An era of respect and dignity of a family owned funeral home forever lost.

On August 8th, 2008, this site was nominated by the Historic District Landmarks Commission (HDLC). This current nomination and potential future designation as a Landmark, may be threatened.  The owner of the property disputes the architectural significance and opposes nomination.  

Nomination of this site is the first step toward the preservation and will serve to safeguard the heritage of Mid-City by protecting and regulating this site for generations to come.  

This imposing mansion towers above the the historic Canal Streetcar Line and unique inground burials found in what is believed to be the oldest extant Jewish Cemeteries (1846) in the City.  It completes the scenic streetscape and serves as a gateway to the Mid-City Cemetery district—one of our City’s greatest assets.  It has historic, architectural and cultural significance as a place where countless New Orleanians  mourned their loved ones for nearly 85 years.  The property’s relation to the surrounding cemeteries dates back 128 years when cemetery sexton and stone cutter, John Slattery resided at the site as early as 1880.  His parents, John and Mary Slattery were Irish immigrants who purchased the land from Mrs. Ina M. Hoyle in 1872 and built the original residence (first section of 3) fronting Canal Street.  Property behind the residence spanning to Cleveland Ave (formerly Gasquet) belonged to the Hebrew Society Temme Derech and Gates of Prayer Cemetery founded in 1846. In 1878 the Slattery’s purchased an additional parcel of land from the Society to the rear of the original building, slightly expanding the property toward today’s Cleveland Avenue.  This additional parcel behind the original residence later became the location of two subsequent additions in the 1920’s and 1950’s resulting in the back of this building nearly abutting in-ground burials in Gates of Prayer Cemetery.  

In 1923, the building was purchased by E. Howard McCaleb.  A major addition and alterations were designed by notable architect, William R. Burk, who’s office was responsible for many important commissions. In disputing the architectural significance as a reason for HDLC nomination at least one employed by the current business argued extensive alterations to the exterior do not resemble the original 1870s private home and that the current neo-classical appearance of the building dates back to a 1920’s renovation. Detailed drawings can be found at Tulane Library’s Architectural Holdings. Burk enjoyed a long distinguished career as an architect in New Orleans and the surrounding area.  Burk’s work is counted among sites listed as Landmarks by the Historic District Landmark Commission, and among locations entered into the Louisiana National Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.  

New Orleans Architects, Herbert A. Benson & George J. Riehl were commissioned for a second addition in the 1950s.  This includes the addition in of the rear section of the building.  Benson & Riehls produced two important office structures in New Orleans, the California and the Saratoga buildings during the same time period.  Riehl previously worked for Weiss, Dreyfous, and seiferthe, architects for the Louisiana State Capital building and Charity Hospital.  Benson had previously worked on his own and in the office of Emile Weil, one of New Orleans important early 20th century architectural firms.  Benson & Riehl’s work includes notable projects including renovations at Commanders palace, Lincoln Beach and Ponchartrain Beach. 

In the 1950s, PJ McMahon and Sons purchased a residence at 129 and 131 South Bernadotte Street.  The funeral home was separated from this property by Gates of Prayer Cemetery founded in 1846. PJ McMahon applied for a conditional use to demolish residences and create a parking lot because of an “abominable” parking problem in the neighborhood due to streetcar riders parking their cars in the neighborhood and riding the streetcar downtown to work.  City records show that shortly thereafter a Supreme Court ruling deemed this conditional use to be unconstitutional.  PJ Mc Mahon and Sons had a good relationship with neighbors and approached the neighboring Gates of Prayer hebrew cemetery for help.  At the time the only way that 129-131 S. Bernadotte could be made commercial and allow a parking lot was if the adjacent property was commercial.  Gates of Prayer agreed to request a zoning change of their cemetery to commercial which was granted provided off-street parking be shared with the cemetery.  In turn, PJ McMahon and Sons were able to apply for a zoning change allowing commercial encroachment and demolition of former residences to make way for a parking lot.  In 1970, PJ McMahon and Sons purchased 135 S. Bernadotte.  This residence was also demolished to expand the parking lot. 

PJ McMahon & Sons owned an additional nearby building until very recent years.  According to Sanborn maps this building provided room for “50 cars” and once included a casket factory and storage.  

PJ McMahon & Sons Funeral Home began around 1846 as PJ McMahon and Sons Undertakers and Coffin Builders.  Originally located in the Warehouse District, the funeral home occupied several sites in Uptown New Orleans before moving to 4800 Canal Street.  The McMahon family was a well-known funeral industry family in New Orleans.  On October 29th, 1912, the first automobile funeral was held in the City of New Orleans.  It was conducted by PJ McMahon, the first funeral business to own an automobile hearse. 

