Archives Month 2022: What Once Was-Pontchartrain Beach and Maison Blanche

There are many businesses that have come and gone in New Orleans, but there are a select few that have fixed themselves into fabric of the city. Last week, we featured three of these memorable locations: K&B, Schwegmann Brothers Giant Supermarkets, and McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppes. In our fourth blog celebrating National Archives Month, the Office of the Clerk of Civil District Court explores two more memorable New Orleans businesses that are no longer operating: Pontchartrain Beach and Maison Blanche. We will detail the history of both of these locations as well as several notarial acts that highlight their presence in our historical records.

Pontchartrain Beach

For New Orleanians who grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, Pontchartrain Beach holds a special place in their collective memory. At the mere mention of the amusement park situated on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, many of the city’s natives will launch into tales about their time spent “at the Beach.”1

Pontchartrain Beach was founded in 1928 by Harry J. Batt, Sr. in a location near Old Spanish Fort. In the 1930’s, construction of a sea wall extending from West End to the Industrial Canal prompted Harry Batt, Sr. to find a new location for his amusement park. Batt’s hunt for a new location corresponded with the Orleans Levee Board reclaiming the land along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain that used to be the town of Milneburg. During the reclamation process, the Levee Board added many improvements to the Lakeshore which included a concrete bathhouse, concession stands, a beach, and the development of the Lakefront Airport. Batt saw this project as an opportunity to further develop the newly reclaimed lakefront and made plans to move his amusement park to a tract of land at the end of Elysian Fields.2

Location of Pontchartrain Beach 1939-1983. Photo Credit: Google Maps

On March 29, 1939, representatives of the Orleans Parish Levee board and Harry Batt, Sr. came before the notary George Piazza to file a lease for the lakefront property at the end of Elysian Fields Avenue.

Lease of Pontchartrain Beach Property from the Orleans Parish Levee Board to Harry Batt. Piazza, George, 1939 March 29, Vol 6 Act 86

This lease was made for the rental of the property for a twenty year period for the total sum of $262,500.00. Also included in the lease was a description of buildings on the property for the new amusement park to utilize. These included a rides building, two food stands, a penny arcade, and a shelter house, as seen in the image above and below.

Lease of Pontchartrain Beach Property from the Orleans Parish Levee Board to Harry Batt. Piazza, George, 1939 March 29, Vol 6 Act 86

Attached to this lease was a survey of the property and plans for further improvements such as paving areas that were currently unpaved. This plan can be seen below.

Survey of Pontchartrain Beach Property, attached to Lease of Pontchartrain Beach Property from the Orleans Parish Levee Board to Harry Batt. Piazza, George, 1939 March 29, Vol 6 Act 86

Following this lease, Harry Batt and two other members of his family came before the notary Clem Sehrt on June 12, 1939 to incorporate their business as Playland Amusements Incorporated. In Article III of the charter, seen below, it is stated that the corporations purpose is “to operate, maintain and conduct a general amusement business; to make all kinds of contracts or concessions covering the operation of places of amusement, flying horses, carousals, auto skooters, whip, miniature railroad, penny arcade, bathing beach, including the rental of suits or equipment necessary.”

Charter of Playland Amusements, Inc. Sehrt, Clem T. 1939 June 12 Act 52

The Zephyr, one of the park’s most iconic rides, was added later in 1939. It was a 68 foot wooden rollercoaster which towered above most of the park. Harry Batt, Sr., often spent the park’s off season travelling the world looking for new and exciting amusement park rides that he could add to Pontchartrain Beach. Following World War II, a copy of the German designed Wild Maus rollercoaster ride was added to the park’s attractions. Attractions were added to the park throughout its history, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s which is considered to be the park’s heyday. The image below shows the layout of the parks attractions during this period.3

Photo Credit: The Museum of Yesterday: http://www.demajo.net/pontchartrain_beach/

