The History of Magnolia Mansion, New Orleans, Louisiana
© 2001 Lawrence David Moon • Published by Édition von Rapp • All Rights Reserved Worldwide
Magnolia Mansion, formerly referred to as the Harris-Maginnis House, was purchased by internationally recognized entertainer Hollie Diann Vest and her mother, Wanda Marie Hansen, on the first of October, 2001. Prior to that, the home has had a magnificent and often turbulent history of owners, the most interesting of whom are the Harris family, the Maginnis family, and the New Orleans Chapter of the American Red Cross. The house now spans one and a half centuries of the social life of New Orleans.
The Harris Years—1857 To 1879
In 1857 Magnolia Mansion was commissioned by Alexander Harris as a home for his young bride, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson Thompson, who was a minor when the marriage license was signed. Designed by Norfolk architect James H. Calrow that same year, and built by local contractor William K. Day, the house was completed in 1858, and likely occupied by end of that year. Calrow only spent two years in New Orleans, but in 1857 also designed the nearby residence of ‘vampire novelist’ Anne Rice, located at 1239 First Street, New Orleans.
Members of the Harris family had been living in New Orleans at least since the 1820s. They were principally investment brokers, involved in the cotton trade. The Harris family descended from Sephardic Jews originally from Portugal, who had settled in Holland during the Iberian persecutions, and who had then gone to England. They immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina and then to Mobile, Alabama, prior to moving to New Orleans. Alexander Harris bought this Prytania Street property on 15 July 1857, from Rufus McIlhenny, for $12,000.
According to present research, there were at least three brothers of Alexander Harris living here in New Orleans during the mid-nineteenth century: Aaron, Moses, and Levi. All four brothers were in business together. New Orleans city directories for the 1850s state that Alexander also worked with A. M. Nathan & Co., on Canal Street, and current Harris family members concur that Asher Nathan was Alexander’s uncle. The mother of Alexander and his brothers was Catherine Nathan, likewise of Sephardic descent.
In the summer of 1869, only eleven years after this house was built, tragedy struck the Harris family. Two of the four brothers died less than 24 hours apart, likely due to yellow fever, the constant scourge of Louisiana during the Victorian era. According to 1869 newspaper accounts, Aaron Harris died at home, 35 Bourbon Street, of ‘congestion of the brain’ at 9:00 PM on Sunday 18 July, and his brother Alexander died at this house of ‘pernicious fever’ at 6:30 PM the very next day. Funerals for both hapless brothers were held on Tuesday, the 20th of July, 1869, the first being at 35 Bourbon Street, at 10 in the morning, and the second at this house, at 5 o’clock that same night.
The Harris widows did not get along, Orleans Parish court records show. Less than four months after the Harris brothers’ deaths, Lizzie Thompson Harris, mistress of this home and co-executrix of Alexander’s estate, sued her sister-in-law, Henriette Lynd Harris, executrix of Aaron’s estate, to recoup $8,400 owed the Harris brothers’ firm which had been lent to Aaron by Alexander. Henriette, who had five orphaned minor children to support, was forced to take in boarders at her Bourbon Street home, but had gone steadily deeper into debt after her husband’s untimely death. Aaron had died insolvent, whereas Alexander had left an estate worth $200,000. Whatever became of Henriette and her children, after being forced by foreclosure from their Bourbon Street abode, is presently unknown.
Shortly after litigation began, Lizzie allied with another man, Carneal Burke, who secured a marriage license on 28 July 1871 to marry her. Orleans Parish Justice of the Peace files contain no Certificate of the Celebration of Marriage, but the pair did wed, according to her death notice, published on 13 February 1900.
Within a few years of becoming Mrs. Burke, Lizzie rid herself of this property like she rid herself of her sister-in-law. She may have been as coldhearted to her own children as she had been to Henriette and her nephews and nieces, because Lizzie did not will or deed this property to her own issue, but sold the land and house to the Maginnis family in 1879.
The Maginnis Years—1879 To 1939
The period that the property was owned by the Maginnis family was equally dramatic. Ten years after purchase, in 1889, the master of the house, John Henry Maginnis, was struck by lightning, on no less auspicious a date than the Fourth of July, when he died.
John was one of the wealthiest and most highly connected men in the Deep South at that time. Both he and his older brother Arthur Ambrose had married daughters of the most powerful politician of New York City, William Marcy ‘Boss’ Tweed. Thus, the next widow and owner of this house was Elizabeth Tweed who, as an eerie coincidence, also was nicknamed ‘Lizzie’, like the first mistress of the manor. Elizabeth Tweed’s sister, Mary Amelia, wife of Arthur Ambrose Maginnis, died mysteriously, at age 36, on 17 February 1887.
If the Harris men were middlemen of the cotton industry, the engine of Louisiana’s economy in the 1800s, the Maginnis men were its moguls. Like the Harrises, the Maginnis family had been resident in New Orleans for a couple of decades prior to the Civil War. Above-cited Arthur Ambrose began buying up land for the Maginnis Cotton Mill in 1881. The factory was one of the giants of America, located between Constance and Annunciation, John Churchill Chase and Poeyfarre Streets of New Orleans’ Warehouse District. Its original mill building, fronting on Annunciation Street, still exists. The next city block, containing the huge factory annex, between Magazine, Constance, John Churchill Chase and Poeyfarre Streets, was owned by John and devolved to Lizzie and their three children upon John’s death by lightning.
A lot of ink has been spilt in comment on the positive or negative effects that such a colossal factory had on the overall financial health or lack of it in the port of New Orleans. At its peak, in the early 1890s, the Maginnis Cotton Mill employed a thousand workers - men, women and children. That conditions in such mills were unlike those that we would allow today goes without question. Some have even interpreted the lightning strike that slew John Henry Maginnis as Divine Retribution for the way that the cotton mill treated its workers.
