HISTORY OF DERBÈS MANSION
As much as any structure in New Orleans, the Derbès Mansion owes its location to its situation on “high ground.” Its land was once the Native American trail from the bayous to the Mississippi River. The trail became the Bayou Road during the French and Spanish occupations of the region and remains the Bayou Road of today. The Esplanade Ridge proved a safe harbor from flooding before the city and its levee system were developed; and its natural elevation, along with the raised vernacular design of the house, protected it from the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, nearly 150 years after it was constructed.
Over thousands of years before man inhabited these environs, silt, deposited by periodic overflow from the Mississippi River, deposited a “ridge” of land and inscribed near that ridge a maze of bayous – miscellaneous channels scoured out as the river's overflow drained into Lake Pontchartrain each Spring. Only one of these, Bayou St. John, remains. The others were filled in during expansion of New Orleans, in the 19th Century. Before the Europeans came, the Native population made
extensive use of the bayous and their connection to the lake. The lake waters were easily navigable for fishing and trapping, with ready access to the Gulf of Mexico.
When Bienville paddled up Bayou St. John in 1699 to first explore the area, he walked the Native American trail from Bayou St. John past the future Derbès Mansion site, and made his way to the East bank of the Mississippi, where the settlement of New Orleans was founded.
In the Colonial period, parcels on both sides of the Bayou Road were granted as concessions, first by the Company of the Indies, then by the Kings of France and later by the Spanish Crown. These tracts were developed into habitations (small plantations) with houses and outbuildings facing the Bayou Road, having orchards behind and cultivated fields extending into the swamps.
By the middle of the 18th Century the Derbès Mansion site had been incorporated into the vast holdings of Brasilier dit Tourangeau, and after him, Vincent d’Auberville. Subsequent owners included Delisle Duparc, Juan Enoul, and Gabriel Peyroux de la Roche. Thereafter Pedro Dulcido Barran and Simon Farve were among its owners.
By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the frontage of the Derbès Mansion land was reduced to its present width of 138 feet (1-1/2 arpents), and the depth of 540 feet that continued into the 20th Century. On its right side, in the present right of way of North Tonti Street, was Castenado Alley, a path that served the land of Jose Castenado commencing at the present location of Columbus Street, a block away. From this time exists the earliest records of a Maison principal on the site. Simon Farve sold the tract to Joseph Zeringue on December 30, 1805. Zeringue commissioned Barthelemy Lafon, the respected Creole architect, to design a masonry dwelling of four rooms and a rear gallery enclosed on three sides. With its hip roof supported by slender colonnettes on the front gallery, and four bay fenestration, it was remarkably similar to the original portion of the House on Bayou Road, next door 2275.
In 1812 the house and grounds were acquired by M. Guillaume Bellanger, a former College d’Orleans professor who opened a school there. An 1834 newspaper account describes a “basin dug out in the interior of the establishment”; for student baths. The Charles Zimpel city survey of that same year shows a circular structure to the rear of the main building. After a series of intervening owners, the habitation, with the Zeringue house and other dependencies, was acquired by Nicolas Marino Benachi in 1852 for $11,134. Benachi was a Greek business- man who worked in the New Orleans cotton trade for the Greek firm of Ralli Bros. They were international cotton brokers with offices in London, Cairo, Athens and India. Nicolas was born on the Greek island of Chios.
He was Consul of Greece in New Orleans, a speculator in real estate, a hunter, horseman, and the founder of the first Greek Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere. When he acquired the property, he was married to Catherine Grund. They had four children. Catherine and two of their children died at Biloxi, MS, during the yellow fever epidemic of 1853. The Inventory of her Succession in 1856 shows Nicolas Benachi and two children living in a five-room house on Bayou Road. On November 13, he married Anne Marie Bidault (1837-1897), a native of Bordeaux, France with whom he had five children: Marie Benachi Botassi, who later moved to Paris, France; Anthony N. Benachi (1858-1916), B. N. (Zio) Benachi (1866-1923), D. N. Benachi, and Irene Benachi Bidault. For this second family Benachi built The Benachi House in 1858-59. The Zeringue house was either demolished or relocated.