In addition to the rides and games, Pontchartrain Beach also featured live entertainment. They would often have musical acts perform at the park. Most notably, Elvis Presley performed at the park in 1956.4

Photo Credit: The Museum of Yesterday: http://www.demajo.net/pontchartrain_beach/

While the park saw booming attendance numbers throughout the 60s and 70s, attendance soon began to decline prompting the Batt Family to close the park permanently. The last day for public admittance was September 5, 1983, but the park reopened for a fundraiser for the Contemporary Arts Center on September 24, 1983. Following this fundraiser, the rides were dismantled.5 The crest of the Zephyr’s lift hill and the name plate was saved by the Mayor of Kenner, Aaron Broussard, and was reconstructed at a park across from the Kenner City Hall. The steel rollercoaster, Ragin’ Cajun, was moved to Six Flags Great Escape in Albany, New York and rebranded the Steamin’ Demon. This ride is still in operation today.6

On November 16, 1988, a cancellation of the lease of the Pontchartrain Beach property was filed, officially ending the amusement park’s involvement with the property.

NA#779435

Today, the property at the end of Elysian Fields, is utilized by the University of New Orleans. The beach portion of the property remained open to the public until two drownings prompted the closure of the area in 2012. According to a Times-Picayune article on July 28, 2022, efforts to restore Pontchartrain Beach as a recreation area for New Orleans residents moved forward after the Lakefront Management Authority board voted to negotiate a lease with the Pontchartrain Beach Foundation for a mile-long stretch of land behind the University of New Orleans’ Research and Technology Park. Plans to restore the area include adding a dog park, a marina, and food vendors. 7

Maison Blanche

Maison Blanche was a New Orleans born department store that sat at the corner of Canal Street and Dauphine streets. Known for its iconic “Mr. Bingle” Christmas display, the department store served New Orleans shoppers for an entire century. In 1897, a Jewish immigrant from Germany named Isidore Newman opened Maison Blanche as “one of the first purpose-built department stores in New Orleans.”8 While the doors of the store didn’t open until 1897, its story begins in 1885 with Joseph A. Mercier. On June 16, 1885, Joseph Mercier came before the notary Samuel Flower to purchase the land and buildings on the lot forming the corner of Canal and Dauphine Streets from the Christ Church Corporation. The property and the buildings were sold to Mercier for $95,000.00.

Sale to J.A. Mercier from the Christ Church Corporation. Flower, Samuel, 1885 June 6, Vol 3 Act 71

This lot, purchased in 1885 would make up a portion of what would become the Maison Blanche property. On July 23, 1891, Joseph Mercier purchased another lot of ground in Square 94 bound by Canal, Dauphine, Customhouse (now Iberville), and Burgundy. Before the notary Michel Dejan, Mercier purchased a lot of ground with buildings and improvements fronting on Dauphine from the Succession of Mrs. Hermance Z. Brugier for $13,600.00. The first page of this sale can be seen below. Following this sale, Joseph Mercier acquired more property in Square 94 in the Second district, most of which would eventually be sold to Maison Blanche.

Sale from the Succession of Hermance Brugier to J.A. Mercier. Dejan, Michel 1891 July 23 in E. Grima’s Vol 22 Act 40

Maison Blanche was opened by Isidore Newman and Simon Shwartz in 1897, in partnership with Joseph Mercier. In its early years, the store was housed in a building that was constructed by the Mercier family in 1887 following the purchase of the property in 1885. An image of the original building can be seen below.

Original Maison Blanche Building located at the corner of Canal and Dauphine Streets. Photo Credit: https://www.nola.com/archive/article_f5f77fcf-59db-567c-8e0a-7c09c4b0d3a5.html

On June 16, 1905, eleven shareholders of Maison Blanche came before the notary Charles T. Soniat to incorporate Maison Blanche, Limited. In Article III of the charter, seen below, the purpose of the corporation is stated to be “the purchase and sale, wholesale and retail, of dry goods, notions, house furnishings goods, house supplies, sundries and general merchandise of every kind or character which pertain or may hereafter pertain, to the department store business.”

