Across metro New Orleans, kids head back to school this week, much to the delight of parents. With the heat still steaming the city like a crab boil for a few more weeks, and that big show in London wrapped up, there’s not much left in the toolkit of a mom trying to entertain the kids. The sight of the yellow buses stopping on neighborhood corners comes not a moment too soon. Now, parents who can sneak away during school hours, as well as others looking for some quiet time during the day, do so in one of the most relaxing places in New Orleans: City Park.
Like so much of the land around the original city, City Park was plantation land. The Allard brothers, Robert and Louis, operated a sugar plantation on the land near the east bank of Bayou St. John. The Allards went bankrupt, however, and the planters’ association, who held a mortgage on the property, foreclosed. The planters in turn sold the property to businessman and philanthropist John McDonogh in 1845. When McDonogh passed away in 1850, he willed the Allard Plantation to the cities of New Orleans, and Baltimore, the city of his birth. New Orleans moved to acquire the Baltimore portion of the land in 1854.
The land was used as grazing ground for cattle and general recreation from that point through the Civil War. In 1872, the city made the first real moves to plan out the land’s use and convert it into a true urban park. The city contracted the designers of Central Park in New York City, Bogart and Culter, but their plans were shelved for almost 20 years. In 1891, the City Park Improvement Association was formed, under the guidance of Victor Anseman. Development of the land began in earnest. The land was drained and lagoons were planned. The Peristyle, one of the first ornamental buildings in the park, was built in 1907. In 1910, Isaac Delgado proposed to the city an art museum to be built in City Park. The original building of what is now the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) opened to the public in 1911. Other buildings and projects followed: The Casino in 1913, the Beauregard Monument in 1915, and Popp Fountain in 1916. Land acquisitions were made north of the park’s original boundaries, extending it all the way to Lake Pontchartrain.
The Works Project Administration, a construction and recovery project of the Great Depression truly shaped City Park. WPA funds paid for Tad Gormley Stadium, renovations to Popp Fountain, a golf course, the Botanical and Rose Gardens, as well as the planting of 100,000 trees. Roads throughout the park were paved and improved. World War II put a hold on work in City Park, with the neighborhood’s focus shifting to nearby Higgins Industries and their landing craft for the war effort. Interest in City Park returned after the war, most notably with the opening of Storyland for children in 1956. The Friends of City Park were formed in 1982, which led to Celebration in the Oaks, the holiday lights extravaganza so loved by residents of the city. In 2005, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority extended the Canal Streetcar line to City Park via the “Carrollton Spur,” a 1-mile extension of the traditional Canal line that runs along N. Carrollton Avenue to the Beauregard Monument (near the entrance to NOMA).
Hurricane Katrina dealt a devastating blow to City Park, flooding low areas, ruining several buildings and generally making the park undesirable. The city, FEMA, and private sector donations helped return the park to its pre-storm glory. If it’s been a while since you’ve spent an afternoon under the majestic oaks of the park, jump on that streetcar and come on over!
For more detailed information on City Park, be sure to pick up Catherine Campanella’s wonderful book, New Orleans City Park.
To learn more about City Park, check out our Storyland and Carousel Gardens video!
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. His latest book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is available at bookstores in the city and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.