OF 916 LAFAYETTE, NEW ORLEANS
FOR OVER 200 YEARS, THE PROPERTY AT 916 LAFAYETTE HAS WOVEN ITSELF INTO NEW ORLEANS HISTORY.
THE HISTORIC SWOOP-DUGGINS HOUSE, HOME TO SWOOP'S, HAS A HISTORY AS COLORFUL AND MYSTERIOUS AS NEW ORLEANS
916 Lafayette is potentially one of the longest surviving "homes" in New Orleans. A place where generations of families and business owners have inhabited, the "house" remains embedded with mystery—haunted by the gossip of taboo activities, ghosts, and tragedy. Tales of twisted fates remain the bedrock of this centuries-old home, along with the influence of two distinct New Orleans families for whom the house is named.
It's no secret New Orleans is draped in American history. It remains the epicenter for the birth of American Jazz, Creole cuisine, and rich chronicled architecture. The Historical Swoop-Duggins House, located at 916 Lafayette Street, lives up to all that encompasses the city. This building has morphed into what we know today for over two centuries. However, it wasn't always happiness and celebration. If you walk the halls, you may hear children laughing, the makings of confederate plans, hauntings of the dead who refuse to pass through, and maybe—as the story goes—voices from past "ladies of the night."
AN UNFINISHED BRICK HOUSE FRONTING THE STREET...
An auctioneer's statement from 1864 describes lot number four, the site of 916 Lafayette, and its contiguous lots, forming the corner of Baronne and Lafayette. On the corner, lots facing Baronne Street were three "double frame tenements" of four rooms each. Behind each of these cottages was a two-story kitchen. (The City Fire Ordinances decreed that the kitchen was of brick construction.) Next door, on the Lafayette Street lot, stood a "two-story kitchen and unfinished brick house fronting the street." The unfinished house was 916 Lafayette (then number 198). Sebastian Swoop and John Geddes, associated with the foundry firm Wheeler, Geddes and Company, bought these properties in 1864 from the succession of John (Jose) Gonzales for $13,000. History has left little trace of who Gonzales was. However, we know he made many changes to the property, including "improvements on said lot cons'st of a two-story brick kitchen and an unfinished brick home fronting the street."
Gonzales acquired the property in 1862 for 18,000 pilasters from Louis Odon Valet, then of Paris, and Francois Zavier Joseph Rapp, of the Baths of Haut, Grand Duchy of Bade. Messrs. Valet and Ramp had been the proprietors of a dry goods store on Canal Street. Perhaps, with the outbreak of the Civil War, the pair had fled the country for Europe, selling their real estate and leaving the unfinished brick structure on Lafayette.
BUT BEFORE THAT...
The property's history goes back much further than the 1860s. It illustrates a fascinating chapter of New Orleans social history: the relationship between free women of color and Americans and creoles. Marguerite Fletcher, a free woman of color, inherited the property, along with her children Aglae and Scholastica, who were the progeny of Samuel Winter, an early speculator in the Faubourg St. Mary. In his will of 1810, drawn up in New York, Winter spells out the relationship and his desire to maintain Marguerite and his children. (He leaves) "My half interest in three lots of lands owned by myself and Harman; seven hundred dollars (approx. $16,634 today) to (Marguerite) and her children to be employed by Thomas Harman in building a house on the ground above mentioned…." Marguerite Fletcher's circa 1815 house must have been torn down to construct 916 Lafayette. However, a drawing by J.N. DePouilly of December 14, 1849, has preserved its appearance: a plastered creole cottage with two dormers on its gabled roof. Samuel Winter had acquired the property with Harman from Jean Gravier, an owner of the plantation from which formed the Faubourg St. Mary.
Plan, labeled in Spanish, of Faubourg Saint Mary, 1799. The enlarged image shows what was probably Harman and Winters' property at the time. The asterisk designates the location of 916 Lafayette Street. View the original map here from the Louisiana Digital Library.
Portrait of Sebastian Swoop, born in Alsace, France, 1817.
FROM FRANCE TO PITTSBURGH TO NEW ORLEANS...