Charter of Maison Blanche, Limited. Soniat, Charles, 1905 June 16, Vol 65A Act 146

Among the shareholders, Joseph A. Mercier is listed, as seen below.

Charter of Maison Blanche, Limited. Soniat, Charles, 1905 June 16, Vol 65A Act 146

The following month, on July 19, 1905, J.A. Mercier sold the building and property being utilized by Maison Blanche to Maison Blanche, Limited. In the first of two back to back sales before the notary Charles T. Soniat, Mercier sold the lot forming the corner of Canal and Dauphine to Maison Blanche for $208,333.33. The first page of the sale can be seen below.

Sale from J.A. Mercier to Maison Blanche, Limited, Soniat, Charles 1905 July 19, Vol 66 Act 182

In the second sale, Joseph Mercier sold two lots of ground with buildings and improvements, fronting on Dauphine Street in Square 94 of the Second District to Maison Blanche, Limited for $50,000.00. The first page of the sale can be seen below.

Sale from J.A. Mercier to Maison Blanche, Limited, Soniat, Charles 1905 July 19, Vol 66 Act 183

A survey of Square 94 of the Second district can be seen below. The lot at the corner of Canal and Dauphine Streets is the main lot that makes up the Maison Blanche property. Other lots, such as the ones fronting Dauphine Street can be seen as well.

Survey attached to Act of Sale from Maison Blanche, Limited to Audubon Hotels. Soniat, Charles, 1906 February 23, Vol 68 Act 35

Shortly after Maison Blanche, Limited acquired the property, the original store building was torn down and construction began on a 12-story terracotta and marble building. Work on the building was completed in 1909 and would be the city’s tallest building until 1921.9

Construction of the Maison Blanche Building in 1907.10

In 1909, Maison Blanche, Limited was dissolved and reincorporated as the Maison Blanche Company. This reincorporation was done on February 13, 1909 before the notary Frederic C. Marx. The first page of this incorporation can be seen below.

Act of Incorporation of the Maison Blanche Company. Marx, Frederic, 1909 February 13, Act 13

At the same time, the Maison Blanche Realty Company was also formed and took control of the property owned by Maison Blanche, Limited. They also took ownership of the new 12-story Maison Blanche building. On March 2, 1909, a lease was drawn up before the notary Charles T. Soniat between the Maison Blanche Realty Company and the Maison Blanche Company. The first five floors of the new building were leased to the Maison Blanche Company to be used as the department store, as seen below.

Lease from Maison Blanche Realty Company to Maison Blanche Company. Soniat, Charles, 1909 March 2, Vol 74 Act 32

In 1926, Maison Blanche, or “MB” as it was affectionately known to many New Orleanians, was the second store in Louisiana to have air conditioning. In 1933, the store installed escalators making it one of the first in the state to do so. In 1942, the Newman family expanded Maison Blanche by opening a store in Gentilly. In 1951, the Newman family sold Maison Blanche to New York based City Stores. City Stores continued to expand Maison Blanche opening a branch in the Westside Shopping Center in 1958, Clearview Mall in 1969, and Lake Forest Plaza in 1974. 11

Maison Blanche was also known for their elaborate window displays that would change seasonally. In 1948, a store employee named Emile Alline created the large snowman named Mr. Bingle for the Canal Street store’s Christmas display. After this, Mr. Bingle found a permanent place in the heart of New Orleanians. The snowman mascot had his own theme song and Mr. Bingle themed merchandise was soon created. He even starred in his own daily TV show for children. Mr. Bingle became an annual attraction for the flagship store on the Canal Street as a 50-feet tall version of him would tower over the street during the holiday season.12

Mr. Bingle outside on the Canal Street Store circa 1952. Photo Credit: https://docstudio.org/2019/11/25/who-needs-amazon-or-the-mall-maison-blanche-had-it-all/

In 1982, three of the Maison Blanche locations, including the flagship store on Canal Street were acquired by the Baton Rouge based department store company, Goudchaux’s.13 After this acquisition, the Canal Street store was temporarily closed while Goudchaux’s reimagined what Maison Blanche would look like under their direction. The store was reduced from five floors to three and better reflected Goudchaux’s business model. The store was reopened in 1984 in time for the New Orleans World’s Fair in May 1984.

