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The secrets of City Park

A walking tour of one of the country’s largest parks

A combination of landscaped and wild space gives City Park a unique Southern Gothic ambiance. On the banks of the park’s many bayous, Spanish moss sways beside historic landmarks. But the park’s relevance isn’t only historic. On any given day, you’re as likely to witness a bridal shoot or dance troupe somewhere on its 1,300 acres as you are to see a soccer game, footrace, or yoga class.

The grounds—among the largest of any urban park in the United States—feature an antique carousel, an art museum, an amusement park, stables, a mini golf course, a dog park, a farm, two stadiums, numerous fountains, soccer fields, botanical gardens, tennis courts, golf and Frisbee golf courses, and nature trails. With the largest stand of mature live oak trees in the world, the park’s scenery inspires not only picnics and joggers, but also art installations and film shoots. Scenes from the movies The Expendables, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, and 22 Jump Street, as well as the television shows American Horror Story and Treme, were all shot here. The park, founded in 1854, also takes part in the city’s carnival culture, hosting an annual fish rodeo, barbecue contest, symphony concert, and music festival. Come winter, the terrain will glow with over half a million tiny bulbs in a stunning light show called Celebration in the Oaks.

This three-mile self-guided walking tour will take you through the southern section of the park, pointing out historical features such as neoclassical architecture, Art Deco sculptures, and bridges constructed through a $12 million Works Progress Administration upgrade, as well as infrastructure added after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the park. This tour, which begins at the City Park streetcar stop where Esplanade and Carrollton avenues meet, should take between one and a half to two and a half hours to complete, with stops for refueling along the way.

Across from the main entrance to City Park is Bayou St. John. From the bridge on Esplanade Avenue, gaze over the green waters, north toward Lake Pontchartrain and south toward Mid-City. Known by American Indians as Bayouk Choupic, this waterway is a natural outlet of the lake and used to serve as a natural drain for the swampland that once occupied present-day New Orleans. A portage trail along what’s now Esplanade Avenue connected the bayou and lake to the Mississippi River. In fact, when the French Mississippi Company founded New Orleans in 1718, the location was selected due to its proximity to the portage trail, which was used by French trappers and Native American traders alike.

In the 19th century, Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau practiced rituals for an audience of thousands alongside the banks of the bayou, and in the early 20th century, houseboats dotted the sewage-filled waters. Navigation on the bayou was banned in 1936, and around the same time a massive WPA project dredged and cleaned the waterway, adding concrete levees for flood protection as well as bridges.

Today, Mardi Gras Indians use the banks as a staging ground for Super Sunday, an annual parade where Indian krewes sing and dance, displaying their brand-new feathered and beaded finery. Numerous festivals, including the annual Bayou Boogaloo (a free alternative to Jazz Fest) and a Fourth of July flotilla, also take place here.

On May 17, 2017, the equestrian statue of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a prominent general for the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, became the third of four monuments to be removed from public land in New Orleans. After the Charleston Church Massacre in 2015, when Dylann Roof murdered nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, New Orleans’s then-mayor Mitch Landrieu, responded by calling for statues that commemorate the Confederate States of America and white supremacy to come down. He later said, “To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.” Today, the rotary in front of City Park contains only the left-behind pedestal from Beauregard’s statue, and plans exist to remove this structure. The newly inaugurated mayor, Latoya Cantrell, will decide what will take its place.

A pair of 25-foot-tall marble pylons, known as the Monteleone Gate, mark the entrance to City Park. Four bronze lamps and a 600-pound capstone decorate each pilaster. Built in 1914 to commemorate hotelier and park commissioner Antonio Monteleone, the towering pillars frame the double driveway that leads to the New Orleans Museum of Art. A Sicilian immigrant, Monteleone opened a cobbler shop on Royal Street in New Orleans around 1880. Six years later, he purchased the Hotel Victor in the French Quarter and renamed it the Hotel Monteleone.

