How Bourbon Street happened
Bourbon Street got its name in 1721, when French engineer Adrien de Pauger first laid out plans for the then-fledgling New Orleans and named its central avenue after France’s royal family at the time, the House of Bourbon. It got its reputation, however, two centuries later, when, after the 1917 shuttering of the Storyville vice district, people were forced to look elsewhere to satisfy their appetite for (ahem) entertainment. Then, on Jan. 26, 1926, the grand opening of Maxime’s at 300 Bourbon introduced a new concept to the city: the concept of the nightclub, a glitzier, gender-integrated take on the seedy, male-dominated world of concert saloons that had dominated to that point. The transformation of Bourbon Street into the modern-day adult playground we know today had begun.
Bourbon Street has gone through a number of transformations over the years, from a largely residential area in the city’s first two centuries to what many consider its 1950s and 1960s golden age and continuing through to become the party-all-night playground of today. In the process, it has become known the world over as an epicenter of American vice — and good times.
- Maxime’s was the brainchild of French immigrant Arnaud Cazenave, who in 1918 opened a Bienville Street restaurant named after himself. Arnaud’s is still in operation as one of the city’s revered old-line restaurants.
- In his book “Bourbon Street: A History,” Tulane geographer Richard Campanella writes that one of the reasons the nightclub concept took off — aside from its air of swanky exclusivity — was the inclusion of women as patrons rather than as servants. With the social trend of “dating” on the rise at the time, nightclubs offered a space for these newly permitted social interactions to play out respectably.
- After Prohibition, bars and saloons began opening up, clustering around Maxime’s. But it was really World War II — and New Orleans’ role as both a port of embarkation for soldiers and sailors, as well as a perfect place for them to blow off steam while on R&R — that made Bourbon Street a household name across the country, according to Campanella.
- Maxime’s was short-lived. The same year it was opened, it was shut down for Prohibition violations. By 1928, it was known by a new name: Frolics.
- The building at 300 Bourbon Street that housed Maxime’s was torn down in 1966. A hotel was built in its place: the Royal Sonesta.
- Maxime’s wasn’t the first nightclub in the city. That distinction is generally credited to The Cave, a club established in the basement of the Grunewald Hotel (now the Roosevelt) and decorated to look like a cavern, complete with faux stalagmites and stalactites.
- After Storyville closed but before Maxime’s began drawing people to Bourbon Street, the popular place to go for adult entertainment in the city was a cluster of saloons and restaurants in an area along North Rampart Street that became known as “the Tango Belt.”
- By mid-century, Bourbon Street had become known as a fashionable place to be for partiers and entertainers alike. In addition to its many bars and restaurants, it became home to dancer Chris Owens’ self-named club (originally the 809 Club) in 1956, clarinetist Pete Fountain‘s eponymous club in 1960 and trumpeter Al Hirt‘s club in 1962.
- Bourbon took another step toward its modern incarnation in 1971, when — under the administration of Mayor Moon Landrieu — the city introduced the idea of making it a pedestrian mall during nighttime hours.
New Orleans has a complicated relationship with its most famous street. Many locals eschew it as inauthentic and seedy. They also rightfully cringe at the thought that countless visitors define the otherwise culturally rich city by Bourbon’s base offerings. (And, be sure, there is a definite dark side to Bourbon, which — as a 2017 investigation by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune showed — has become the epicenter of an illicit and destructive sex trade.) The fact remains, however, that Bourbon Street is a good-time beacon to the world, drawing visitors from across the globe who want to sample a taste of the city’s famous debauchery. In the process, those visitors also pump countless millions into the city’s economy — and, when they sober up, many undoubtedly discover that there’s much more to New Orleans than Hand Grenades and Hurricanes. So, you can love it, you can hate it, but there’s no two ways about: Bourbon Street is an irreplaceable part of New Orleans.