But what made Swoop's story so enthralling? Born in Alsace, France, in 1817, a young Swoop and his family soon moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Life soon soured for Swoop. Badly treated by his step-father, he left home at 14 and drifted to New Orleans, where he soon found work at The Wheeler Foundry. As a youthful, hard worker, Swoop quickly moved up the ranks. And in the 1830s, at no more than 25 years of age, when Mr. Wheeler tried to sell the business, Swoop had enough in the bank to take an interest in the foundry. After he bought into the company, it was named Shakespeare, Wheeler, & Swoop.
The proximity of business and residence was a common occurrence in the American sector, and with a dream to create a happy family home next to his thriving foundry, Swoop and his wife, Margaret Byrne, finished the already existing structure of the house in 1865, fulfilling their dream of starting a loving life together with soon-to-be ten children.
AND THEN CAME THE RAIN...
But not all good men are untouchable by the tragedies life offers. Though Swoop bolstered a successful business and grew notoriety in the town while cultivating a marriage and large family, a black cloud of desperation soon fell over their paradise. Four of their ten children passed away under "sudden occurrences," spanning ages from one month to 25 years. Their youngest, Katie Swoop, passed unexpectedly, and the beautiful obituary read:
"Symbols of her sweet young life,
So full of love, so free from strife…
God rest our darling gone to alight.
God in His love her spirit keep,
Thus we sigh and pray."
Katie and the passing of several other children devastated the Swoops, and they fought to move forward with their surviving children of three sons and daughters. They attempted to live and work in the community until the death of Sebastian Swoop in 1892.
Obituary of Kathryn Hyacinth Swoop, daughter of Sebastian Swoop, 1896
WHEN THE END CAME...
In 1893, Margaret transferred the property to their son, Julian Swoop, in hopes he would continue the legacy left behind by his father. And in 1897, she passed on. Her caregiver and daughter, Mettie Swoop, took the death of her parents the hardest. According to her obituary: "...when the end came she was so broken in body and mind that she was ordered to travel." Despite traveling for four years alongside her cousin and travel companion, she could not recover to good health. She passed away in Stafford, Ontario, in 1903. When her brother Fred Swoop learned of her illness, he fled to Canada to bring her body home to New Orleans.
While Julian Swoop continued to take care of the remaining siblings and their family home, the area near the French Quarter became over-run, leaving the original Swoop home dilapidated. Leaving behind family memories of laughter, love, and personal devastation—Julian and his wife had no choice but to leave 916 Lafayette for a more prominent neighborhood. The building was sold and transformed into businesses that, let's say, "better served" the neighborhood.
DECADES OF SEEDY OCCURRENCES...
As the country settled into the 20th century, the ever-evolving New Orleans began to attract a melting pot of people, including tourists and travelers. No longer a single-family home, 916 Lafayette transformed into a melting pot of its own. Now a boarding house, the rooms were filled with travelers, businesses such as "Cecile Sattler's Massage," and tenants from all walks of life. However, whispers swiftly traveled about the city that 916 Lafayette had "things" going on behind those three stories of brick walls and closed doors. The Historical Swoop-Duggins House flirted with the border of Storyville, a well-known red-light district of NOLA. The story claims that 916 Lafayette also flirted with such illicit activities.
And soon, it wasn't just whispers that were traveling swiftly. During this time, 916 Lafayette had received better press, with several decades of seedy occurrences staining the familial memories painted within the walls of the Swoop homestead. In 1913 the house was involved in attempted murder turned White-Slavery charge for a steamy affair gone wrong. While living at 916 Lafayette, Annie Arnold was nearly murdered by her jilted, married lover. This would be the first time 916 Lafayette's address was publicly associated with prostitution or immoral activities.
Later, in the mid-'30s, a salesman fell over a stair railing 10 feet to the floor, dying shortly after in Charity Hospital.
RAID, AFTER RAID, AFTER RAID AT 916 LAFAYETTE...
Now, it is probably the headlines of 916 Lafayette's infamous madam, Mrs. Anne Becker, however, that most gravely blighted the home's reputation. Mrs. A. Becker first appeared in conjunction with 916 Lafayette when named alongside forty-three other women in keeping an immoral house outside the restricted district in January of 1917. The "restricted district" was the infamous Storyville, which would be defunct by year's end. To quell illicit activities outside their designated area, Commissioner Newman gave the women five days' notice to vacate the premises or face affidavits.
