The Whann-Bohn House, 807 Esplanade St., New Orleans (b. 1859)
pterodactyls asked: What structure from the past do you wish was still standing? What would it be like today?
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard wrote, “The questions abound: how can secret rooms, rooms that have disappeared, become abodes for an unforgettable past?’
I lived in this house from 2002-2004. I still stalk this house as though it were a person. I know its history as if it were a person, I’ve spent years trying to figure it out, to know what it was thinking in its forgotten corners, its sinister stairways, its sloping floors. Technically, it’s still standing, though it has been completed gutted, renovated, and turned into a movie-editing studio. When I lived there, it was caving in, half-uninhabited. It was the bohemian dream, it was the Grey Gardens of the South.
This house undid me, in the best way possible. I pretty much eloped to New Orleans with a fellow I had only known for a few weeks, and his dog. I had never been to New Orleans, had never lived outside of California at all. This was Living, at full speed, this was jumping off a diving board in the dark, holding hands, eyes closed. This house was a marker, in which before and after are two wholly different chapters, two utterly different people.
We drove from Santa Cruz to New Orleans in five days. For some reason, I had never given actual thought as to what would happen when we arrived. I thought we would drive forever, I guess. I’ll never forget driving through the desolate French Quarter for the first time in the dead 3am heat of August, gasping air like hot wet cotton in your mouth.
I don’t think I slept for the first three months I lived here. Every creak, every gaping darkness startled me, terrified me. I would come home at 3am after bartending to find all the lights had gone out, I would grope blindly up that curved stairway in the pitch black and not dare to look down the hall which opened up to the abandoned slave quarters in the back.
But something slowly fused between me and that house, in a way I’ve never been able to articulate. I felt so…safe there, despite the fact that it was crumbling down around me, despite rats and cockroaches and inexplicable flickering lights. I lived for the summer afternoons I would be all alone, and the sky would go black with thunder, and I would turn off all the lights and throw the windows wide open. And most nights you could lie there in the dark, and hear the riverboat calliope and the horse hooves on cobblestones and think about the fact that maybe this was what the world sounded like when this house was built before the Civil War. There aren’t many places left like this, in this country.
I left New Orleans as abruptly as I arrived, centered around some teenage proclamation like, “this city isn’t big enough for the both of us!” and flounced out of town. We broke up over the proper way to carry laundry to the laundromat, this fellow and I. Well, not really, but you know. It was a symbolic fight. Still, not the kind of breakup this house was owed. I mourned that house far more than the relationship. I have no pictures from this period in my life, but I dreamed about that house almost every night for years afterward. Of suicidally possessed stairwells, of secret rooms. I finally went back to New Orleans in 2006, and noticed that the house was now for sale. And I was a woman obsessed: I needed to get back in. It would be like being able to re-enter a dream I had dreamed and exhuming the landscape for clues: had it all ever really happened? Three hours before I was to fly back to San Francisco, I rode my bicycle by a last time and noticed the doors were flung wide open. A curmudgeonly caretaker came out and shooed me away, a German paranormal investigation show was filming inside. I lingered. The minute he rounded the corner, I bolted up the stairs. The light was just the way I had remembered it, had tried to memorize it after I left. I sat down on the floor and cried. I don’t know what I cried for. Maybe for a time that I had lived so fiercely, and blindly, and how hard and good it was.