Those who attended funerals at PJ McMahon and Sons at 4800 Canal in recent decades remember that the upstairs consisted of bedrooms and a small coffee room.  Blueprints found in the Tulane Architectural Holdings confirm these accounts.  A 1920s advertising manual which can be found on file at UNO’s Earl K. Long Library, Special Collections details the exquisite interior.   “To keep with modern progress, and at no extra cost to families”, PJ McMahon and Sons, offered their “home at the disposal of private families in their hour of sorrow”  spacious quarters and adequate space for families on the top floor which were set aside for family and relatives wishing to spend the night.  According to this advertising booklet, there were separate tile baths, large private bedrooms for families furnished with twin beds, a small secluded breakfast room and dining room featuring period furniture where guests were offered “deliciously prepared meals” that were “competently served”.  Three maids, a cook and porters were at the service of families.  A former funeral home manager described the top floor parlors used for the storage of antiques and furnishings as well as a private office. The advertising booklet also describes a rest room for the ladies with chaise lounges and a smoking room for men furnished with Spanish leather seats and a tile floor. A photo caption details furnishings of these rooms as decorated with Cogswell chairs, crystal chandeliers, Wilson Rugs and soft curtains. Public space of the main floor was comprised of five drawing rooms which could be opened to one another or remain private and at one time, several were used as a chapel where funeral ceremonies were conducted. The remainder of the main floor consisted of offices and a store room. A later addition included a fire escape (cemetery side) exiting toward Canal and was used for flower deliveries and storage. This hall led to a private offices behind the public parlors. The basement was not a public space.  Sources indicate the majority of the 1950s rear addition of the basement originally consisted primarily of a garage with side entrance from South Bernadotte for off-street parking and an elevator used to transport the deceased to upper floors for viewing. In the second section of the building, or the 1923 addition, a small area next to the elevator was used as the morgue. Next to the morgue on the cemetery side of the basement was an adjacent workshop. Other areas housed mechanical equipment and a furnace. Low ceiling heights in the original portion of the basement below the original 1870’s section of the building may explain why the full basement was not utilized during early life as a funeral home. According to former employees, in the last decade of use as a funeral home the basement reportedly consisted of employee workout room, shower & bathroom and a small closet, as well as boiler and mechanical equipment areas, the elevator, and a the small embalming room on the cemetery side of the building adjacent to the elevator.  At one time the basement had a casket room which was later removed in 1985. For a time the basement was home to insurance offices for Security Industrial Insurance but by 1985 these offices were moved to 2100 Canal Street.  By 1999 all embalming in the small basement morgue was outsourced. 

According to the advertising booklet found at UNO’s Earl K. Long Library Special Collections, PJ McMahon and Sons offered “the last mark of beautiful respect that can be paid to a loved one.”  

The McMahon family owned this property for over 60 years.  The business remained family owned for 139 years before merging into Standard Industrial Funeral Insurance on April 29, 1985 owned by Donaldson native Eucharist J Ourso.  As a funeral home, this site has served as an anchor in our community for 85 years.

E. J. Ourso was a self-made millionaire and philanthropist who built a funeral and insurance empire. Ourso became a published author and was an officer under General Patton in the Battle of the Bulge. LSU’s EJ Ourso College of Business and the E.J. Ourso Discovery Hall at The National D-Day Museum are named in his honor.  He was the recipient of the St. Louis Medallion from the Catholic Archdiocese and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from LSU.  He was named a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope John Paul II.  He donated nearly $35 million dollars of his fortune before his death.  He was counted by some to be one of the most successful businessmen in Louisiana.

4800 Canal Street remained a part of Ourso’s funeral empire until March 26th,1996 when it was sold to Loewen Louisiana Holdings, later known as Alderwoods along with a number of other New Orleans funeral homes, ending an era of privately owned family funeral homes which were absorbed under one ownership.  A draft of a report by Vanderlyn R. Pine Associates confirms that toward the end of PJ McMahon and Sons Funeral Home, business had drastically declined.  In 1985, only 229 funerals were held at 4800 Canal –less than 1 per day. By 1999 it is reported that only 150 funerals were held. And during 2003, only 24 funerals were held.  

