This presentation is part of the Dance Halls, Juke Joints, and Honky Tonks Symposium, March 22-23, 2016. This symposium focuses on the issues associated with the preservation of dance halls and similar sites throughout the rural South. Some of the constant threats include relevancy, development pressures, deterioration, and financial viability. This symposium brings together experts and enthusiasts to discuss history, architecture, and culture associated with these buildings.
Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Hall by Lynn Mitchell
Lynn Mitchell: Thank you very much. There’s probably nothing worse than somebody saying, “I’ll be brief,” because they never are. Anyway, probably the biggest problem we’ve had is the Dew Drop Social & Benevolent Hall, to begin with, the name’s too long to fit on a ball cap and a lot of people still confuse it with the Dew Drop Inn which was at the Lasalle Hotel in New Orleans. It was truly a nightclub, where this was a part of the neighborhood social hall and part of the Benevolence Society which was organized by women in 1885. The building was dedicated in 1895. In January it will celebrate its 121st year.
To give you a little bit of background in Mandeville, Mandeville is to the north of New Orleans, of Lake Pontchartrain. It had fresh air, clean water, and such outdoor activities. When it first started out, about the same time the Dew Drop was born, there were continuous steam boats coming across the lake. People would come over as a place to party. In addition to the fact that the boats would land up here, people could walk in, there were also motor cars which came out, picked people up, and would take them in to different parts of [inaudible 00:01:38], including Beaver Springs, and some other somewhat resort places in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There’s a picture of a motor car coming out. The old wharf frequently they had this contraption which allowed the motor cars to pick up freight on the lower floor and the passengers to disembark on the upper level.
There were some other unique things, long slides. What they did is they had these cypress sleds that they would drag up to the top and they would go down on them. I’ve seen a couple of them and they’re damn heavy. They had bath houses and stuff around the lake. Here’s a picture in the twenties after the 1918 hurricane. I think it’s the ’18, might have been the ’19. Anyway, you can see most of the piers at that time were missing and it started construction of the cypress seawall. This is a bathhouse and some of our local people enjoying the water. A little street scene, it looks almost like it’s out of a western movie, doesn’t it?
One of the local hotels. Strangely enough that’s a tarp hanging there on the rail. Another hotel. This one was torn down about 1950-something. I know people who actually stayed in it. This was the St. Tammany Hotel on the lake in Mandeville. This was another one which actually burned down. It was a private dwelling at that time in 1978, the Ottoman Hotel. This later became Bechac’s Restaurant, which you can see the casino sign on there. It was kind of an interesting little place for people in the fact that it was really a place for entertainment. Almost every house had a room for rent. This was [De Paul’s inaudible 00:03:54] Garden, here again as you can see, it was a house above but the lower part became a bar, lounge, seafood, so on. Those dogs out front were still out at various places later on.
Now we finally get to the Dew Drop. This is one of the older pictures that I have of it, but you can see how nicely framed it is by the oak trees, gives a real nice feel to it. This is the neighborhood where the Dew Drop is. The little house on your right was the summer home of the Anderson family. Andy Anderson played trumpet with the Preservation Hall jazz band, died in the ’80s. His father played bass with [inaudible 00:04:42] Johnson. This is directly across the street from the Dew Drop. That little house, Anderson Home, has been purchased by the city. We’re presently converting it to some handicapped accessible toilets, which we don’t have now. Another house in the area to give you an idea of what’s going on. Back to the Anderson summer cottage.
This is a little bit more unique. You see this lovely house? It’s next to the Dew Drop. That was built in the year 2000. A little scary when that happens. We’ve since created a historic district, and hopefully we’ll get our historic guidelines a little bit more up to date, and also a little bit more in keeping with the are to get back to where the neighborhood will be more in scale with where it should be. Incidentally, the people who live in that newer house are really wonderful people and a great asset, even though I don’t think anyone’s too happy with the architecture.
The little house on your left is called The Captain’s Cottage because it belonged to an African American steamship captain. He was the only African American captain on the lake, and when he would come across with the boats, which you saw previously, he would spend the night there and of course his crew would go on up to what called Buck’s Bar to spend the night. This is a little church that’s right next to the Dew Drop. It’s really been kind of a custodial building for many, many years. It was a family church and the family sort of died off. Now the church ladies have really adopted this, and they prepare dinners for our concerts, which has worked out to be a real win-win situation. The church now has its first income in its history and has been able to redo things. In return, we lease their toilet rooms. We pay them a small fee each time we have a concert. There’s the proximity of the church to the Dew Drop. Like I say, it’s been a real win-win situation for both of us. They’ve now got a new roof, their toilets have been upgraded.
