Saturday, August 22, 2020

Pontalba Captures Madisonville Scenes

 A wonderful new exhibit of artistic sketches of the Town of Madisonville as it appeared in the early 1850's (a hundred and seventy years ago!) has opened at the Madisonville Museum.

The 18 drawings created by Gaston de Pontalba ten years or so before the Civil War are framed and hanging on the walls of the historic two story museum building, which was formerly the town hall and the town jail. Iris Lulu-Simoneaux Vacante, the museum administrator, said that the incredibly detailed sketches of Madisonville were discovered in a box in the Pontalba's family’s Paris Chateau!  

"These drawings were made before Union soldiers ransacked the town and destroyed the lighthouse and all the buildings on the lighthouse property," she said. "There are sketches of the first light house including Benjamin Thurston's home and another large building on the lighthouse property; sketches of a large hotel and other businesses on Water St. and a home which later became Friends Restaurant!" she said. "I am SO excited about this rare look at Madisonville circa 1850!"

The drawings on display show a wide range of buildings and scenes along the riverfront. 

How The Drawings Came To Be

According to the museum, in October 1848 Micaela Almonester Baroness de Pontalba, arrived in New Orleans from France to oversee the construction of two impressive rows of townhouses on her properties that bordered the east and west side of Place d'Armes, known today as Jackson Square.

Gaston de Pontalba (1821-1875), the youngest of the Baroness' three sons, accompanied her along with his brother Alfred and childhood friend Eugene-Joseph Napoleon Klein. During his two-and-a-half-year stay, Gaston produced 120 drawings that captured the family's voyage from Europe, New Orleans architecture, the houses they lived in and the plantations they visited.

In the summer of 1850, during a yellow fever outbreak, the Baroness and her sons retreated to Madisonville where she rented a house on Water Street. Gaston enjoyed rowing his boat in the Tchefuncte River and floating for hours while he sketched the town. He sketched the original lighthouse, light keepers house and out buildings before it was bombed during the Civil War. 

He sketched Charles Parents' Plantation who served as Commandant of Madisonville. Upon his death, the plantation was left to his son Charles Jr. He sketched the home of Mr. Hepp, a sea merchant and friend of the family. Mr. Hepp's home changed owners over 150 years and later became Friends Restaurant. 

He also sketched Alligator Bayou, now known as Bayou Desaire. The 18 Madisonville sketches were dated between July 1850 and September 1850.

In April 1851, the Pontalba buildings were complete and the family departed for France, never returning to New Orleans. Gaston continued to create sketches, lithographs and sculptures. Most of his works remained in the Pontalba family chateau, Mont-l'Eveque near Paris.

In 2019, Pierre de Pontalba, the son of the current Baron de Pontalba, discovered Gastons' sketch book in a wooden box and generously lent the sketch book to The Historic New Orleans Collection for a temporary exhibit. In March 2020, with the help of Howard Margot of the HNOC, the Pontalba family gave the Madisonville Historic Museum permission to have the sketches scanned for a permanent exhibit.

While close up detailed photographs of the drawings are not allowed, here are a couple of low resolution interior shots of the museum exhibit. Visit the museum for a close up view of these incredible historical views of St. Tammany's most historic community.

Prints of the Pontalba drawing of the 1850 Tchefuncte River lighthouse are available for purchase at the museum.

The story of the Pontalba family is rich in historical detail and personal tragedy. A book has been written about some of the more difficult events that have taken place.

The Madisonville Museum is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. 

There are several other exhibits of interest as well, including a display chronicling the saga of the Madisonville Rooster, a jail cell exhibit, the medical instruments of Dr. Pennington, and some tools used at the Jahncke Shipyards. 

There is even the gate to the vault at the old Madisonville bank.



Here is the text of a recent article on the website by Iris Lulu-Simoneaux Vacante: 

The Madisonville Historic Museum, housed in the old courthouse and jail near Madisonville Junior High School, has an exciting new exhibit that was recently discovered in a French Chateau and sealed in a wooden box for 170 years.

The Madisonville Sketches of Gaston de Pontalba, son of Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba, were created in summer 1850 when the family rented a home on the Tchefuncte River to escape a yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans.