On March 24th, 2004 Alderwood, the funeral empire sold 4800 Canal to EHN2 Holdings with a restrictive covenant added to the title which prohibited use as a funeral home for 25 years.  City records show that the new owner, EHN2 Holdings, Real Estate arm of the Neil Corporation was granted a permits for the 10,000 sf former funeral home at 4800 Canal Street in August 2004 and in April 2005 permit application for demo and a complete interior renovation. The latter permit shows the new tenant as Paris parker Hair Salon owned by the Neill Corporation and phone listings for this business can still be found on the internet. Edwin Neill II was the founder of Paris Parker Salons and Spas, chief executive of the Neill Corporation—the world’s largest independent distributer of Aveda products in the world.  Demo of the interior of the 10,000sf building was underway but the renovation never got far. All work stopped after the levees failed on August 29th 2005 and inundated the neighborhood with water, just months after the interior renovation permit was granted in April 2005. The building was put up for sale sometime after flood waters inundated the neighborhood, on August 30th, 2005, the day after hurricane Katrina made landfall east of New Orleans.  The building was finally purchased in June 2007.  

Both the present owner of 4800 Canal and other witnesses confirm that the historic interior had been completely gutted to the studs and that little more than framing, staircase and many solid wood doors remained. These doors were never re-installed.  Some of these large salvaged doors were reused for a recent renovation of a local neighborhood bar by a neighborhood carpenter. Re-use of these doors can be viewed at the Mid-City Yacht Club located at Baudin and S. St. Patrick Streets.  Between 2007 and 2008 the original wooden windows were removed and an iron fence and gate were erected on the S. Bernadotte side of the building detracting from the original exterior appearance which for the most part, had stayed in tact since the 1920s renovation.  In April 2008 a small landing on the cemetery side of the building was replaced with a much larger balcony and rail overlooking some of  the cities oldest historic Hebrew cemeteries, Bottinelli Place which and picturesque views and remarkable architecture of the family owned Bottinelli complex in the 4900 block of Canal and 100 block of Bottinelli Place (formerly South Anthony.) In 2008 the present owner removed the hand-lettered sign which spanned across the front of the building.  The exterior of PJ McMahon Funeral Home is protected by HDLC nomination and looks remarkably the same as it did nearly 90 years ago. Due to the complete demolition of the interior by EHN2 Holdings in preparation for remodel as a day spa, the interior has few historic remains if any.  

From January 2009 through April 2009 this building was home to the Paraplex, Paranormal Observatory Lab and Museum conceived by Dr. Larry Montz.  After only a few short months the Paraplex along with all exhibitors, exhibits and partners, including partners Dr. Larry Montz and Deana Smoller left 4800 Canal for a new upcoming location.  The Paraplex Annex is located at 718 Orleans Avenue in the French Quarter where portions of exhibits previously viewed at 4800 Canal can be viewed free of charge.  

City permits and advertising over the past 2 years under new ownership by Eerie Ventures show repeated name changes and uses associated with 4800 Canal.  Ravencroft Haunted Mansion, Haunted Mortuary, The Mortuary, Mansion New Orleans, Paraplex, and most recently a reception facility named Mystére Mansion which doubles as a ghost tour venue only 2 days per month but only for groups of 25 or more by reservation only. There appears to be little activity at the site.  The future of this property remains to be seen.  

The Mid-City Neighborhood, Odd Fellows Rest Cemetery and the Cypress Grove Cemetery Gate on Canal Street are currently listed on the National Register of Historic places.  The Cypress Grove Cemetery Entrance Gate, Saux-Sands Building at 900 City Park Avenue and American Can Company have already been designated Landmarks by the HDLC along with many additional sites within the 70119 zip code, including the Canal Street Branch/New Orleans Public Library and Fair Grounds Gate House. A number of properties located in 70119 are currently nominated by the HDLC, including 340 S. Olympia St., the Block Keller House at 3620 Canal St., the Daussat Residence at 962 N. Carrollton, a former iron foundary located at 733-739 Clark St. and the Falstaff Brewery on South Dorgenois. More recently 2640, 2650, 3700, 4716 and 4814 Canal Street became New Orleans HDLC Nominated Landmarks and 2425 and 4140 Canal Street are currently under review for similar nomination. Nominations will be reviewed by the HDLC for historical, social, cultural, economical, political and architectural merit before designation as landmarks.

The PJ McMahon Funeral Home is the only nomination being ‘reconsidered’ October 10th, 2008.  Please support both the existing nomination and future designation of this site.  

Your comments and support can be mailed to the Historic District Landmarks Commission, 1340 Poydras Street Suite 1152 New Orleans, LA 70112.  If you prefer, you can fax support: 504-658-3802 or send an email to aesparks@cityofno.com

Copyright 2007, Copyright 2008

Sources

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