The first time it happened, I really thought I saw a ghost.
I was walking in the Garden District, where the pre-dusk sky sifted through the tangled branches, and all around there was the glow like that of a favorite bedside lamp. I’d taken my time clomping along Coliseum Street, gawking at the opulent homes and occasionally wandering out into the street — where there was no traffic — or stopping on the sidewalk, where there were none of the usual tour groups taking pictures through the iron fences.
It was quiet; the air was as warm and thick as the soup du jour at Commander’s Palace, which at that moment was directly to my right. It was then, looking back up the street, that I saw her.
She was behind the glass door at 1332 Washington Ave., which is catty corner to Commander’s. With no previous experience with the supernatural, I did what seemed to be natural: I kept walking toward her. She didn’t vaporize, nor did she float away back into dark recesses behind her. She stayed put, her outline growing more distinct as I drew near.
Stepping out to cross Washington Avenue, I came to realize just what she was: a large, photographic image of an older woman, who, on closer inspection, was the great Southern writer, Eudora Welty.
The space that she occupies is the front part of the gallery of renowned local photographer, David G. Spielman, whose large body of work includes the aforementioned photo of the Mississippi-born Welty and iconic portraits of other famous Southern writers, including Richard Ford and Pat Conroy, as well as numerous, stunning images of Europe.
“What makes it unique is that in most galleries you can go and see an artist’s work, but you don’t meet the artist,” says Spielman. “You might get see him or her on opening night.”
At The Spielman Gallery there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get to meet the man who made the pictures.
At The Spielman Gallery there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get to meet the man who made the pictures. And like Eudora Welty, whose uncanny photographic representation is to me a pseudo-apparition who watches over the gallery, Spielman is a storyteller, both through the images on the walls of his gallery, and via his love of telling the stories behind those photographs, and even the building itself — which, as it turns out, has a long history.
Prior to the establishment of Commander’s Palace in the 1890s, the restaurant’s founder, Emile Commander, owned a saloon at what is now the gallery. After this auspicious origin, 1332 Washington Ave. went through several iterations, and for at least the last 40 years it’s been some sort of retail space.
Spielman’s large body of work includes iconic portraits of famous Southern writers, including Richard Ford and Pat Conroy, as well as numerous, stunning images of Europe.
During the 1970s it was a brass gallery, before being taken over by the famous and eccentric metal sculptor, Joey Bonhage. Spielman was friends with Bonhage, and he remembers the state of the property clearly.
“If you ever find any old photographs of [the building], it was pretty dilapidated,” Spielman recalls. “There were holes in the roof and squirrels and birds — pigeons —living up there.” But this environment didn’t repel visitors. On the contrary, Bonhage’s outsized personality and generosity of spirit attracted a wide range of potential customers, including diners who would come out of Commander’s and swing by the gallery to admire the sculptures and chat with the artist.
It was after Bonhage passed away that Spielman made his first attempt to purchase the property, and he was “crestfallen” when he found it had been sold to other buyers. In the meantime, two symphony musicians had turned 1332 Washington Ave. into a popular and attractive art gallery, but due to work commitments outside of New Orleans had decided to sell the space. Spielman now had his second chance at owning the property. This time, he was in luck.
Spielman and his wife purchased the storied space, an experience he describes as a simultaneously fulfilling and anxiety inducing. It is, after all, a relatively large building in one of the city’s most desirable locations, and therefore comes with the expected price tag. But the sense of community and constant hum of people drive away any sense of buyer’s remorse, Spielman says. And when he told the Brennan family, who own Commander’s Palace, that he’d bought 1332 Washington Ave., they were happy to have him as a neighbor again (Spielman previously housed his gallery in The Rink, a retail space that’s also close to Commander’s).
As a long-time Garden District resident, Spielman was well aware of the advantages of having his gallery here, right next to one of the best cities of the dead and one of New Orleans’ best restaurants.
“You can tell any cab driver where you want to be,” Spielman says, “and they’ll know where to go.”