However, this request seemed not to phase Anne Becker much because a year and a half later, on a steamy Friday night in August of 1918, police brought her into custody again. Charged again with operating an immoral house at 916 Lafayette Street, Anne Becker was held by the local police for the federal authorities. Another woman, Mrs. Charles Hisman, was also arrested alongside Mrs. Becker.
We can't be sure what exactly became of these two women, but 916 Lafayette again made headlines another year and a half later in 1920, when three leading jockeys riding at the Jefferson Race Track were taken from the residence, along with five women, during a raid.
AND AFTER THE RAIN, CAME THE FIRE...
Years would pass, mostly quiet for 916 Lafayette, which continued to operate as a boarding house and multi-functioning building. However, in 1960, while caretakers Vera Guiden and her husband (the only regular occupants of the building at that point) were away for the evening, the building caught fire. An unidentified seaman died in the building while trapped within a second-story alcove. Things appeared hopeless for 916 Lafayette, which had already suffered significant losses and bad press.
Partial view of 916 Lafayette, one year after the 1960 fire. Photo includes side view of Borden-Aicklen Auto Supply, addressed 613-617 Baronne Street. Charles L. Franck and Franck-Bertacci Photograph Collections
Advertisement for Mother's Day at Gingko, 916 Lafayette, Times-Picayune, May 1962.
UNDER THE GINGKO TREE...
With all things, time passed, and a new era dawned as New Orleans headed into the 1960s, the town brimming with tourists. Many well-known present-day signatures of the town began to take shape. Preservation Hall was erected in 1961, and the Mardi Gras tradition became increasingly elevated with high-energy celebrations and glitzy parades. The Krewe of Bacchus, one of the first modern "super krewes," defined by their size, spectacular floats, and celebrity riders, was formed in 1968. Many area businesses entertained carnival balls and hosted celebrity royalty such as Charlton Heston and Bob Hope. The times were high, and the city embraced the change with new restaurants and venues.
And with the city's transformation, 916 Lafayette persevered, like that of its original owner, Sebastian Swoop. It became a hot spot for many well-known restaurants outside the French Quarter. Gingko, operated in the early 60s, was most likely named for the beautiful Gingko tree that once grew in the courtyard.
FROM FRANCE TO NOLA, ONCE AGAIN...
As the city headed into the '70s, Christopher Blake opened his namesake restaurant. Blake was a brilliant screenplay writer—said to have been the last protege of Gertrude Stein—now turned self-made chef. He said, "The only cooking lesson I ever had was…how to make mayonnaise when I was in Paris." Though Blake's restaurant boasted Fresh cuisine, he also embraced the approachable cooking style of the 1970s canned food movement. He transformed food with his natural imagination, drawing critics from all over. He was known to share his secret/not-so-secret recipes with the community while entertaining guests with his flagship Bloody Mary brunch.
Blake's restaurant was short-lived, though, and soon the building became forgotten and fell into disrepair.
Christopher Blake's, 916 Lafayette, 1976
Menu from Christopher Blake's, 916 Lafayette
MEET THE DUGGINS...
As the late 1970s drew upon 916 Lafayette, the real magic happened when attorney David Duggins purchased the property. Born in 1937, David was raised in the backdrop of the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. However, he went on to graduate from Metairie Park Country Day School, then from Tulane University, where he received both his undergraduate and Juris Doctorate degrees. David would then marry Elizabeth "Bitsy" Laudeman Duggins, with whom he had two sons, David D. Duggins II. (Muriel Duggins) and W. Scott Duggins.
David and Bitsy established a life in New Orleans, where they were well-known and well-liked. David founded The Duggins Law Firm, and the pair were incredibly involved in the New Orleans social and philanthropic circles. In 1977, David Duggins came upon 916 Lafayette. A then boarded-up, lonely reminder of the lively nineteenth-century street scene that once existed in the American Faubourg St. Mary. David and Bitsy decided to purchase the property to house his law offices.
THE DUGGINS BREATHE NEW LIFE INTO 916 LAFAYETTE...
