Saturday, February 4, 2012

Museum expansion uncovers 19th century archeology

Museum expansion enters Delord Sarpy House turf

John Pope, The Times-Picayune 
Reminders of New Orleans' distant and not-so-distant past have been unearthed during excavations for the newest addition to the National World War II Museum complex in the Warehouse District. On the site where the Campaigns Pavilion will rise, archaeologists are carefully digging around the foundation of the Delord Sarpy House, which was erected about two centuries ago near Camp Street and what is now called Andrew Higgins Drive.
The Delord Sarpy house
EnlargeCHRIS GRANGER / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE Using a mesh screen to sift through dirt that could possibly holds some historic items John Rawls, bottom, a project manager with Earth Search, Inc., stands alongside Dorion Ray, right, an archeological field tech, and Michael Godzinski, top, a project manager with Earth Search, Inc., on the grounds near The National World War II Museum in New Orleans on Friday, February 3, 2012. A small plantation house, the Delord Sarpy house, was once located where a new building is being built for the museum.Archeology dig at World War II Museum gallery (7 photos)
The plantation-style house, a two-story structure with a hipped roof, square columns, dormer windows and wide, shady galleries, became the city's oldest building on the Uptown side of Canal Street. It stood until 1957, when, despite a campaign to save it, the house was demolished to make way for an exit ramp of the bridge now known as the Crescent City Connection.
During the past two weeks, a team from Earth Search Inc., a Bywater-based archaeological and historic-preservation company, has filled hundreds of bags with such items as bottles, seeds, a small porcelain doll, a set of dentures, a glass basket and a size-6 woman's shoe with a sunburst cut into the black leather, said Mike Godzinski, an archaeologist with the firm.
The Earth Search crew, armed with shovels, whisk brooms and other tools, was there because federal law requires such work for a project in a historic district that gets federal money, said Bob Farnsworth, the museum's senior vice president for capital projects.
"It's a great thing," he said. "We've certainly embraced it."
Working with a $145,000 contract, Earth Search has done similar digs for all the museum buildings, and artifacts that its professionals have found are on display. After the items from this undertaking are cleaned and cataloged, everything will be returned the museum so a representative sampling can join the exhibit, Farnsworth said.
On Friday morning, as traffic whizzed behind him, Godzinski stood in the middle of the dig area, next to a rectangular hole walled with bricks that had been the Delord Sarpy House's privy. Dorion Ray, an archaeological field technician, was at the bottom of that pit, carefully digging through the muck and handing up what he found.
One piece was a bottle, with a piece of newspaper wadded up inside. Other finds included a glass syringe, a baseball bat and a small jar of Jewsbury & Brown toothpaste, which was described on the top as an "Oriental toothpaste for cleansing, beautifying and preserving the teeth and gums."
"This place is chock full of stuff," Godzinski said. "The preservation's been pretty excellent."
Archaeological dig near the WWII museumBefore construction begins for the new addition to the National WWII Museum, archeologists dig for artifacts where the Delord Sarpy house once stood near the museum.
As he walked around the site, Godzinski pointed out the remains of the cooking chimney and the stepped brick foundation for the cistern that provided water for the house.
The bricks were stepped, he said, so they could bear the weight of all that water.
The Earth Search team expects to be on the site two more weeks, Godzinski said. Construction of the $35 million building is scheduled to begin March 1 and end late next year, Farnsworth said.
The goal of the Earth Search team's work, he said, is to get a representative sampling of what's underground without doing what Godzinski calls "redundant digging."
"It's tough to decide" when to stop, Godzinski said. "and it's tough not to take all of it."
The house, whose borders are indicated by flagstones, is named for the man who built it: Delord Sarpy, one of five brothers who came to the United States from France.
When the area that would become New Orleans' Central Business District was subdivided, Sarpy bought a tract and built a house facing the Mississippi River, with a long allée of oaks leading up to the entrance.
The street that ran alongside, now known as Andrew Higgins Drive, was named Delord Street.
The house was built on a grand scale, but it must have been an anomaly in an area that became increasingly crowded as the land was sold, houses were built and the character of the neighborhood changed from rural to residential to retail, Godzinski said.
No one is sure when it was last occupied. In 1938, the WPA guide to New Orleans recommended it to visitors but said the house had been boarded up for years.
In the mid-1950s, when plans for a bridge across the Mississippi River were being made, the Louisiana Landmarks Society and architects Samuel Wilson Jr. and Richard Koch became concerned about the building's fate because it was in the path of a down ramp from the span. Moving the house was out of the question because of its age, structural engineers said.
Wilson suggested moving the ramp so the house could be spared, but that idea went nowhere.
"If there had been more awareness of the importance of historic buildings, not only to our cultural heritage but to our economy, the building probably would have been saved because the ramp could have been changed to allow the building to stand," said Patricia Gay, the Preservation Resource Center's executive director.
The house came down in 1957. Two of its mantels are in the Pitot House, the Louisiana Landmarks Society's headquarters, on Bayou St. John.
John Pope can be reached at or 504.826.3317.
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