The Dew Drop itself is what they call large board construction, and if you’re not familiar with large board construction, you have a top rail, a bottom rail, and you build a fence, and then once you have that in you cut your old beams and go from there. As you see, there are no windows, it’s just shutters. The little design on the walls was done in 1978 for a movie called Pretty Baby where they actually filmed a wedding scene here. Also, the floor, you can see the little painting on the floor. That was also done for it, and they had some steps going up at the end of that onto the stage. The stage has been modified numerous times, but his is the way it is now. The benches are new. The benches along the walls were there when the city took over.
The Dew Drop was, as I said, built in 1895. It was a very active place for anybody and everybody in the jazz world to play. They were on the circuit, and a number of very fine musicians actually were in Mandeville and really didn’t even bother to go across the lake. They liked to play their music when they could, but at the same time they didn’t want to give up their day job. A lot of them were masons, and painters, et cetera. You’ll notice that at one time it really was a dance hall. In other words, the benches weren’t there since it’s been taken over by the Friends of the Dew Drop and the City of Mandeville.
In the early ’40s the building was specially [inaudible 00:09:22] Hall a couple of blocks away [inaudible 00:09:25]. It later burned down by then, the Benevolent Halls had run their course, so it just sat vacant for roughly fifty years. In the year 2000 local retired school teacher [Jacqueline Vidrine 00:09:41] donated the building to the City of Mandeville. She had purchased it from the heirs of the Benevolent Society. The city tried to run it for a while, and of course cities can’t run cities, so it’s doubtful they can even run this. They also move at the speed of continental drift. Right after Katrina in the year 2006 the present Dew Drop was organized and we started having concerts, and really started out trying to do the best we could.
The Dew Drop, obviously, after a hundred and twenty years, was starting to show a little problems and everything, although quite frankly, for something that old it was in pretty good shape. You can see one of the brick piers was already starting to give way a bit. When we pulled the one out you can see the [inaudible 00:10:49] where we took the weight off of it, you can see there was no footing. The bricks just went right down into the ground about four inches and then went up. It drove the building inspector crazy. It just aggravated the heck out of him. The building is basically a board and batten type construction, as I said, it’s a barge board type construction. Barge board was a type of construction. A lot of the older houses in New Orleans are that way. One board, then you cover them up with something. It could be wall paper on the inside, it could be a coat of paint.
This was a rebuilt pier. Since the bricks were sun baked and the border was generally just a line of clay, you generally had to come back … Wow, I’m getting really good at this. Anyway, they would have to be a little bit … You see, we actually had a footing. That made everybody really happy at city hall. We had to go over the building inspector’s head in order to do this. He said, “I’ve never seen footings like that.” I said, “Well that’s your problem.” All the piers were fixed or replaced except for the one with the cornerstone. The cornerstone has got a little crack in it, so nobody wants to touch it. We just put some more shims in between the cornerstone.
You can see the remnants of, at one time, a dark green [inaudible 00:12:34] paint. That was almost every old African American house and a lot of the poor White houses were done in this [inaudible 00:12:43] paint. It was generally a dark green, in some cases a dark blue. There’s just a little bit of that remnant. Really, I think the only place you get it now is a museum. This was when we discovered that after getting the piers and everything, it leveled the building, incidentally. It was the settling of it, got it level, it wasn’t too bad.
Now, for some reason or another, the wall’s listing something like six inches to the outside. Despite all this labor and personal engineering there, trying to get it straightened out is difficult. I don’t know that you can see this, and I’m not smart enough to point it out, but at each of the ceiling joists there we ended up having to cut a notch because we couldn’t straighten the building out. The section has had over the years bowed and so on. You see one board’s missing. We actually replaced some boards. The floor, we came in underneath it, [inaudible 00:13:55] the regular floor joists, and added plywood in between. Now when the gospel band gets in there and stomps the Devil and the whole neighborhood levitates, the building hangs in there. You can see where the bench was removed, you see the new floor that was put in.
The trick to those was after we got them in and everything, shoring and so on, using a couple to hold, and a little bit of pushing, and the building slid over into the notches, and then we just locked it in on the outside. You can see boards sitting there that hasn’t been finished. What we did is after we had the boards put it, we found someone who did movie sets, had them come and touch up the boards, so now the new boards look just like the old boards. You can hardly tell the difference. When the building was first obtained by the city in the year 2000, and incidentally I am an architect and I was [inaudible 00:15:06] building, worked with local contractors who fortunately were musicians themselves and really took a great pride in the building. Everything got done cheaply, and easily, and so on.