The Duggins restored the property from top to bottom. Completed in 1979, the dramatic renovation brought the building back to life. It included enclosing the galleries in the courtyard with glass to accommodate modern office needs.
In addition to the law offices, the Duggins ran several other small businesses from the location, including a small enterprise that sold the famous New Orleans after-dinner drink Cafe Brulot. David Duggins created and bottled a syrup that had all the flavors of Cafe Brulot. The property was also used as an event venue, including being an annual stop on the Julia Jump - an event that Bitzy chaired for many years in the 1980s.
SEBASTIAN SWOOP'S GRANDDAUGHTER JUMPS IN...
The Julia Jump was the legacy of Margaret Hillery Villere, daughter of Isabel Swoop and the great-granddaughter of Sebastian Swoop.
Villere was an active member of the New Orleans Preservation Resource Center when, in 1976, the organization purchased 604 Julia Street and started renovating it into the PRC's first headquarters. At the time, the 600 block of Julia Street, less than half a mile from 916 Lafayette, was considered Skid Row. However, that didn't deter the PRC's efforts to save the historic building, part of 13 identical row houses known as Julia Row. And when money was needed for the headquarters renovation, Villere came up with the idea to host a fundraising party. The inaugural Julia Jump was held in 1978 and has continued annually to this day.
Margie Villere and Martin Adler tour Julia Row in 1981. Photo from the November 1981 Preservation in Print.
'Former brothel does a brisk and bawdy business in the CBD', Times-Picayune, January 2000
916 LAFAYETTE RETURNS TO ITS ROOTS...
In late 1999, just before the turn of the next century, David D. Duggins II opened the Sporting House Cafe below alongside his father, while the upper levels continued to house his father's law offices. He spun his cafe into a cheeky twist acknowledging the taboo tales of Storyville, including dishes such as "Naked Onion Soup Au Gratin" and a char-grilled eggplant and veggie sandwich called "Willie the Pleaser." The decor, "recapturing the elan and elegance of the notorious 'sporting houses' that once characterized the area," hinted at a once upon-a-time brothel with signs reading: "Women with sailors must pay before going upstairs."
Over the next several years, the Sporting House Cafe was the place to dine until it closed shortly before Hurricane Katrina wiped out the beloved city. Despite the devastation, NOLA prevailed as many businesses restructured, rebuilt, and reclaimed the treasured Jazz City Americans know and love.
AND THE GALLERY IS RESTORED...
In 2006, the Duggins sold the property. The property changed hands again in 2011. Greg Gremillion took notice of the "oldest house" in New Orleans and put love back into it. He restored not only what was left behind from Katrina but also restored the original outside "gallery," the final piece to the Swoops-Duggins home. With a dream of owning a "conceptual work of art in the guise of a gastro-lounge," Gremillion opened CellarDoor in 2014, despite the riskiness expressed by other restaurateurs. Gremillion remained steadfast in his mission toward "classic and timeless" cuisine, and CellarDoor became a destination for dining until its closed in late 2021.
The restored gallery at CellarDoor. It's a subtle distinction in New Orleans' architecture, but the difference between balconies and galleries is that galleries have support poles underneath, while balconies do not. Image credit.
AND NOW WE'RE HERE...
That brings us to today. Linda Novak, the past owner of The Starlight, purchased the Historic Swoop-Duggins House and continues its enriched, timeless story of redemption and perseverance. Swoop's stands to bring the definitive history of NOLA through laughter, celebration, and good times synonymous with the NOLA experience.
There is a shared hope that our lives will leave a lasting impact that makes us human. In 1862, as Sebastian Swoop walked up to the unfinished structure for the first time, could he have possibly foreseen the impact his home and family would have on New Orleans? The over two-hundred-year history of the site of 916 Lafayette and its renowned families underscores the durability, resilience, and commitment to the town of New Orleans. We invite you to walk through its front door, walk its halls, and find your place within its ever-evolving story.
GENEALOGICAL AND HISTORICAL RESEARCH CONDUCTED BY SARALYNNCREATIF.COM
Thank you to St. Denis “Sandy” Villere III and William Scott Duggins for a window into your family history. Additional gratitude owed to the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, whose thorough archives made key aspects of this story possible.