Pass through the Monteleone Gate. The former site of the Allard Plantation house is to your left, though none of the buildings remain today. The plantation was primarily a dairy farm, though slaves also grew sugarcane, cotton, indigo, rice, and corn crops. In 1829, to pay off a debt, owner Louis Allard mortgaged his land. Sixteen years later, after defaulting on payments, Allard’s property was sold in a sheriff’s sale to Baltimore businessman John McDonogh. For $40,500, McDonogh received 654 acres, 19 slaves, 10 horses and mules, and 140 head of cattle. McDonogh donated the land to the city to be used as a park and allowed Allard to live there until his death two years later.

Continue walking down Lelong Drive toward the New Orleans Museum of Art. Rows of crepe myrtle have replaced the original magnolia trees. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the park, damaging every building, killing more than 2,000 trees, and submerging the park under as much as 8 feet of water. In the 13 years since, the park has made an incredible recovery. In addition to private and federal funds, more than 60,000 volunteers donated 235,000 hours to restoration work. In addition to repaired infrastructure, the park now has 6,500 new trees, a dog park, a mini-golf course, and hiking trails.

At the end of Lelong Drive is the New Orleans Museum of Art, originally called the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art after the Jamaican businessman who funded it. The Greek revival-style museum opened to the public in 1911. Delgado also founded a trade school for young men, which opened after his death in 1921. Located on City Park Avenue at the west end of the park, Delgado Community College maintains a thriving campus to this day.

Turn left at NOMA. Just past the entrance to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, where Dueling Oaks Drive meets Dreyfous Drive, the Dueling Oaks are marked with a plaque.

Here, rival lovers, politicians, and operagoers fought with pistols, sabers, bowie knives, poison pills, and 17th-century tapered swords called colichemardes. In the early 1800s, local resident U.S. congressman Emile La Sere participated in 18 duels. After each, he’d bandage his opponent’s wounds and sit by the injured man’s bedside as he recovered. Another famous 19th-century City Park dueler, Senor Don Jose Llulla, nicknamed Pepe Llulla, was rumored to maintain his own cemetery to bury his victims. Though most duels were fought over a human’s honor, legend has it that a Creole man challenged a European scientist to a duel after hearing him call the Mississippi River “a tiny rill compared to the great rivers of Europe.” The slight earned the scientist a slashed cheek beneath this very tree.

In 1855, police began enforcing an old city ordinance outlawing dueling. Rather than preventing duels, stricter enforcement made the Dueling Oaks even more popular, as they were beyond city limits. In 1892, the Times-Democrat reported, “Between 1834 and 1844 scarcely a day passed without duels being fought at the Oaks. Why, it would not be strange if the very violets blossomed red of this soaked grass! The lover for his mistress, the gentleman for his honor, the courtier for his King; what loyalty has not cried out in pistol shot and scratch of steel! Sometimes two or three hundred people hurried from the city to witness these human baitings. On the occasion of one duel the spectators could stand no more, drew their swords, and there was a general melee.”

In 1890, dueling was banned at City Park. Though two live oak trees once occupied this locale, only one stands today. The other was felled by a hurricane in 1949.

For well over a century, the tomb of Louis Allard, the final owner of Allard plantation before the land became City Park, sat beneath the Dueling Oaks. An 1892 article from the Daily Picayune describes it as “long-ruined” with the front “caved in . . . as if the grave cried out with an open mouth.” Though the burial site was thought to be empty for over a century, the park maintained the site until 2011, when the City Park Improvement Association voted to have it removed. Today, historians argue that the rumor of Allard’s burial beneath the Dueling Oaks was fabricated in the 1890s as part of an effort to market “the Old South” to tourists.

Cross Dreyfous Bridge to get to Morning Call in the Oaks. This cash-only venue is a competitor of the French Quarter’s Cafe Du Monde, selling cafe au lait, beignets, and a variety of other Creole dishes. Morning Call moved to this location in 2012, but the building, called the Casino, dates back to 1912. First used as a cantina and later as a snack stand and for the park’s administrative offices, the Casino never hosted gambling. Today, the upstairs can be rented for private parties and weddings while the downstairs has a gift shop and public bathrooms.