As second master of this residence, John was killed at the resort of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where he had a summer house. Like Alexander Harris before him, John’s funeral took place here. His death certificate states that he was only 44 years and 8 months old. He left three children by Lizzie: William Tweed Maginnis, John Henry Maginnis and Mary Josephine Maginnis.
As a debutante of this house in the early Gay Nineties, John’s daughter, known as Josephine, was presented fatherless to Society. She managed splendidly and probably brought this house some of its happier moments. For over a century, New Orleans debutantes have featured and still do feature, as Queens of the Mardi Gras krewes, which provide this city unparalleled amusement, parades, and balls. In 1892, Josephine was Queen of the Krewe of Argonauts, and in 1893 Queen of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the krewe of krewes of New Orleans, whose first parade occurred, coincidentally, in 1857, the year this house was designed.
In 1892, Josephine was also a Lady of Court for the Queen of Comus, Varina Anne ‘Winnie’ Davis, daughter of the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Winnie, likely an honored guest at this house, died young (at age 34), as did four of five of President Davis’s children.
The krewe parades of the 1890s are legendary highpoints of the Golden Age of New Orleans float designs. The lush foliage and flowing lines of the worldwide Art Nouveau movement lent themselves perfectly to the inspiration required for the mobile masterpieces of the New Orleans artists then employed by the various krewes. In 1893, when Josephine Maginnis was Queen of Comus, one of the city’s most remarkable artists of the medium, Virginia Wilkinson ‘Jennie’ Wilde, was then reaching her stride. Her first Comus pageant had only occurred two seasons earlier, when she designed the legendary Demonology parade. Her next series of tableaux, Nippon, The Land of the Rising Sun, had rolled in 1892, the year Winnie Davis was Queen. When Josephine Maginnis reigned as Queen of Comus, 1893, Miss Wilde’s theme was Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbô. Like so many of her era, Jennie Wilde died tragically young, at age 48, in England. She is buried in Metairie Cemetery, not too far from the tomb of John Maginnis.
John’s bloodline continues to this day, via his daughter Josephine who, as Queen of Comus, was called ‘a young lady gifted with rare beauty and queenly grace’ (Daily Picayune, 15 February 1893). Josephine’s marriage to George Rose of New York City took place in this house, on 29 April 1896. No descendants of Josephine’s brothers perpetuate. Josephine’s daughter Gwendolyn married John Mackay, whose sister Ellen was the wife of songwriter Irving Berlin.
John’s widow, Lizzie Tweed, died as he did in Mississippi, in 1921, and willed this property to Josephine, who retained it until 1939, when she gave it to the New Orleans Chapter of the American Red Cross. Josephine and George spent most of their time in New York and Paris, where he died in 1936. During the 20th century, documentation about the house is spotty, but a rare photograph of the façade was taken in the mid-1920s by one of the world’s greatest photographers, Arnold Genthe, whose famous lens immortalized many personalities, such as Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon of Athens. Genthe’s image of 2127 Prytania Street was published in his book, Impressions of Old New Orleans (Doran, New York, 1926).
The Red Cross Years—1939 To 1954
It is a strange irony that Red Cross volunteers spent countless hours here, during World War II and the Korean War, cutting and hand-rolling bandages made of cotton, the very fiber that provided funds to Alexander Harris for the home’s erection, and the very plant that gave Josephine Maginnis money to deck herself out in Mardi Gras finery as Queen of Comus.
During the Red Cross period, the house’s true majesty and function were revealed. Honest good and selfless human endeavor transcended all the years of calculation and animosity and death which had hitherto walked this house’s halls. Within this edifice’s walls, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the altruism that has always been the password of the Red Cross devoted itself to local, national, and international relief efforts that provided solace to untold tens of thousands.
Eight vital programs were carried out inside this building during the Red Cross era: (1) Disaster Service provided emergency food, clothing, and shelter; (2) Home Service assisted the United States military and service-members’ families; (3) Nursing Service taught classes in homecare for the sick, mothering and baby care; (4) Safety Service taught First Aid and water safety; (5) Junior Red Cross guided school children, from first grade through high school; (6) Hospital Service was aided strictly by volunteers who became Nurses Aides and was taught by Red Cross Nurses who also coordinated the volunteer Hospital Gray Ladies who visited military and veterans hospitals and read to patients; (7) Community Service, a four-part volunteer program, consisted of (A) Staff Aides, who performed clerical work and answered telephones, (B) Motor Service, which provided transportation in station-wagons, (C) Canteen Service, which served sandwiches and coffee at relief sites from a mobile van and (D) Production, comprised of ‘little old ladies’ who rolled bandages, knitted sweaters and made cast-socks for patients at Charity Hospital and local veterans hospitals; and (8) Public Relations.
In early 1941, when General Allison Owen was the area’s Red Cross President, the annual budget for relief handled through this building was $3,000,000. By V-E Day, 8 May 1945, when the Nazis fell in Europe, the local Red Cross had been stretched beyond belief. On that fateful Tuesday in May, The Times-Picayune reported: “A Red Cross canteen and recreation room for pilots of the Air Transport Command and wounded service men arriving on hospital planes opened Monday at the New Orleans Airport.” We should never forget that such meritorious activities, far beyond this home, were made possible from this antebellum building.
On 5 December 1954 The Times-Picayune stated: ‘Red Cross Sells Prytania House’. The edifice-as-office had outgrown the space requirements of a busy service organization in the modern age. Dr. Clyde E. Crassons bought the property, and the residence once more became an esteemed Garden District home.
Lawrence David Moon, who researched, wrote, and edited this brochure, is a published novelist, published poet, opera composer, and member of ASCAP.