The space occupied by St. Anthony's Garden, the area behind St. Louis Cathedral bordered by Royal Street and Pirate's Alley, is not much to look at right now. Thousands of pedestrians pass it without a second glance — its locked gates barricade a field of recently laid sod, cracked brick sidewalks and a statue of Jesus whose thumb and index finger broke off during Hurricane Katrina. Very little in the garden's current appearance hints at its storied past or bright future.
"(The St. Anthony's Garden) is the most historically rich site in Louisiana," says anthropologist Shannon Dawdy, who received a MacArthur Fellowship partly because of her archeological excavation of the garden.
"It has been the very center of the city's history since the earliest days of the colony," says Alfred Lemmon, director of the Williams Research Center at the Historic New Orleans Collection. "To have a green space in the middle of a very dense urban area could help tourists and locals alike understand the history of the city."
To that end, Lemmon and Monsignor Crosby Kern, rector of St. Louis Cathedral, have spearheaded a project to restore and return the garden to its original function: a gathering place for the people of New Orleans. Closed to the public since Katrina felled several of its oak, sycamore and magnolia trees, the garden has served as everything from a trading post to a shelter for the poor following the 1788 fires over the course of its 290-year history.
In 2008, Lemmon and Crosby received grants from the Getty Foundation's Fund for New Orleans and the Catholic Heritage Foundation to restore and reopen the garden. The Getty Foundation grant stipulated that an archeological excavation be done on the site, "to prevent the new landscape from damaging archeological sites and to inform the restoration," Dawdy says. She and her team from the University of Chicago came down during the summers of 2008 and 2009 for an excavation that ended up being much more groundbreaking than she had anticipated.
"We designed our research to identify the plants used during those times," Dawdy says. "But, as in the best archeology, the best things you find are often unexpected."
Because a garden had covered the land for centuries, the artifacts underneath were "beautifully preserved," Kern says. The excavation yielded more than 32,000 artifacts — the highest concentration of any known site in New Orleans — as well as an entire banquette, street surface and ditch. Pottery, pipes, coins and toys reveal the land's past as a "people's park," Kern says. A simple wooden hut is the oldest structure ever identified in New Orleans, and its melding of Native American architectural techniques (palmetto thatch walls) and European ones (squared posts) hints at a cultural collaboration that exceeds what was documented in history books.
"Native Americans were there for the construction of New Orleans," Dawdy says. "My impression is that they helped build it, because there is heavy evidence of their presence. (The hut) is quite possibly a hybrid architectural form between Native American and European techniques, and possibly African as well."
The garden's history will also inform its restoration. French landscape designer Louis Benech, who specializes in historic rehabilitation of gardens and has designed and restored more than 150 gardens in 18 countries, including the Tuileries Gardens in France, intends with his design to "pay tribute to all aspects of St. Anthony's Garden's exceptional history (by) consider(ing) all periods as significant."
"He is incorporating all elements of the city's history," Lemmon says. "It is not a recreation. It is a garden that reflects the history of the city."
By collaborating with historical botanists, Benech found records of the plants that were exported to France from Louisiana during the 18th century, which include pecan trees, magnolia trees, olive trees, red cedars and wax myrtles. The restored garden's flora will reflect this heritage of botanical exchange, and its design mimics the grid French military engineers drew up for the French Quarter.
"How many people today realize that (St. Anthony's Garden) was the campsite of the earliest founders of the city? How many people realize we found paved street, sidewalks and remains of houses under there?" Lemmon says. "The French Quarter has such an incredibly rich history on so many levels that I think this is sort of a microcosm or a representation of all those diverse elements."
To bring this rich, living history to the masses, garden restoration committee head Sarah Dunbar is working to secure a perpetual maintenance trust. "Gardens need to be maintained. If not, they die, waste or become jungles," she says. "So you really need to endow it, because then you have the people to maintain it." The endowment of $1 million will be administered by a New Orleans-area bank, she says. A patron party is scheduled for April 21-22, 2012.
"If we can raise the money, it will be open to the public," says Wendy Rodrigue, who co-owns the neighboring Rodrigue Gallery with her husband, artist George Rodrigue. "To make that green space beautiful and keep it in the spirit which was originally intended is the best thing we can do for it."
In the wake of Katrina and the BP oil disaster, the re-addition of a public green space to the French Quarter (particularly one that has served as a shelter and a memorial following disasters like fires and yellow fever epidemics, respectively) has special resonance for locals.
"It is a testimony to the survival of the city," Lemmon says. "There is so much need for green spaces in order to care for the environment. To create a wonderful green space would be a big statement on some of the challenges or opportunities we have for the future."
For more information email Stephen Swain at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(photo of shannon digging)