(This is the second on our VISITING NEW ORLEANS series.)
My first visit to New Orleans was by train in August of 1961. As a senior in college and having been called into the ministry, I wanted to see the seminary which the Lord had impressed upon me as “right.” (True statement. I knew no one who had attended here. But felt a strong need to spend time in the city where I could make a difference for the Kingdom’s sake.)
I came in one day, checked in to the old DeSoto Hotel, walked around downtown a little, and the next morning, rode a city bus out into the Gentilly section to check out the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I walked around campus, chatted with someone in some office or other, picked up some literature, then rode back to town, picked up my bag, and checked in at the train station for the return trip.
Venture into the French Quarter? Are you kidding? No way. Surely the vice there was so overpowering I could never have extracted myself. I gave it a wide berth.
Three years later, my wife and baby son and I moved into an apartment on campus, and thus began our slowly evolving love affair with this strange and wonderful city.
Some who read this will be traveling to New Orleans for the first time. Many will be coming in June to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, gathering in our Morial Convention Center right on the river.
You’re coming for business. You don’t have a lot of time for touring. You want to invest your time wisely. So, what should you definitely see? Here are three must-see places in this city.
1. Do not miss the National World War II Museum.
There is nothing else like this museum anywhere, to my knowledge. Now in its 13th year, it’s fast becoming the biggest attraction in the city. (Check out the website: www.nationalww2museum.org)
If you’re attending a function at the convention center, you’ll be glad to know this museum is in easy walking distance. Located at the corner of Magazine Street and Andrew Higgins Blvd, there’s a small admission fee. (I’m a charter member, and don’t keep up with the admission price. Probably 8 or 10 dollars.) However, if you have only a few minutes, skip the admission and just enjoy the huge atrium with all the incredible displays.
Overhead you’ll see a C-47 plane, suspended in air. Before they hauled it into downtown and installed it in this building, some of us crawled through the plane out at Lakefront Airport. This place was the workhorse of the war. It went by numerous names, including Gooney Bird. Also, the atrium has a rebuilt Higgins Boat, the landing craft that delivered our soldiers from the ships onto the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944.
The Higgins Boat, incidentally, was said by President Eisenhower to have won the war for us. It was built at locations all over the city in massive numbers. The offices of Andrew Higgins and his people were right where the museum now sits, which accounts for the location of such a great museum in New Orleans, of all places.
Take a little time and see the 4-D movie “Beyond All Boundaries” at the Solomon Victory Theater across the lane. It’s part of the museum too, but admission is extra for this unforgettable 45 minute movie. Oh, and Chef John Besh has a world class restaurant in the facility.
As you can see, you can easily spend the day at the National World War II Museum. Whatever you do, even if you have only 30 minutes, run by and see this unforgettable place.
2. Baptists will want to see New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Of the six SBC seminaries (schools to train preachers and missionaries), this is the only one created by an actual vote of the convention. The address is 3939 Gentilly Boulevard, and the website is www.nobts.edu.
The seminary was begun in 1917, and for some 30 years existed in the Garden District of New Orleans, close to Commanders Palace Restaurant on Washington Avenue. In the late ’40s, a 75 acre pecan orchard was purchased and the seminary moved into this residential neighborhood in order to have growing room. And grow it has!
Consistently, NOBTS is one of the largest seminaries in the world. Dr. Charles “Chuck” Kelley, Jr., is the 8th president and now in his 16th year, if you can believe it. The story of his leadership through Katrina’s devastation and the rebuilding of the seminary is legendary. Some 1500 students study at this location, but an equal number are enrolled through one of the 12 extension centers across the Southeast.
A former city councilman has said that the seminary has been a jewel in that section of the city which has transitioned somewhat over the decades. Its beauty is something very special. I’ve been privileged since retiring to join the adjunct faculty (which means I teach once in a while). I do love this place and these wonderful people.
Across the street from the Hardin Student Center is the seminary-owned Providence Guest House. When rooms are not taken for other events, outsiders can rent hotel rooms there for perhaps half the going rate downtown. The seminary’s phone is 504/282-4455.
Southern Baptists, your money has built this great school. Your preachers and leaders are being educated here. You owe it to yourself as a good steward to visit the school when you’re here. You’ll meet a guard at a gate just as you enter Seminary Place. Tell him you want to drive through and sign his book.
3. If you love history, you cannot leave here without walking around the French Quarter.
Now, there are a hundred ways to see the French Quarter, the portion of downtown which was the original New Orleans. You can take a walking tour, a Grey Line tour, or ride a carriage and let the driver tell you about the city. You can drive around the narrow streets yourself (be careful about where you park; the city is tow happy!), or you can walk around.
In 1718, when Lord Bienville came upriver with his entourage seeking a site for a city which would be the capital of the Louisiana Territory, he stopped at the first high ground he encountered. 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this area was used by the Indians as a camp ground in the winter (they were too smart to stay here in the summer!). Also, Bienville found a trail from the river northward for 2 miles, to the end of Bayou St. John. What had happened was this….
Indians coming from the Mississippi coastline would enter Lake Pontchartrain through Rigolets Pass. They paddled westward until they came to Bayou St. John, then exited the lake and went south toward the river. Where the bayou ended (going underground, I suppose), they picked up their canoes and walked to the river. In this way they cut out the 100 miles of Mississippi River downriver. And that’s why the city was founded at this site.
Abraham Lincoln came to New Orleans twice as a youth, once when he was 18 and again at 20. (See “Lincoln in New Orleans,” by a Tulane professor whose name I will insert here shortly.) He and a friend or two built flatboats and brought crafts or produce down the river to sell in New Orleans. Then, they busted up the boats and sold them for firewood, walked around a day or two, then booked passage back to St Louis on a paddle-wheeler. We’re told that seeing slaves auctioned off in our city–in the French Quarter–changed him forever.
Everyone wants to know if the French Quarter is safe. Answer: As much as any modern city would be today. Even so, you’ll want to stay out of alleys and stay with your group. Bourbon Street has its seamy dives, of course, but it also has world-class restaurants like Galatoire’s as well as boutiques. Royal Street has antique stores, and Decatur Street is t-shirt and tourist boulevard.
Do not miss St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. These two spots–adjacent to one another–are icons of New Orleans. Jackson Square is where you’ll find the artists marketing their wares. Walk on east a bit (downriver) and you’ll come to Cafe Du Monde; go inside and ask for “one order and cafe au lait.” (Tell ’em Joe sent you, and nothing will happen.) Walk a little further and you’ll now see the original French Market, said to be the oldest of its type in America.
Don’t judge the stores and restaurants by their exterior. The historical commission holds establishments on a tight rein when it comes to external changes. But go inside and look around.
In a subsequent article, I’ll give you my four or five favorite places to eat. You are planning to eat when you come to New Orleans, aren’t you? You need to find why this city is noted for great eating, and why people who move away drool at the memory of eating a shrimp po-boy at Mothers or crawfish etouffee’ at New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company.