In 1998, Maison Blanche was acquired by Dillard’s and the decision was made to permanently close the Canal Street Store. Today, the building houses the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the Corner of Canal and Dauphine housed in the Maison Blanche building. Photo Credit: Google Images

Mr. Bingle also found a new home after the closure of Maison Blanche in 1998. For a few years after the closure, the giant fiberglass snowman was mounted outside of Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie. In 2005, the figure was refurbished and donated to City Park. You can view Mr. Bingle during the annual Celebration in the Oaks during the holiday season.14

Mr. Bingle during the Celebration in the Oaks at New Orleans City Park. Photo Credit: Mid City Messenger

These records are just a sampling of what the Clerk’s office has to offer when researching business of the past and present. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn more about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist. Be sure to check back next week for our next Archives Month Blog.

References:
  1. Allie Mariano, “At the beach, at the beach: Remembering New Orleans’ fling with Pontchartrain Beach,” Times-Picayune, Published March 3, 2017, https://www.nola.com/300/article_b1c78a5b-36d6-53c6-91b4-70b0f1f61773.html.
  2. Museum of Yesterday, “Memories of Pontchartrain Beach,” copyright 2020, http://www.demajo.net/pontchartrain_beach/.
  3. Museum of Yesterday, “Memories of Pontchartrain Beach,” copyright 2020, http://www.demajo.net/pontchartrain_beach/.
  4. Museum of Yesterday, “Memories of Pontchartrain Beach,” copyright 2020, http://www.demajo.net/pontchartrain_beach/.
  5. Allie Mariano, “The last ride at Pontchartrain Beach,” Times-Picayune, Published March 3, 2017, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=AMNEWS&docref=news%2F162E4E5103CDC140.
  6. “Pontchartrain Beach,” Rollercoaster Database, Accessed September 9, 2022, https://rcdb.com/4744.htm.
  7. Roshaun Higgins, “Pontchartrain Beach Restoration plan, with $10 entrance fee, moves forward after key vote,” Times-Picayune, Published July 28, 2022, https://www.nola.com/news/environment/article_15853098-0e95-11ed-92ee-fb511f4ede2f.html.
  8. “Maison Blanche,” Goods of Every Description, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Accessed September 9, 2022, https://www.hnoc.org/virtual/goods-every-description/maison-blanche.
  9. Hans J. Sternberg with James E. Shelldey, We Were Merchants: The Sternberg Family and the Story of Goudchaux’s and Maison Blanche Department Stores, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009), 313.
  10. Ibid, 315.
  11. Ibid, 313-316.
  12. Blake Pontchartrain, “Blakeview: The 70th anniversary of Mr. Bingle,” The Gambit, Published December 4, 2017, https://www.nola.com/gambit/news/blake_pontchartrain/article_82c03e7c-6923-54ec-bcc4-a68c118b8690.html.
  13. Hans J. Sternberg with James E. Shelldey, We Were Merchants: The Sternberg Family and the Story of Goudchaux’s and Maison Blanche Department Stores, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009), 329.
  14. Blake Pontchartrain, “Blakeview: The 70th anniversary of Mr. Bingle,” The Gambit, Published December 4, 2017, https://www.nola.com/gambit/news/blake_pontchartrain/article_82c03e7c-6923-54ec-bcc4-a68c118b8690.html.

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