Field Trip Friday! The Hermann-Grima House
I had a free afternoon, so I decided to take a tour of the Hermann-Grima House. This house museum is located at 820 St. Louis Street. Less than a block from Bourbon Street, this stately mansion is surprisingly quiet and very well preserved. The tour lasted about an hour, and took us through many rooms of the house and the service wing (also known as a dependency).
The tour was well organized and set up in good way to convey almost 200 years of history without being overwhelming or confusing. We started outside to discuss the architectural style of the building. The Hermann-Grima house is especially important because it is one of very few Federal style houses in New Orleans, owing to the fact that the Federal style was developed by the newly independent United States in 1780s. At the height of this style, New Orleans was still a Spanish colony so our architecture from this period is Spanish Colonial or Creole style. So why is the Hermann-Grima House Federal style? It was designed by a Virginian architect – William Brand – who would have been familiar with the Federal style. The key features of this style include exposed brick, an elaborate door with a fan-shaped transom, and a very flat front façade. Typically there is not much in the way of balconies or galleries on Federal style houses, but this house has a second story balcony which blends in with other buildings in this neighborhood.
Once inside, we started in the parlor and learned about the original family that owned the house. Samuel Hermann emigrated from Germany to Louisiana just after the Louisiana Purchase, settling in an area called the German Coast. He was involved in the cotton trade and moved to New Orleans about a decade later. His family prospered and he had this house built for them in 1831.
My favorite thing about the parlor is the frieze over the door. It looks like marble, but it is actually wood painted to look like marble. As the city is built on the Mississippi River Delta, our land is made up of silt. We do not have any stone to speak of, so we have to fake it. (Keep an eye out for buildings that have a feature called “graniteing”. They are constructed out of bricks and plaster, and then painted to look like granite!)
In the dining room, we discussed cultural dining habits and the story of the second family is introduced. The second family to own this house was headed by Felix Grima who bought the house in 1844. He was a notary. Notaries were typically very prosperous people due to the fact that most official documents had to be notarized to be legal. The Grima Family would occupy the house for almost 80 years.
We viewed the study and then the cabinet – a small room toward the back of the house that you would also find in Creole architecture at the time. The uses for this small space may have included sleeping quarters for an enslaved person or even a sick room. Then we learned about bathing in the 19th century. Water was brought from the rain cistern and heated on a stove, then poured into the tub. It was a lot of work to take a bath, so folks back then didn’t take a lot of baths. And when they did, the whole family would share the same water! The cloth in the tub was used to shield the women from view while they were bathing.
Then our group trekked up the steep stairs to see the bedrooms. There were three bedrooms upstairs, each decorated according to the time period it was portraying. The first bedroom was set up as a typical antebellum bedroom, and decorated very simply. It was furnished with a canopy bed that had curtains made of mosquito netting. The next bedroom that we visited was decorated in the more embellished style of the late Victorian Era with very busy wall paper and fancy draperies. This was the era of ordering manufatured goods out of catalogs. According to our guide, this room was used as a setting for American Horror Story. The last bedroom was furnished with more modern amenities, such as a hot plate and electric kettle. In this room it was explained that from 1924 to the 1970s the house was owned by the Christian Women’s Exchange and they ran a boarding house for women here. The rooms were rented out for $30 a month. There was no kitchen access, one had to purchase all of their meals out. In the 1970s the house became a museum.
Then we stepped outside to learn about the function of the dependencies. Dependencies are service wings and would typically include the kitchen, slave quarters, and servant quarters depending on the time the building was occupied. Enslaved people lived and worked in this building under both the Hermann and Grima families.
I found the kitchen fascinating. There was an open hearth and a beehive oven on the back wall. Then on the side of the room, there was a multi-burner stove. Each burner was adjustable – if you wanted a lower flame, you could modify the fire beneath that burner or adjust the height of the food on the burner with racks. When the weather is cooler, the museum holds cooking demonstrations in this kitchen a few times a month. I have to come back to check that out.
Our tour guide, Katie, was excellent. She relayed a lot of information in a fun way and did a great job of connecting this specific house with other trends in the history of New Orleans and even other areas. From her tour, I got a better picture of what day to day life in this house was like. I am glad that I finally got my act together and took this tour, I learned quite a bit. 🙂