2220 St. Charles Avenue
New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
We can thank several friends for their help in curating the spots we hit in our one full day in New Orleans. Neither of us know the city and the list of recommended spots delivered to me over Facebook the day before was a tremendous help (big ups to Theo in particular – great job, dude). But for our visit to the House of Broel, we basically just lucked out over our lunchtime iPhone investigation and found a brief and nearly unbelievable description from a weirdo travel website that essentially put the car into gear for us before we had a moment to reconsider.
We parked across the street from this imposing Victorian mansion and walked under a faded canvas awning leading onto the front porch. The gate was open but as we stood out in the devastating heat we were totally bummed to find the front doors locked. We pressed our noses to the windows and caught snatches of things promised by the write-up that drew us there – baroque dresses, incredible interior architecture, and a small statue of a frog dressed as a bellhop and holding a serving tray – but no matter how hard I allowed myself to rap on the door glass, we remained locked outside on the porch.
We almost walked back to the car. But I saw a pathway leading around the back of the house and figured we might at least snipe a few more glances inside from anterior windows. The backyard felt weirdly homey and personal and increased the feeling that we were straight up trespassing. But I also saw a walkway at ramped up into a back door and I decided that one more knock was in order. I was a mere foot away when the door swung open. A well dressed older lady with enormous eyes stared me down silently and I felt impelled to apologize. We were obviously encroaching on space not reserved for the public. But she quickly chilled out a bit and said that she must not have heard us at the front and that we should walk back around and she would let us in.
Margaret and I were swept inside and found ourselves alone with our host in the midst of a gigantic and lavishly decorated foyer. It was marvelously air-conditioned. The woman began speaking from an obviously memorized script.
The house was built in the mid-19th century. Twenty five years later the bottom floor was raised up and built into what is now the second and third stories, while the present day bottom floor was built as a giant social space intended for guests. This is the sort of fuck-all creative thinking permitted by mid-century tobacco barons. The chandeliers still burned gas and every surface was gilded and kept with giant cuttings of fresh flowers. Or perhaps they were fake, after a few hours in New Orleans I stopped being able to tell the difference.
A glass cabinet on the first floor served as a display for 2 decadent dresses with big witchy collars and weighed down with, let’s say, 15 lbs. of sequins and beads. A faded photo of a woman dressed in the dress on the right sat on a surface behind the glass. “That’s me,” she said, and Margaret and I were officially headed down the weird vortex of our host’s role in the house’s glory.
The passage way to the stairs on the second floor were camouflaged into the wallpaper. After walking up, we were met with our first real “holy shit” moment. A series of 5 large dollhouses were arranged to our left and right. Her script continued as she bent down to switch a light on that would illuminate dozens of the dollhouse’s rooms.
Oh Christ, the detail. Dollhousery is quite a hobby. But the high level of devotion to detail and the assumed number of hours of labor apparent in these particular houses called for a philosophic kind of clarification on the notion of the word hobby. And she had done them all. Hung every wall lamp, dressed every husband returning from work and hanging his top hat on the door, arranged every dining table’s cutlery. And this was only the first series. We were then taken on a tour of multiple rooms, each one as lavishly decorated as she lobby, and each in possession of another 4 or 5 dollhouse masterworks. I was genuinely mind-fucked by the incredible labor necessary to have created this, and yet I was also compelled to verbalized my admiration in a totally phony manner, in order to match the strange atmosphere of expectation that bookended each scripted spiel.
And yeah, there was a third floor. It was not necessary that there was a third floor. But lo, there was a whole additional level of walleyed what-the-fuckness awaiting us on top of the next flight of stairs. Ms. Broel was also a dressmaker to the stars. Well, to a few stars. The floorspace on the top floor was almost entirely consumed by a clustered display of wedding and parade dresses, each made by hand. Pictures fanned out over the walls, pictures of Ms. Broel wearing her own creations in her youth, pictures of her receiving a hug from Sandra Bullock, pictures of her standing next to a weirdly stiff Tom Hanks. Pictures of Anne Rice layong prone in a promotional booktour coffin from the 90s. She had less to say about he top floor, yet she was obviously most proud of it.
To enter the house of Broel is to be confronted with an undisputedly giant personality, and one who is a bit disappointed that you know nothing of her work. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, spend an hour here. You’ll never not know her work again.