If Barbara Hutton had taken a wrong turn in the 1940’s on her way to Tangier, she might well have wound up in New Orleans, and probably not have been the wiser. She would have loved the lush gardens and louche lifestyle there. And she most definitely would have lived at Longue Vue.
You see New Orleans is a city of extremes. It has a society so old and entrenched and tight that no amount of begging, pleading and pledges to your favorite charity could get you in. Yet in the same town, it is possible to drink 24 hours a day – no bothersome bar closings on Bourbon Street! – and when that still isn’t enough, you can sashay right out the door with your drink in hand and finish it off in the street (or gutter); it’s perfectly legal.
That same sort of severe contrast exists at the magnificent Longue Vue house and gardens, right on the edge of town. Approached down a long and gracious allée of live oak trees that have been pruned and plucked into a perfectly graceful arch, sits a fine example of a Louisiana Greek Revival plantation: columns, colonnades, mellow aged stone, clearly from the 18th or 19th Century, right?
Longue Vue was built from 1939 to 1942 and was as modern and up-to-date as could be. No fainting Southern belles here, it had central air-conditioning from the get go. Inside are some major Moderne moments – the Art Deco bathrooms alone are worth the price of admission. That marvelously mellowed stone it’s built from is actually cement over steel – it’s hurricane proof. And those green fields in back aren’t cotton – that would be the New Orleans Country Club.
Longue Vue was one of the last truly great houses to be built in America.
And like other truly great houses, that took talent, vision and a truly great fortune.
Edgar and Edith Stern were just the right people to produce this 20th Century masterpiece. He – born in New Orleans, was in cotton (and eventually also banking, oil, lumber, communications, etc). She – born in Chicago, had a father who was the chief executive and chief shareholder of Sears, Roebuck & Co. They met in New York City, married in 1921 and then off they moved to his hometown – New Orleans.
They built a lovely modest colonial house on a modest (yet lovely) lot. They named it Longue Vue, after the inn on the Hudson River where Edgar proposed to Edith. Then Mr. Stern started buying up the surrounding land. Then Mrs. Stern took up gardening. Eight acres later, they hired landscape architect, Ellen Biddle Shipman, who had done spreads for Astors, DuPonts and Fords, to make the whole thing come together. But now there was a problem: they had the right gardens, but the wrong house. Mrs. Stern, being way ahead of her time, felt that the indoor/outdoor, house/garden component simply wasn’t happening. So, like any self-respecting mid-century multi-millionaires would do, the Sterns kept the gardens and moved the house. Down the road a piece actually. It’s still there.
After terminating their first choice of architect, the renowned David Adler of Chicago, the Sterns allowed their landscaper, Mrs. Shipman (by now known as “Lady Ellen” to Edith and Edgar), to chose architect William Platt as a replacement. They then proceeded to build a really new, really big, really grand, really gorgeous classic Louisiana mansion that was a brilliant pastiche of every classic Southern house in the area that they had always loved. And as it should, the new house, all 45 rooms of it, now worked perfectly in its preexisting luxurious landscape.
Since everything else was being handled in a topsy-turvy kind of way: the Stern’s choice of interior decorator for the new house? Enter “Lady Ellen”. Again.
Together, the Sterns and Mrs. Shipman created an 18th Century in the 20th Century mash-up like no other house of its kind. In its thousands of square feet, priceless English and French antiques meet head on with the newest of the new inventions of the time. There is ancient pine paneling from Surrey, next to the first TV in town (it helped that Mr. Stern also owned the first television station too). They designed an authentic American Colonial room, but upholstered it in electric yellow chintz from Rose Cummings. 18th Century figurative French perfume bottles sit directly under a trippy Wassily Kandinsky abstract painting. Around a circa 1820 Sheraton dining table, 1775 Chippendale side chairs are paired with the most cushy arm chairs from Modern Manhattan. And while in the dining room, take note of the crystal vases at each table setting still stuffed with Mrs. Stern’s favorite cigarettes (menthol), arrayed on an exquisite, hand embroidered Chinese table cloth. The china in the niches is just a small part of the Stern’s collection of museum quality 18th Century Creamware; one of the largest in the country. But those divine tiny porcelain birds sprinkled around the table? From Woolworths.
Edith was not without a sense of humor.
Besides the expected numerous living rooms, multiple dining rooms and scores of bedrooms, just trying to fathom the functions of some of the rooms is mind-blowing. How about the Wrapping Room? This is a room that exists solely as a place to wrap gifts and sort mail. Of course all the cabinetry is couture-made to hold ribbon, paper, tape, etc. Please keep in mind that this was waaaaaaaaaay before Candy Spelling came up with her 90210 version.
Just down the hall is the Flower Arranging Room. Where else are you supposed to arrange those 8 acres of cut flowers? Not only are there several stainless steel sinks of different depths – not all flowers are the same height you know – but the worktables are backed with mirror. Otherwise, how are you going to see the back AND the front of your arrangement at the same time?
A Napping Room? Got it. Complete with up-to-the-minute Murphy beds and divine rose and aqua stenciling – the height of 1940’s faux naïf chic.
Looking through a Lucite sculpture at the golf course outside, one finds oneself in the Art Gallery. There are art establishments in Chelsea that aren’t this big or luxe. Check out that curvy Deco tête-à-tête and Venetian chairs vying with the Vasarelys; and Arps on mod plinths, next to the Picassos. In the 1960’s, Mrs. Stern took a shine to Modern art – big time. And this “room” is the result.
A completely separate Playhouse, about as big as a mid-sized McMansion, sits just outside the main house. It’s an Adult’s Only affair with projection screen, stage, musician’s gallery and even a costume room, for a little Broadway on the Bayou – and Marie Antoinette thought she had it so good!
Yes, the Sterns were a class act: smart, rich, funny, fun, and occasionally, frisky. They had great style. They had great taste, and the rich and famous they entertained at Longue Vue knew it. The Kennedys, Eleanor Roosevelt, Pablo Casals, even Jack Benny have all been there. And then, incredibly, the Sterns had the good sense to leave Longue Vue to the citizens
of New Orleans – just so you and I could have a tiny little peek.
Time to join the party.
Longue Vue House and Gardens
#7 Bamboo Road, New Orleans, LA 70124
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Sundays from 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm