electric Lights (521 Conti St., 504-522-9485; www.bevolo.com).
Bevolo recently opened a museum and workshop at 318 Royal St., where, on one recent morning, craftsman Jeb Harrison was hand-riveting a lantern bound for Texas. A new timeline on the workshop walls tells the history of gas lights and how they came to New Orleans.
Drew's grandfather, Andrew Bevolo Sr., opened his French Quarter metal repair shop in 1945, 20 days after the end of World War II. He had worked as a riveter on helicopters and airplanes for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and Higgins Industries, which built landing craft and boats for the military. When an early customer brought him a London street light to repair, he came up with the idea to hand-rivet lights instead of soldering them, and that is how Bevolo constructs its lights today.
In 1790, the English company Coke gas premiered the world's first gas lighting system in London. Gas lighting was imported to the United States in the 1830s, starting with Baltimore and Philadelphia.
"New Orleans came shortly thereafter in the 1830s, but we had a more extensive gas lights system," Drew says. "We lit theaters and other places inside. The French Opera House in New Orleans had a chandelier with 2,000 gas burners that was 40 feet in diameter."
In the late 1880s, New Orleans converted street lighting systems to electric as technology changed, but gas lights remained.
The French Quarter lantern that is recognized worldwide has decorated the city since the 1940s. A. Hays Town, the renowned Louisiana architect, designed this signature lantern — based on several existing New Orleans styles — for one of his projects, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. But he needed someone to build it.
"He's walking the streets of New Orleans after dark one night and he hears 'tap, tap, tap' — my grandfather is working," Drew says. "Mr. Town stuck his head in the door, and said, 'Hey mister, can you make a light fixture?' And my grandfather says, 'If you can draw it, I can make it.' They made the original French Quarter light fixture that night."
The combination of Town's lantern design and Bevolo's ingenious hand-riveting method of construction created an enduring and cherish- ed tradition.
Over time, the original crew of craftsmen dwindled. James Bevolo took over the company from his father.
"They didn't really retrain and rehire, and it became a generational dead end," Drew says. "You put an ad in the paper for a lighting craftsman or a coppersmith today, who's going to answer it? My uncle did a great job. He kept our business open, kept it alive until he could hand it off to me."
Drew joined his uncle in the business in 1992 after working as a stockbroker. "We got together and I said I didn't want the business to go away, so I redid the brochure and I answered the phone, took orders, called a few architects, and really grassroots started one at a time," he says.
Under James' training, Drew learned the entire process of handcrafting lights.
"I came down here and I made lights from scratch," he says. "We made all the brackets, welded everything, sanded, painted. Someone would come in and say 'I'll buy a light' and I had to go upstairs and make it. It takes two days to make a single fixture."
He hired and trained new craftsmen and the lighting and design business grew steadily. Bevolo remains a family business. Drew's son Christopher works at the main showroom on Conti Street. "Now we have 500 different styles and combinations of lights and brackets that we've evolved into our business over the years," Drew says.
Despite the steady growth, the local manufacturing process remains the same. Every single light and lantern is made by hand in New Orleans.
"These guys are making lights exactly the same way I did: same equipment, same tooling, same hand-riveting," Drew says. "It makes a difference in quality.
"Each Bevolo light starts out as raw copper, then after it is hand-riveted together, it is oxidized so that the appearance is that of antique copper. ... We want to control the aging of copper from inception. We make it [look] 15 to 20 years old. From there it will age gracefully. We want our lights to look like they've always been on the house.
"We make 300-year lights. The copper we use is the purest copper. It's smelted and made in the United States. The burners we make are lifetime burners. We take care of our lights." Drew adds that the lights can be found on houses and businesses in all 50 U.S. states and 47 other countries.
Bevolo also makes electric lights. The Bevolo Collection at 316 Royal St. also offers table and floor lamps, chandeliers, sconces and furniture made with recycled wood and forged iron. Next door at the museum, visitors can see how it is done.
"The point of the museum is to show people these are the lights we make and here is how we make them," Drew says. "We cut the copper by hand, with hand shears and foot shears. We don't use any automated equipment at all. I've never compromised the integrity of what we do. That's why you see the workshop. That's something I want to share generationally. I want to give this place back to the French Quarter and the people, so we can share what we do and that's not lost."