Civil War Over Confederate Museum

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's battered but unbowed, this old brick museum. Even besieged by clamor and dust, even as ownership squabbles threaten to kick hundreds of Civil War artifacts to the curb.

No matter. "The Confederate Museum IS OPEN," defiant block letters announce.

And for now, it is. War buffs, Confederate enthusiasts and plain old curiosity cruisers still pay their 5 bucks to prowl among the glass cases of Louisiana's oldest museum. They can leaf through the guest book, scrawl--as someone did this month--"Wave the flag!"

But these are tenuous times. The Confederate Museum is in danger of being squeezed out by a younger, sleeker Southern art museum.

The battle of the warehouse district goes something like this: An old collection of war paraphernalia finds itself marooned in a dandified neighborhood, the threat of homelessness looming. And with public sentiment throughout the South listing away from Confederate commemoration, the collection's champions are few. In short, these rebel artifacts could get chased off Camp Street, and soon.

"We're not politically correct in this day and age," curator Pat Ricci sniffed. "There's a movement across the country to forget our history."

Cut from Louisiana red cypress, these walls have held Civil War memorabilia since 1891. When the bones of old Jefferson Davis lay in state here, 60,000 somber Southerners climbed the stone steps to say goodbye. They packed his corpse on a funeral train and set off for Richmond, Va.--the defeat of the Old South wending its way to the rim of the North.

These days, the planks creak with every step and baubles of old-time war gleam in dusky light: the Remington and the water-stained Bible; canteens and powder horns. Hollow rebel faces stare from yellowed ambrotype; frayed uniforms stand empty behind sheets of glass.

"Not much has changed in 100 years," Ricci said with a shrug.

And that's true--within these walls. But outside the museum's doors, waves of industry and gentrification--not to mention the 1983 World's Fair--have caused the warehouse district to slump, then straighten.

For decades, these streets were the stamping ground of winos and hobos; sailors and the ladies who took them in for a price. In a report penned in 1976, a development group wrote off the neighborhood as "unesthetic, uneconomical and unhealthy."

"This was skid row," said Richard Douvillier, seated in the gleaming lobby of the Contemporary Arts Center--a onetime ice cream factory across the way from the Confederate Museum. "Just a lot of homeless people."

Not anymore. Gone are the seedy flophouses and the blue-collar juke joints. Gone, for that matter, are most of the industrial caverns that gave the warehouse district its name. They've been gutted and polished and filled with high-rent flats. They're punctuated by fashionable galleries, boutiques and cafes.

Leaf through a glossy "Arts in the Warehouse District" brochure: You'll read about the National D-Day Museum, home furnishing and craft galleries--but nothing on Memorial Hall, where the Civil War collection is housed. But you will learn of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, set to open next year.

Scooping up land for the Ogden collection, the University of New Orleans Foundation first bought the 1889 Neo-Romanesque library on one side of the Confederate Museum; then the sun-scorched vacant lot to the north. There ensued a general calamity of pounding, rooting and scaffolding. The Confederate collection found itself a lonesome old-timer, squeezed on all sides by clatter and dust.

But the final injury came in December. After mulling old titles and deeds, the university foundation pieced together a new version of the Confederate Museum's lineage. An old New Orleans family had given the mass of brick and stained glass to Tulane University decades back, researchers concluded.

After that, it was a simple fait: The foundation paid Tulane $425,000, and informed the Confederate Museum that it was displaying its wares within walls it didn't own.

"They're distressed," foundation director Elizabeth Williams said. "They're trying to claim they own the building through squatters' rights."

The Confederate Museum doesn't believe a word of it. Its caretakers say the university foundation bought useless deeds. They vow to fight for their sovereignty, to sue or be sued.

"It's going to take four justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court," museum lawyer James Carriere said, "and a big moving van to get us out."

This is an old-fashioned battle of the South: a war between neighbors--courteous and careful in word and deed but grit and steel at the core. And once again, the Confederate folks are woefully out-moneyed and outmanned.

From her musty, cramped office, Ricci has presided over the Confederate collection for 22 years, through growing discomfort and dwindling attendance. Today, she's sporting a T-shirt festooned with a sketch of Memorial Hall. She had the shirts screened as the squabble heated up.

"It ain't art," reads the motto, "but it's interesting."

It's unclear what will become of these silk sashes, tattered banners and bowie knives if the Confederate Museum does, indeed, lose control of the building. Williams says the Ogden museum wanted to be "respectful" to the "fabulous" Confederate collection. But when pressed, she refused to say just how many of the pieces, if any, would stay put.

"I really don't want to discuss that," she said. "We're still in negotiations and we're trying to be civil."

In the meantime, the tourists trickle through, browse the gift shop's collection of miniature canons, key chains and shot glasses emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag. They eye the crown of thorns sent from Pope Pius IX to Davis when the captured Confederate president languished in a Virginia prison.

"We've got nothing to do with politics--we're a museum," said museum worker John Bangs, watching a handful of visitors pace the old planks. "This whole thing is complicated because people make it complicated."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°