|Photo: Doug Parker|
By MARY RICKARD — The Times-Picayune
NEW ORLEANS -- "This is exactly like the house where Cervantes was born," James Nolan said of the French Quarter Creole townhouse he calls home.
Dating to the days of Spanish rule in Louisiana, the architecture of Nolan's Dumaine Street home is more typically Spanish than even buildings in Madrid -- home of the famed Spanish author -- because, Nolan said, the building has never been renovated.
A fifth-generation New Orleans resident, Nolan traveled abroad teaching literature, translating books and penning novels, before returning home.
"I've written 12 books sitting in my various apartments -- in New Orleans, San Francisco, Barcelona and Madrid -- eight of which have been published, with four more on the way," he said. Living in the Quarter inspired him to set one novel, "Higher Ground," here, as well as a collection of short stories, "Perpetual Care."
"I like to say that I was raised in the last long afternoon of the 19th century," he said.
Room for Heirlooms
Nolan's second-floor apartment is reached through the original carriageway of the house named Madame John's Legacy, built in 1789. After you pass through a wooden door and walk down a flagstone path, a winding staircase leads to Nolan's writer's retreat.
The wide expanse Nolan calls a Creole ballroom is separated by various artifices into kitchen, dining area and bedroom. French doors let in the sounds of the city, including clopping from mule-drawn carriages. Pigeons have been known to fly inside, attempting to roost in the bookshelves.
Nolan spends his days tapping away on a laptop at the same desk where his French great-great grandfather handled bookkeeping for the tobacco shop he opened in 1875.
The "tabac" was located on the first floor of Maspero's Exchange at the corner of St. Louis and Chartres streets. Auguste Glaudot served in the Foreign Legion and fought as a Confederate mercenary in the Civil War, which brought him to the United States.
Nolan has likewise been an adventurer, roaming for almost 30 years, while garnering fellowships and teaching positions in foreign lands.
On his journeys, he collected treasures, exhibited throughout the apartment. There are rugs from Turkey and Kazakhstan, a Berber camel blanket from Tangiers and an Egyptian camel saddle bought back by his great uncle Numa.
"Numa Glaudot was a ship engineer who traveled the world and thrilled me at an early age with stories of Asia, Africa and Latin America," he said.
When Nolan returned to New Orleans 10 years ago to care for his mother, he became a writer-in-residence at Tulane University. She wanted him to have a big place to house all the family heirlooms. No other family member ever left New Orleans nor threw anything away, he said. After his mother died, friends said her spirit found him this apartment.
Connected to the past
The historic townhouse has high ceilings, black marble fireplaces and a cast iron-embellished balcony enshrouded with overgrown ferns and bougainvillea. While replete with history, it lacks many modern conveniences.
"I'm basically a 19th-century person who has tried to keep the 20th (and now 21st) centuries at bay as much as possible," Nolan said.
Gas heaters keep the apartment toasty in winter. A window air conditioner is the only cooling mechanism beyond cross-ventilation.
"That is the rocking chair I was nursed in and my mother was nursed in," Nolan said as he surveyed his living room.
A 19th-century prie-dieu, armoire and English clock featuring a statue of Hermes, the Greek god of communication, decorate his living room. The clock keeps perfect time.
"I grew up with it ticking and chiming as if it were the heartbeat of the house, so it's comforting to live with now," Nolan said.
Another wall displays the Persian shawl his French great-great grandmother Marie-Josephe Dieudonné put over her lap on carriage rides. Nolan framed her 1829 birth certificate, found in a shoebox.
When Nolan began writing poetry and short stories in high school, he sat at the tobacco shop desk and composed on a Royal typewriter that now rests beside his chair in the study.
Over the computer hangs a shaman necklace from New Guinea and the skull of a pelican he believes is his totem anima. "I've always felt a totemic kinship with its self-sacrificing, stately grace," he said. "Like me, pelicans are awkward on earth, but they can really soar. ... My whole family is very superstitious -- between the Creoles and the Irish."
But Nolan's literary success is anything but luck. Though writing is solitary work that can be isolating, peoples' lives intersect in this densely populated pedestrian neighborhood, he said.
"I don't really need to 'go out,' because when I wake up and step onto my front gallery, I'm already out," he said. "And every time I walk out of my carriageway gate, another interesting story happens to me."