Constructed at a cost of $18,000.00, Benachi’s house was erected in what had become a well-to-do Creole neighborhood. Esplanade Avenue had been extended along with the Vieux Carre and Faubourg Marigny street grids. A Bayou Road omnibus line, organized by Benachi and his friend, Benjamin Rodriguez, provided connections to the old city. Esplanade was lined with trees and some of the finest residences. The Rodriguez-Musson House (where Edgar Degas sojourned in 1872) was constructed directly across Esplanade in 1854. At Dorgenois and Bayou Road the Lebreton or Indian Market provided a public place for meeting household needs. The city had come to the country.
Architecture & Style
The house retains its original exterior configuration (including the rear projecting wing on the right), floor plan and most details. Later additions have been removed. It is an idiosyncratic building for the period, probably indicative of Benachi’s individualism and travels. The front facade is formed in Classical lines, particularly with the entablature surmounting the double galleries. The paired Doric box columns, “flat” front wall of tongue and groove boards and cast-iron balusters are unusual for
New Orleans. The house presents a bold and simple symmetry with only one bay on either side of the front entrances. The sliding exterior pocket doors off the first-floor front gallery are unique to this house for this period. Shutters on the first floor are paneled, while those on the second are louvered. Magnificent gardens, stables, and other outbuildings were to the rear. There was no lower floor rear gallery. Wood & Perot of Philadelphia manufactured elements of the cast iron front fence. The walking gate and intermediate posts show a Gothic influence that was also popular in the New Orleans furniture of the period. Like the chandeliers, the cast iron fountain on the front walk is Rococo in design and originally featured three tiers.
The existing interior details in the parlors, dining room, and main hall are original. Gaslight was provided throughout. The chandeliers in the public rooms are attributed to Cornelius & Baker. These chandeliers were removed from the house in 1981 and reclaimed by James Derbes through litigation. The black marble and granite mantles are original. The only change in the floor plan on the lower floor is the conversion of the butler's pantry to the rear of the dining room into a powder room and bathroom. The placement of the interior stairway at the rear has more in common with a Creole Cottage than a mansion of this period.
During Benachi’s ownership the house came to be known as the Rendezvous des Chasseurs, the gathering place of the hunters. Mythology later developed as to its use as a hunting club. In fact, Nicolas Benachi enjoyed hunting. It is likely that he and his friends would meet here and go off to hunt in the surrounding area. The Inventory of his Succession lists two cases of stuffed birds in the downstairs hall. However, the floor plan of the building, particularly the children's rooms upstairs, suggests a design for a family, not a men's club.
At Biloxi, Mississippi the Benachi family-owned large tracts of land. N. M. Benachi is believed to have planted the live oak trees that line Benachi Avenue there. Zio became associated with a Biloxi chemical company. A. N. “Tony”; Benachi was a cotton broker in New Orleans, and a bon vivant. He and Zio were yachting enthusiasts. Tony owned the “Royal Flush,” a 16-foot cat boat that was famous as a racer in the Gulf Coast. Benachi died in 1886 and his widow lost the Benachi House to a Sheriff's sale. The brothers Torre, Peter and Joseph, bought the house and grounds.
The Torres were shippers and importers, with real estate holdings. The line of their steamships sailed under the name Royal English Mail Line between New Orleans and the ports of Central and South America. They were the first to import lemons into the United States. Peter was married with five children. Joseph was a childless widower. During their joint ownership the main house was expanded, through the addition of a flanking wing, double-galleried and of similar proportions, but narrower than the original Benachi House. The wing made the entire structure “U- shaped” with the two flanks connected through the projecting wing that is now the kitchen.
