Thursday, August 9, 2012

939-41 Piety - A House Speaks Out

939-41 Piety, corner of N. Rampart, currently being restored by local realtor Nicholas Scapin.
We confess - we were pretty excited when our good friend Nicholas Scapin asked OHS to research the history of his new restoration project at 939-41 Piety.  Scapin, the mastermind behind "The Crook at Camp & Calliope," had heard rumors about his new home but wanted to get the facts [click the link and turn to page 14 to read about another of Scapin's restoration endeavors].  As you'll see, we were unprepared for the richness of what we discovered!  Since the building is a classic New Orleans corner store, we knew that we'd find more tenants than owners.  Indeed, the storefront has housed a fruit vendor, an ice dealer, a grocery, a shoe repair shop, and most famously, the Crescent Star Bar.  When applying a new coat of bright orange paint, Scapin chose to preserve the white star on a blue background that shines from the Rampart Street side of the building, a constant reminder of the history of his building.

Antonio DeLucca, a fruit vendor, erected the structure in 1894 after purchasing the vacant lot from John Henry Helmke for $400 in January of the same year.  DeLucca, his wife, Catherine Genova, and their seven children moved in shortly thereafter, establishing the storefront for the family business.  Antonio died in 1909, though the family remained in the residential side while leasing the storefront to a succession of small businesses.

While many will remember the corner as the longtime home to the Crescent Star Bar, the Soards' City Directories from the first decades of the 20th century show that the place was not a bar until well into its fifth decade of existence.  The DeLucca's sold the building in 1921 to John Mumesci for $3000.  Click on the image at right to peruse a sample of historic city directories showing the store's tenants!

Those businesses most likely benefited from the august presence of the Piety Theater, across the street at 938 Piety.  The benefits turned to danger, however, on the night of January 29, 1940.  At the time, the residential side of 939-41 Piety was home to the Zanca family.  Mrs. Mary Zanca, the Times-Picayune tells us, was "kneeling in prayer near a window in the bedroom of her home...[when] she saw flames spurting from the roof of the two-story theater building" [Times-Picayune, January 30, 1940 p. 9].  Fearing for the safety of her family, house, and neighborhood, Zanca hurried her daughters, Grace and Providence, to the safety of the street.  In the photo, you can see the immense damage caused by the blaze.  If you look closely, you can also see the edge of our corner store on the left side of the image.

Our research into the history of 939-41 Piety yielded one of the most unexpected pieces of history we've encountered to date.  Mind you, the historians at OHS have over 50 years combined experience writing histories that span the world over, from prehistoric Pacific Island cultures to the 17th century Netherlands, from 19th century Arkansas to 20th century China.  None of that prepared us for the discovery we pulled out of the archives and are now sharing with you.  At left is a newspaper column written by a house.  A corner store/bar/house, to be exact.  Even though the article appeared under the byline of Clarence Doucet, make no mistake - 941 Piety deserves the credit.  The story began in July 1945, when Mrs. Angelina Constanza, wife of Joseph Kirsch, purchased the property for $6000.  She and her husband quickly established the Crescent Star Bar as a popular neighborhood watering hole.  Fast forward to July 1973, when we find the Kirsch's understandably sick and tired of automobiles driving through their front door.  They tried to get the city to put in a stop sign.  When their efforts failed, the house took to print, pleading its case.  The article [left] and its follow up [right], became a landmark in the struggle for house civil rights [Times-Picayune, July 3 & 18, 1973].

Threatened by fire, automobiles, and governmental inaction, the corner store at 939-41 Piety still stands.  Now celebrating its 118th birthday with a restoration from a new generation, its future is no longer in question!

UPDATE 8/9/2012:  A commenter on the OHS Facebook page posted the photo below, taken in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood, in 2005.

"You Enter You Will Die"


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