The first thing that we did was tore out two toilet rooms. The holes in the walls, then vents, were [inaudible 00:15:30]. Here again, no windows, just shutters. The same thing. The oak trees give a little bit of character to everything. This is from one of our concerts. You can see that it overflows inside out. Normally all our concerts now are at night. We only do it in the spring and the fall because it’s too damn hot in the summer and too cold in the winter, although we do have a Christmas concert. The one that we had last Saturday was probably colder than the Christmas concert because it had been raining, a cold front came through. Everyone was griping, but the building does not have any artificial heat or air. Most of it is done with hand fans.
There’s Deacon John, he comes in with a pretty good sized band and sound system. He loves the place, he’s been back five times. The biggest problem we have now is he brings four hundred and fifty people to a building that holds a hundred. We’re going to have to start scaling back and maybe not having people that everybody’s heard of. This is the Pres Hall Brass Band. Preservation Hall has two bands, one jazz, one is the brass band. You’ll notice the lighting in there. Those were Christmas lights that were string across the street no longer needed by the city. It provides the proper atmosphere that we’re looking for, and we have a little bit of stage lighting behind the sign.
We have the same set painter who touched up our walls is the one who built that sign. It says Dew Drop Dance and Social Hall, and since it’s really become more of a concert place, we got somebody to change dance to jazz. There you go. You can see it was kind of chilly that day because everybody’s kind of bundled up, but they kept everybody warm. This is a view from the outside, that’s the Big Daddy O, Tim Hurst.
Here is Luther Kent, he was with a smaller group that night. He’s giving us a little toast with Abita beer. Abita Beer has been one of our saviors. Because we meet certain criteria and don’t have a liquor license, they can donate beer to us, and consequently that is our main source of revenue other than the fact that our gain covers the bands. We, from the very beginning, have said that we would not exploit the bands, we wouldn’t exploit anybody if we could avoid it. In return they generally give us a discount or a good price. Most of them would rather play there than almost anywhere. Like I say, Deacon John has kept coming back by his own request. Chris [inaudible 00:18:49] has been there four times, I believe. Again, “When can I come back?”
Like I say, the biggest problem is with these named entertainers who we’ve been getting a little too much. We charge $10 head. It’s our philosophy, the Friends of the Dew Drop, that we have an international attraction and that it should be shared with the world. We think that’s very, very important. The reason we charge $10 is if you say anything’s free, God knows who will show up. We do charge for beer, wine, we sell t-shirts and other merchandise. The merchandise really ends up being more for advertising than it does for income. The problems that we have are the problems that all the rest of you would love to have. We really do have a good time.
I’m sorry it’s not a little bit more legible, but that’s the cornerstone for the Dew Drop Social Benevolent Number 2 of Mandeville, and the names of all the ladies who started it in the Benevolent society. A few drawings, this is the Dew Drop and its proximity to the church. There’s a little hall in between where the women prepare their fried catfish, and fried chicken, and red beans, and jambalaya, and what have you. I sometimes wonder if people to hear the music or just to eat the church ladies’ food.
A little map. The building is twenty feet by forty eight feet, it’s got the shutters. It does not have anything other than a slightly raised stage. Well, it’s not slightly raised, it’s higher than this one. You had to raise the stage if you really wanted to hear the music because people absorb the sound, you can’t see the musicians from the back. I’ve always said the three fat women with fur coats could absorb all the sound before it gets past the stage.
When we go from here, what I’d like to point out is that the Dew Drop, because we have been very successful the last ten years when the Friends of the Dew Drop have taken over, we grew very slowly for a number of years; two, three, or four. Many times the board and the band would outnumber the patrons, it was just one of those things. It’s actually very enjoyable if you’re not losing too much. At first we would make money on maybe one out of five concerts, and now we generally don’t even lose money on any of them, maybe one a year, but we’ve been doing more things.
We had Ellis Marsalis recently did a concert and we ended up not only giving him the gain but getting him another contribution on top of that for his center. Fontainebleau High School has one of the top jazz bands in the country who in a few days will be leaving for Savannah for a national competition. I think they were one of twelve bands, and we let them perform, they brought in some guest artists, had a wonderful time. They raised $3 000 at the gate at ten bucks a head, and we ended up matching it, so they had $6 000 for travel. Last year the Dew Drop gave away $17 000 and still came out with a little bit ahead, and that’s been one of the good things.
