Friday, December 21, 2012

Where is the House of the Rising Sun?

Thanks to Blake Ponchartrain of New Orleans Gambit Magazine. Blake is one of the best history researchers on the planet.  He answers questions sent into him from readers wondering about their history and their environment.  And what's not to like about that?

Where is the House of the Rising Sun?
Blake Pontchartrain


Hey Blake,
I have some questions about a song written about New Orleans, "House of the Rising Sun." Was there a real House of the Rising Sun in New Orleans, and where was it? Who wrote the song?
Cynthia

Dear Cynthia,

There probably were several buildings in New Orleans called House of the Rising Sun over the years, but it's likely most would have been named after the song, not served as the inspiration for it.

Back in the 1980s, Record Ron, whose Record Ron's Good & Plenty Records regularly won "best used record store" honors in reader polls, said he was told his record shop at 1129 Decatur St. occupied the original House of the Rising Sun. Ron, who died in 1996, never could authenticate that claim.

A Jan. 29, 1821, issue of the Louisiana Gazette ran an advertisement announcing L.S. Hotchkiss and Co. had bought John Hull and Co.'s interests in the Rising Sun Hotel at 535 Conti St. That hotel opened in 1801 and was destroyed by fire in 1822.

Another story proffers the famed house was at 826-830 St. Louis St. and was a brothel originally run by Madam Marianne LeSoleil Levant, whose surname is French for "rising sun."

Today, the three-story white building on St. Louis Street is owned by attorney Darlene Jacobs Levy and houses her Home Finders International real estate company. She inherited the building when her husband died in the late 1980s, and she began renovating the front apartment of the derelict building as a place for her father to live. Workmen at the site discovered risque postcards of half-dressed women from the 1800s behind a wall and uncovered fancy fluted columns and a ceiling mural of a golden rising sun surrounded by three cherubs. Levy says the house was a bordello operated by a succession of different madams for many years before her husband bought the building.

blake-1 House of the Rising Sun

Eric Burdon, the vocalist for The Animals, which scored a huge hit with "House of the Rising Sun" in 1964, wrote in his book Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood about meeting Levy and touring the St. Louis Street house.

"It was all I'd dreamt it would be," Burdon wrote. "A palace in the New Orleans heat. It was a wondrous feeling learning that the place I'd fantasized about for thirty years wasn't some run-down shack but was in fact a place of beauty."

Levy says she has no legal documents to prove the building's history. "It has been passed down in history and folklore as being the House of the Rising Sun," she says. "It doesn't really matter to me whether it is or not. It's not open to the public."

Levy restored the house out of a duty to conserve historic structures, she says. "What you see now is what we feel is the original house as it was in the 1800s."

As for the author of "House of the Rising Sun," that is unknown. Musicologists have traced the song's origins back as far as the 18th century to a traditional English ballad. Like many ballads and folk songs, the lyrics have changed over the years to suit the singer and the audience. No one can claim rights to the song, so anyone can alter it, record it or sell it royalty-free.

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