The history of River House and the architecture of the building is a reflection of the history of New Orleans itself.
Built in the 1850s for Henry Blaese, a German immigrant, and located at 623 –25 Marigny Street, River House was the first house on the block between Chartres and Royal. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Blaese married Catherine Reich, who was born in New Orleans to a German family. As soon as their home was built, they began a family that would grow to include six children.
Factoring in the ever-present threat of flooding, Blaese situated his family on the second floor of the house, where the uncomplicated Creole-style configuration is a square divided by a Roman cross of walls. Originally, the four rooms were connected inside by plain panel doors and outside by a narrow gallery that surrounded the house on all sides.
Along with his brothers and sisters, their eldest son, Henry, Jr., was born in the house on Marigny Street. The house grew along with the family, with first one and then another two-story garçonnière built back to back behind the main house, with one side facing the Mississippi and the other Lake Pontchartrain.
In keeping with the custom of the day, this was not only where Blaese lived but also where he conducted his business, a booming wholesale grocery trade powered by the Mississippi. Horse-drawn carts would arrive from boats docked at the end of the street, piled high with goods brought in from as close as the local plantations or as far away as the Orient, to be unloaded directly under the upstairs rooms between rows of rough-hewn bracketed columns now mostly hidden inside subsequently added walls.
When Blaese died in 1872, his widow married Mr. C. Potthoff, a local paint dealer for whom Henry Jr. had begun to work as a boy and in whose employ he had remained for twelve years before opening his own supplies shop in 1890.
According to Louisiana Biographical and Historical Memoirs (1892), Vol. 2, Henry, Jr., who was educated at the Virginia Military Institute and graduated from the Locustdale Academy in Louisiana, was “a prominent and successful dealer in paints, oils, glass, etc. [who] has been established in his present business, 72 Camp Street, since 1890. His stock is full and complete, while prices are governed by moderation and the best satisfaction is guaranteed. He is popular as a business man, and enjoys the confidence of all having dealings with him… and [has] thus far enjoyed an unsullied reputation and has materially helped the general interests and standing of New Orleans. He is a clear-headed man of business and an excellent manager of all affairs which he has under his control. He is a young man of good habits and is a member of the Young Men’s Gymnastic club. Under his able management his business promises to become one of the largest of the kind in the city.”
By historical standards, however, the residence remained in the hands of the Blaeses for only a short while. In 1889, Henry Jr.’ s mother died and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 beside her second husband. Following her death her estate was auctioned off and the proceeds divided among her children, with the eight-thousand-square-foot house and dependencies fetching the tidy sum of $ 2,500.
After the Blaeses, 623-25 Marigny St. passed through a series of owners and a number of sometimes crude architectural modifications. Among these was the enclosure of the first floor of the main house to create two street-level apartments, and the conversion of the second floor side galleries into interior hallways.
At some point, most likely during the 1930s, a number of small bathrooms were added, including four at the rear of the garçonnières, which were subdivided into two flats, two up and two down on either side. In most cases, however, there are no records to indicate when the alterations occurred or to account for certain anomalies, such as the fact that the style of the main house’s French doors predates its construction by thirty years, suggesting the doors were salvaged from an even older property (perhaps the Marigny plantation itself).
What’s more, the cultural significance of the building site is older and more cryptic still, with a pile of Native American artifacts unearthed during a plumbing excavation implicating the site as a Choctaw burial ground.
Note: The above history is drawn from The Coffee Shop Chronicles in New Orleans, authored by David Lummis and a fabulously entertaining read!