Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop: A New Orleans pirate story
It stands to reason that pirates — or at least those who are good at the trade, which Jean Lafitte certainly was — are secretive sorts, so the history of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop at 941 Bourbon St. is one shrouded in legend and speculation. As fun a legend as it is, there’s nary a shred of hard evidence to support the oft-repeated tale that famed privateer Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre ever owned the building, much less operated a smithy there as a front for their pirating operation. Still, that doesn’t mean the building isn’t historically significant. The earliest notarial documents date the building to 1772, according to the New Orleans City Guide, and it survived the two historic fires — in 1788 and 1794 — that claimed most of the city’s original structures. That makes it one of the oldest buildings still standing in the city.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, which is now a bar, is one of New Orleans’ most well-known — and most photographed — landmarks. Beyond its postcard-ready appeal, it holds architectural significance as a rare surviving example of briquette-entre-poteaux, or bricks-between-posts, construction, which was a technique common in the city’s early French colonial era.
- The Lafitte connection appears to be owed to the assertion that the building was once owned by, or at least in the family of, Captain Renato Beluche, a known associate of Lafitte’s. Beluche commanded a ship out of Lafitte’s privateer port at Barataria Bay and also fought alongside Lafitte at the Battle of New Orleans.
- Another oft-repeated part of the building’s legend — also unverified, and, one must think, highly unlikely, given the area’s high water table — is that Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was once connected to the riverfront by a secret tunnel, dug to ease the transfer of ill-gotten booty.
- In 1970, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places and thus declared “nationally significant in illustrating or commemorating the history of the United States.”
- Among the bar’s signature drinks is the obituary cocktail, which is essentially a gin martini with a splash of Pernod.
- From around 1933 to 1952, the building housed a gay bar called Café Lafitte. In 1952, new owners bought the building, ousted Café Lafitte and opened their own bar under its current name, inspired by the legend that had long been associated with the building.
- Café Lafitte didn’t go away. It just moved down the street to 901 Bourbon and reopened as Café Lafitte in Exile. It is still in operation today, staking claim to the title of oldest continuously operating gay bar in the United States.
- Before it was Café Lafitte, the building housed a store operated by H. Barbe, according to a 1913 article in The Daily Picayune that describes a break-in at the store and the theft of $3 from a pay phone.
- For 16 years ending in 1991, one of the nightly draws for many regulars at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop was chanteuse Lily Hood — known to everyone as Miss Lily — whose regular post at the bar’s piano enlivened the place with tunes requested by patrons, who often tried to guess her age. She always knew the songs; she never revealed her age. Hood stopped playing there due to health reasons. She died in 1998, age unknown.
- Among one of the more famous patrons of both bars — Café Lafitte and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop — was playwright Tennessee Williams, who was reportedly one of Miss Lily’s many fans.
- In 2003, the owners of the Blacksmith Shop, then in a state of disrepair, were cited by the city for “demolition by neglect” and ordered to whip the building into shape. That sparked a controversy as to whether it should be restored to the way it originally would have looked — with stucco covering the exposed brick — or repaired but left with the charmingly weathered appearance with which most people are familiar. The latter won out.
- The building is considered by some to be haunted, perhaps by Lafitte himself, and is a frequent stop on French Quarter ghost tours.
Given its status as one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop has obvious historical value. But every bit as important is its colorful history, which helps make it something of a microcosm of New Orleans itself — a city that, like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, celebrates its rogues, reveres its rich history, is decidedly photogenic, and knows exactly how to pour a good drink.