No one knew Gaston's sketch book existed until Charles Edouard Baron de Pontalba found them while searching Chateau de Mont-l’Eveque in France, the home of the Pontalbas since 1804. He was hoping to find interesting family memorabilia to share with a returning New Orleans friend, Peter Patout, who was instrumental in connecting the Pontalbas with their New Orleans roots.

The book was filled with sketches that Gaston made while traveling in the United States with his mother. There were detailed sketches of New Orleans, a few of Pascagoula, Mississippi, and 18 sketches of Madisonville.

The Madisonville sketches include the original lighthouse and lightkeeper's house built by Benjamin Thurston and destroyed by Union soldiers in 1863. It also includes Charles Parent's Plantation; Mr Hepp's establishment, which later became Friends Restaurant; the Tchefuncte Hotel; Mr Lessasier’s home; Alligator Bayou and the home that Micaela rented for herself and sons Albert, 27 and Gaston, 22.

The sketches were on display at The Historic New Orleans Collection in the French Quarter in February when a group of local history buffs, Gail Perry, Iris Vacante, Cindy Pecoraro and Susan Kier, met with museum curator Howard Margot. When he saw their enthusiasm over discovery of the Madisonville sketches, he offered to be a liaison between the Madisonville Historic Museum and the Pontalba family.

After several correspondences, the Pontalba family gave the Madisonville Historic Museum permission to display the sketches, which were scanned and delivered.

The sketches show a very busy riverfront with large buildings along the river, many of which have not survived through the years. It shows homes and businesses of some of the early settlers of Madisonville, which was permanently settled by Jean Baptiste Baham and his five sons in the late 1700’s. When Jean Baptiste died, his sons divided the land into lots forming the town of Madisonville in 1811.

It was passed down from generations that the Baroness once stayed in Madisonville but, up until now, there was no physical proof or written documents putting the Pontalbas in Madisonville. Gaston was brilliant in labeling each building and area he drew even though it is written in French. It has shined a new light on the town's history.

The story of his mother, Micaela, is a tragic one that begins with the death of her wealthy father when she was 2, making her the richest girl in New Orleans.

Micaela Pontalba

At the age of 15, she is whisked away to France in an arranged marriage to a cousin she had never met and spends years as a prisoner under the rule of her unstable father-in-law who wants access to her money. When her mother dies, Micaela is left with yet another large inheritance.

Her ruthless father-in-law goes to Micaela’s room to get her to sign over the rights to the fortune, but she refuses. He returns with dueling pistols and shoots Micaela twice in the chest. As she reached out for the gun, the bullets severed her fingers before hitting her breast. Thinking he killed Micaela, who was bleeding on the floor, her father-in law goes to his study where he takes his own life. Micaela miraculously survived the attack.

After a lengthy recovery, Micaela and two of her three sons travel to her birthplace of New Orleans in 1848 where she sees that the buildings her father left her were becoming slums. She decides to tear down the apartments and build new apartments. The new apartments are named the Upper and Lower Pontalba Buildings.

Micaela was very active in the construction of the apartments. She would wear pants and climb ladders to oversee the project. Andrew Jackson, a family friend, refused to tip his hat to her because he disapproved of a woman wearing pants. So when Micaela redesigned Place d’Armes, later named Jackson Square, she had the statue of Andrew Jackson posed tipping his hat directly to her balcony.

During their five months or so in Madisonville, Gaston spent most of his time floating in his wooden boat taking in all the natural beauty of the Tchefuncte River and riverside town. He sketched from his boat for hours each day. His passion in art has given Madisonville a rare gift to see what the town looked like 170 years ago.

After the Pontalba buildings were complete in 1851, Micaela, Albert and Gaston returned to France and never came back to the United States, taking with them a little piece of Madisonville history that would not be discovered for almost two centuries.

The sketches can be seen at the Madisonville Historic Museum, 201 Cedar St., every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. Cash and checks only for gift shop purchases.

The museum will limit the number of guests inside the two story structure to follow social distancing rules during the CovID 19 pandemic.