Pitot House, Housing History on Bayou St. John
Of the many cultural aspects of New Orleans, from music to food to Mardi Gras, perhaps the least appreciated is the historic architecture of the city. Where a great concert or meal might bring on that moment of special pleasure, buildings often fade into the taken-for-granted cityscape that we pass through every day.
Helping remind people of the value and wonder of our historic structures is Jenny Dyer, historic house manager for the Pitot House on Bayou St. John, and also a preservation administrator for the Louisiana Landmarks Society, which owns Pitot House.
“Being one of the older cities in the nation, we have architecture that people won’t see anywhere else,” Dyer pointed out. “And a lot of that is usable, livable. The houses are functional. It makes the whole situation really special because people can interact with the buildings.”
These structures are also vitally important to our knowledge of the history of the city and its people.
“They help us understand how people lived and navigated in a pretty harsh environment,” Dyer elaborated. “There was a lot of interaction among diverse groups of people. You can learn how enslaved people played such a role, with their craftmanship, in building the houses. You can learn how the Spanish and French adapted to this environment – or did not.”
While Pitot House may not have the grandeur of Gallier Hall or an old Garden District mansion, it does have a special place in the pantheon of New Orleans architecture. Originally built in 1799, during the Spanish Colonial period, it was added onto by several early owners. The property was purchased in 1810 by James Pitot, an early mayor of the city. Since it appears that further construction was completed by Pitot, his name is associated with the building.
“It’s what we call a raised Creole Cottage,” explained Dyer, though cottage seems a bit of an understatement. “I think it stands out because it is iconic architecture of the greater south. It is more organic than some other houses of that time, not ostentatious, truly a living space.”
While similar in style to plantation architecture, with its wrap-around porch and breezy windows, it was never a plantation home. The building originally had some smaller outbuildings, though those disappeared over time. However, Dyer noted that Pitot House offers the opportunity to see that plantation style right in the city, without having to travel out to the plantations.
Then there is the location itself: Pitot House was purchased by Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1904 and used as a convent. Then, in the 1960s, the Sisters decided to build Cabrini High School on the plot where the house was located. Destruction was avoided when the Sisters donated the house to the Louisiana Landmarks Society on the condition that it be moved to nearby open land. Partially disassembled and loaded onto flatbed trucks, Pitot House was moved 220 feet to its present location, where it sits considerably closer to the Bayou than it did originally.
Over the next decade, the building was restored as closely as possible to its original architecture. Furnishings were accumulated by its first curator, an antiques dealer who lived in Pitot House with his family, and donated most of the furniture when he moved out. Additional donations over the years enable the Landmarks Society to present the house very much like it would have appeared two hundred years ago.
As one might expect, maintaining a structure of this age is a never-ending process. “We have a regular maintenance cycle,” explained Dyer, “plus dealing with whatever comes up. But we are dealing with really amazing craftsmanship and materials from that period, the Spanish cedar, the cypress. This house was built to deal with problems like water, wind and heat.”
The funds to keep the place up come from grants and private donations obtained by the Landmarks Society, along with revenues generated on-site. Tours are available (including versions that cover the neighborhood and/or historic cemeteries), and Pitot House is a popular place for a wide variety of events, from neighborhood fundraisers to weddings. Having Bayou St. John right across the street adds to the appeal.
“I’m a houses person,” proclaimed Dyer, who has also worked at iconic local dwellings such as the Beauregard-Keyes House and the Hermann-Grima House. “I love living history. You can look into a building and see a little about every culture that came before us.”