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The Peristyle’s Dance of Time

Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright, poet and a bit of a rogue gave the world many quotes including several on the topic of beauty. Among those was this simple, but oh so true. statement: “What is beautiful is a joy for all seasons.”

That statement was quite likely among many repeated one evening in 1982 when a group of artistic types spread a table beneath the canopy of City Park’s elegant Peristyle. They had gathered to celebrate the centennial of Wilde’s 1882 visit to New Orleans.

We know about the event because of the book “Historic New Orleans City Park” written by historians Sally and Bill Reeves who introduced the event accordingly:

“A gathering of artists restored the grand days of yore in the Peristyle…Far into the night they exchanged toasts, led by New Orleans’ preeminent, painter and musician, George Schmidt. When the guests finally retired, the sun’s oblique rays danced on the still lagoon.”

Completed in 1906, the Peristyle (defined as a row of columns surrounding a space) was intended to be a place, according to the Reeves, where “finely dressed ladies and gentlemen could dance to the strains of romantic night music. The Peristyle preserved an open-air effect allowing dancers to be seen and the music heard and provided a framed view of the moon’s effect on lagoon waters.

“Strategically placed in the center of what was then the entire park, the building appeared like a Greek apparition in a wooden thicket.”

  • By itself the building was striking. Drama was added by four handsome, but stern, lions created by artist Pedro Ghiloni whose studio was at 415 Dauphine Street. He had a calling card that described himself as a “sculptor and marble cutter.”  His jungle cats guarded the building from the edge of the lagoon.

Dancing was a popular past time in the park’s early days. One group, William J. Braun and his First Naval Battalion band was among several ensembles to perform concerts. He also played for the Rex organization and organized the American Life Insurance Band.

A park was a passive place for picnics; tables were rented as a source of revenue. The greens also provided an escape for simply staying cool beneath the spread of golden rain trees or admiring the flora. For the more adventurous, the ducks were always grateful for breadcrumbs tossed their way, unless a passing goose interfered. The park was blessed with groves of magnificent oaks, some so old they might have provided shade for Choctaws exploring the bayou.

Time, television, air conditioning and other modern wonders lessened the demand for dances, but the Peristyle still stands there modestly displaying its own elegance.

It is used these days for parties, reunions, and, still, well dressed ladies especially for weddings. In 1956 NBC’s Today show originated from the Peristyle during a week spent in New Orleans. Host Dave Garroway was given a gavel made from a City Park green ash tree.

Then too there have been the celebratory events such as the Oscar Wilde centennial celebration. Wilde could be eloquent, but not necessarily always right. Consider his comment about beauty and sunsets: “Nobody of any real culture ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament…”

But sometimes what is old fashioned can still appeal to modern tastes. There are two great evenings for which crowds gather at the Peristyle each year as though it is a sacred temple:

  • There is the symphony concert. In 2009 the park implemented a master plan that included relocating the tennis courts that were across the street from the Peristyle and creating a Central Park style “Great Lawn.” Most days the lawn is used for sunning and ball-playing, but each year on an evening in April the lawn is packed by park goers carrying folding chairs and ice chests who gather to hear the Louisiana Philharmonic perform from their stage on the Peristyle. 
  • And then on July 3rd, a similarly provisioned crowd gathers to hear the local Marine Corps band’s Fourth of July concert.

Both groups are extraordinary, but the Marine Corps Band always has the advantage of ending with John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and with that comes the requisite starlight extravaganza. Oscar Wilde had that right: A beautiful sight is indeed a joy for all seasons. For strobe–like moments, the silhouettes of the peristyle and the surrounding palms and moss-draped oaks shimmy to the night sky.

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