Just past Morning Call you’ll find Popp’s Bandstand. Built in 1917, this 12-columned Greek revival stage is used for both concerts and films. In fact, some of the earliest films in the city were shown here via an early projector called a vitascope.

Turn left and stroll between the Casino and Popp’s Bandstand toward Bayou Metairie. A giant sundial sits at the far end of the casino. Just past it, to your left, an abandoned pigeon house rises from a small island, the location of the park’s annual Big Bass Rodeo and Fishtival. Directly in front of you, two bridges arc over green waters. The smaller one, Langles Bridge, is one of three stone bridges in the park. Built in 1902, the bridge is dedicated to Angele Langles, a local woman who died in a shipping accident and bequeathed a small sum—$650—to the park. Lovers, pausing for photographs, frequent this spot.

The olive waters lapping beneath Langles Bridge constitute all that’s left of Bayou Metairie. Once the bed of the Mississippi River, the river “jumped course” 2,600 years ago. The abandoned distributary formed a 20-mile-long bayou. Runaway slaves and smugglers used the elevated banks to find their way through the swamps. Today, the three-quarter-mile-long bayou, lined with sago palms, elephant ears, cypress trees, and wild iris, provides habitat for herons, egrets, anhingas, pelicans, and turtles.

Cross Langles Bridge to reach City Park’s Historic Oak Grove, the world’s largest collection of mature live oak trees. Swishing from the branches of ancient trees, the oldest of which sprouted between 750 and 900 years ago, the sage-colored Spanish moss is neither moss nor lichen, but a flowering plant in the bromeliad family. After a good rain, resurrection ferns will brighten the tops of the tree limbs, giving the oaks a furry appearance.

Turn right and walk along the banks of the bayou. Just past a green brick shelter you’ll find a stunning view of the Peristyle and the four stone lions that guard it. Built in 1907, this neoclassical pavilion is used for concerts, weddings, class picnics, and rollerskating. In 2012, colored LED lights, similar to those decorating the outside of the Superdome, were installed.

Behind you is the Art Nouveau Owen/Butler Memorial Fountain. The original 1910 sculpture, titled “Unfortunate Boot,” was replaced in 1929 by the bronze water nymph who occupies the center of the fountain to this day. Look around to see if you can find the Great War Memorial. Each side of the pillar is dedicated to a branch of the military: Army, Navy, Aviation, and Marines.

Continue walking along Bayou Metairie, past a second stone bridge that leads to tiny Goldfish Island and past a giant tree—one of the oldest in the park—called Anseman Oak. When you reach a road, turn right to cross Anseman Bridge, named for Victor Anseman, “Father of City Park.” Rebuilt in 1938, the bridge was one of many Work Progress Administration projects that took place here.

The Goldring/Woldenberg Great Lawn sits across the street from the Peristyle. Built in 2009, the lawn, which sits over damaged tennis courts and a parking lot, is just one of many post-Katrina park upgrades. Promenades, edged with rows of Medjool date palms and wooden swings, flank an immaculate lawn. In November and December, before Carnival season officially begins, dance troops and marching bands practice here. As you cross the Great Lawn, you’ll see City Putt on your left, the park’s new mini golf course, another post-Katrina upgrade. Two full-size golf courses and a driving range can be found on the north end of the park.

Across from the Great Lawn fountain is the Oscar J. Tolmas Center, a yellow building with seven arches. Here, you can pay the $8 admission fee and enter the New Orleans Botanical Gardens. Among the many exhibits inside the gates is the Helis Foundation Enrique Alférez Sculpture Garden, which features 14 sculptures. Mexican sculptor Enrique Alférez is responsible for the dozens of bas-reliefs and concrete sculptures in the park, all funded by the Works Project Administration. A historic train garden, modeled after 19th-century New Orleans, is open on weekends.

You’ve already crossed the City Park Train tracks several times. Built in 1898, the train travels on a 15-minute, two-mile loop, circling the park’s oldest terrain. To hop on board the open-air train, pay the $4 fee to get into Storyland, a fairy tale-inspired mini theme park also entered via the Oscar J. Tolmas Center. The train station is at the back of Storyland. Tickets cost an additional $4.