Joseph Torre died in 1900 and Peter acquired his interest in the house. Circa 1907, the side street, N. Tonti, was extended to Esplanade Ave., an occurrence that not only required the removal of the flanking wing, but created new frontage on N. Tonti St., for Peter Torre to develop. The flanking wing was moved to a new lot at 1429 N. Tonti Street, where it remains today. Peter Torre died in 1917. The Benachi-Torre house remained in the use and ownership of his descendants until 1981. Venetia Torre, Peter's last surviving child, came to own the house and grounds in their entirety, and she occupied it until her death in 1978. She left its ownership to the Louisiana Landmarks Society, but granted to one of her twin nephews, Dr. Mottram P. Torre, the right to occupy it for the remainder of his lifetime.
Dr. Torre died suddenly in 1981 and the Louisiana Landmarks Society resolved to find a suitable purchaser for the ensemble. The Society's Pitot House was not self-sustaining, and its Board of Trustees did not view the required rehabilitation, furnishing and curatorship of 2257 Bayou Road as a realistic possibility. The Society owned an empty house.
Sealed bids were accepted based on objective criteria: price; terms; covenants to preserve interior floor plan and details; exterior appearance and configuration; and assurance that the main building would be restored in two years. Approximately twelve bids were received and considered. Mr. Derbes’s was deemed the most acceptable. Title passed on July 9, 1982.
The Throes of Restoration
Although the main building and grounds suffered from neglect during the last years of Torre and Landmarks ownership, little had been done to modify the main house that Benachi built. Added were two new bathrooms, a new kitchen, and new closets; and two new central AC-heating systems. The house was repaired, rewired and re-plumbed throughout. In 1983 the rear patio was added, constructed almost entirely from bricks and flagstones that were unearthed on the site; and the gazebo and cast-iron fountain were installed in the back yard.
In 1983 the Delta Chapter of the Louisiana Archeology Society excavated several areas of the yard behind the patio. No privies were found, but trash pits yielded an impressive array of transfer ware, chamber pots, bottles, jars and other objects. The “Carriage House” constructed of vertical barge boards as a secondary material, was probably a turn-of-the-century garage, with servants’ quarters above. It may however, be of earlier date, used by Benachi as a carriage house. The rehabilitation, completed in 1986, required the replacement of the previous “foundation” and virtual reconstruction of the first floor. The entire project spanned seven years and was completed in 1989 with the transformation of the unfinished third floor into a second rental apartment. These efforts were recognized by the New Orleans Historic Districts Landmarks Commission with its Honor Award for Residential Restoration.
Furniture and Decorations
The downstairs public rooms are furnished predominantly in the styles that were popular in the mid- 19th Century: Victorian, Gothic and Rococo Revival, Classical and Empire. In the dining room, the Victorian sideboard with the white marble top and shelves above is probably by Prudent Mallard, the most famous of the mid-19th Century New Orleans furniture craftsmen. The other mahogany sideboard, in the Classical American style, was probably made in Philadelphia about 1840. The brass and marble candelabra are French Empire, c. 1880.
The dining chairs show the Gothic influence. They, along with the dining table, were probably made by Signouret, another New Orleans furniture maker. On the right side of the “pocket doors” that open to the gallery is a fine rosewood armoire, probably crafted by Dutrueil Barjon of New Orleans, a free man of color. On the left is a mahogany Empire butler’s chest with the scroll motif, c. 1840; and a pair of Vieux Paris vases of French origin, c. 1870. On the mantle, you will find a three-piece American gilt brass and crystal girandole garniture, c. 1845. The rococo oval mirror reaches nine feet above the mantle. The six-arm brass and pot metal chandelier is typical of those made by Cornelius & Baker of Philadelphia in the 1850’s. They were originally gas fired, but have been electrified. Look for the cherubs with shields and spears, and the cast hand where it hangs from the ceiling. The parlors feature a fine mahogany secretary/bookcase, a Napoleon corner cabinet, and a fine carved rosewood center table with incised black marble top. The gasolier is identical to the one in the dining room. In the library portion of the parlors, you will find a wall sconce that is original to the house.
Written by James G. Derbes
Contributions by William D. Reeves to the history of the house and its neighborhood are gratefully acknowledged.