Turn left to walk alongside the fence surrounding Storyland to get to Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, which houses the oldest carousel in the state. Built in 1921, the Hyams fountain can be viewed through the front gates. The inscription at the back of the wading pools reads, “Given to the little children of New Orleans by Sara Lavinia Hyams.”

Continue walking straight along Victory Avenue. The oak grove to your left is a popular destination for picnics and barbecues. To your right is the former site of the City Park swimming pool. Built in 1924, the pool operated until 1960, two years after City Park opened its grounds to non-white visitors. When courts mandated that city parks integrate, the mayor at the time, Victor Schiro, closed 17 city pools, including this one. In 1965, the closed facility was converted into a seal pool and monkey house. City Park plans to open City Splash, a public water park, in 2019.

Across Marconi Drive, you’ll see Delgado Community College, the school founded by Isaac Delgado, who also founded the New Orleans Museum of Art. Turn right and continue along Marconi Drive. The entrance to Tad Gormley Stadium will be on your right.

Another WPA project, this stadium hosted football games, international soccer matches, and even a Beatles concert in 1964. Next to the old brick ticket booth, the iron gates are decorated with Art Deco-styled athletes designed by Enrique Alférez. Two metal sculptures hang on the stadium wall. Inspired by Alférez, the pieces were designed by the artist Michael Cain and installed in 2005. One depicts a swimmer, the other, a mountain with the inscription “As We Watch Grace in Motion, Our Spirits Rise Together.” Still in use, the stadium regularly holds high school football games and track meets.

Continue walking up Marconi and take your first right onto Roosevelt Mall. You’ll have to take the first exit off Beau Bassich Circle to stay on this WPA-era roadway. Separated by an expansive green neutral ground, Roosevelt Mall stretches nearly half a mile. As you stroll down it, you’ll pass a track on your left. Midway down the Roosevelt Mall, two Art Deco statues of eagles, more work by Alférez, face each other from opposite sides of the road. Each has an arrow indicating the direction of traffic. As you continue walking the mall, look left to see Little Lake and construction for the new Louisiana Children’s Museum. Scheduled to open in 2019, the museum will feature interpretative wetlands and a floating classroom.

When the road forks, stay left. The new expansion of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, scheduled to open in late 2018 as part of New Orleans’s tricentennial, will be on your right. Before you cross the WPA-era bridge that connects Little Lake to Big Lake, take a look at the bas-relief on the outside walls. Designed by Alférez, the relief depicts a floating woman and hand tools.

This time, when the road forks, stay right and head toward Christian Brothers School. Built in 1909 on what was the edge of City Park, the school was originally a five-bedroom, two-bathroom house. In 1919, the Texan oil tycoon William Harding McFadden bought the house and turned it into a mansion with 11 bedrooms, 11 baths, a ballroom, a trophy room, a drawing room, a marble-lined indoor pool, sunken gardens, and oriental gardens. McFadden and his wife stayed here when visiting the city for Carnival, horse races, and Sugar Bowl games. Since 1960, Christian Brothers School has leased the building and used it to house a private all-boys Catholic middle school.

Big Lake is home to fish, turtles, and birds. Though City Park claims to remove all alligators from the southern part of the park and those longer than 5 feet from the northern part, the occasional snouted swimmer can be spotted here. Just across the street from Christian Brothers School, the boathouse rents out six-person bikes, kayaks, pedal boats, canoes, and even a Venetian gondola complete with a striped shirt-wearing gondolier.

Continue either way along the three-quarter-mile loop around Big Lake until you spot the Singing Oak. Designed by New Orleans artist Jim Hart, the Singing Oak is an excellent spot for a picnic. Shady, with a view of Big Lake, the oak is strung with giant chimes tuned to a pentatonic scale. The slightest breeze can produce haunting melodies.

From here, return through the Monteleone Gates to the streetcar or continue exploring the park on your own. Public bathrooms and a delicious bite to eat can be found at Café Noma, through the right entrance to the museum.