The other thing we’re running right now is the Dew Drop Jazz Kids program where we are employing people like the Pres Hall Band, Chris [inaudible 00:22:51]. We’re employing them, sending them to the various schools, and Jason Marsalis put on a workshop for us. We’re not only providing some employment for these musicians, but they are now conveying the jazz heritage and music heritage of South Louisiana to these various country schools. Not long ago the band said, “All right kids, second line.” The kids looked at each other and said, “What’s a second line?” That makes you understand just how important this Jazz Kids program is. They are there, they really need this, and I’m really proud of the board and the people who let me take credit for all their hard work in putting together all these education and philanthropic endeavors, that we can have the privilege of doing that.
In old Mandeville, four blocks from Lake Pontchartrain on Lamarque Street sits the dew Drop Social and Benevolent Hall in silence. This historic structure is one of the finest existing examples of the country dance halls which contributed so much to the development of jazz. A wooden building of barge board type construction , the Dew Drop was dedicated in 1895 as the Dew Drop Social and Benevolent #2 according to the weathered marble corner stone embedded in a front pier.
In the late 19th century, benevolent societies were formed to provide a proper burial, along with other assistance to the newly freed African Americans who were frequently denied insurance. For over forty years, the Dew Drop served as a gathering place for the African American community of western St. Tammany Parish with entertainment provided by some of great names New Orleans Jazz. According to Karl Koenig, who wrote what I consider to be its most complete and accurate history, the Dew Drop had dances, variety shows and other entertainment at least twice a week. Gumbo and other foods were sold and the proceeds went to the benevolent society. Local made beverages where available out-back, before, during and after prohibition. Dances at the Dew Drop featured musicians with Mandeville roots such as the Buddy Petit Band, with Buddy Manaday on Banjo, the Independence Band with Isidore, Louis, Joe, and Lucien one band to another, and traveled from New Orleans to the North Shore, there is evidence that jazz pioneers like Andy Anderson, Klebert Cahnolatti, Papa Celestin, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Sam Morgan, George Lewis, Tommy Ladnier and more played the Dew Drop.
Around 1940, the Sons and Daughter’s Hall, a few blocks away on Marigny Street, replaced the Dew Drop as a social center, and, since then, the Dew Drop has set silent with only random use. Other than some rather primitive plumbing, since removed, no “improvements” have been made to the building which might alter its authenticity. Batten shutters act as windows ; no electricity other than a temperature construction meter which feeds extension cords for use by the band, a few strands of lights, and a fan or two. Air conditioning is provided by the window openings on each side and the shade of the live oaks which flank its entry. A several times altered bandstand occupies the end opposite the entry and a single board bench is attached to each side wall. In keeping with its barge board type construction, the walls are one board thickness which serves as both interior and exterior finish , 4x 4 timbers frame the openings, an exposed beam and board ceiling which allows the heat to escape the attic and a corrugated metal roof (recently replaced) caps the structure. The side and rear walls have battens caving the joints in the boards, with the only hint of finish being the pale blue remains of the original creosote based dark green paint barely visible under the overhang on the north side. The front has clap board siding for a proper presentation to the street.
the Dew Drop was obtained by the City of Mandeville in the spring of 2000, and shortly thereafter a recorded concert sponsored by the National Park Service, The New Orleans Jazz Commission, and the George Buck Foundation was held. The concert was attended was Ms Regina Gordan, a one hundred year old African American neighbor who told me that when she was a teenage girl, living in Covington, they would rent a car and attend dances at the Dew Drop without being inspired.
Since that performance, only a few music venues and private parties have taken place at the Dew Drop. Recently “The Friends of the Dew Drop” was formed to maintain and preserve the building, along with the implementation of a master plan which will add restrooms and interpretive space on Dew Drop property. The mission of the Friends of the Dew Drop is to restore the building as a place of music, obtain funding, and demonstrate how the early dance halls contributed to the development of Jazz and African American culture, and to inspire young musician to advance the music experience into the 21st Century.
A seasoned veteran Architect and Planner, Lynn Mitchell specializes in historic preservation. A native of Rogers, Arkansas and a graduate of Tulane School of Architecture, Lynn is licensed as an Architect in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Hawaii, and is nationally-certified.
Lynn served as Executive Director with Victor Prus and Associates, Architects and Planners, in Montreal, and as a Partner with Stoffle, Mitchell and Associates, in New Orleans. Following his establishing as architectural practice in Mandeville, he now serves as Architectural director with Principal Infrastructure.
Lynn has served on the Mandeville Planning and Zoning Commission, the Mandeville Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, the Tammany Trace Planning Committee, the Veterans Memorial Committee, the Mandeville Town Center Resiliency Plan Steering Committee, and The Mandeville Historic Preservation District Study Committee. He has served as a consultant to the City of Mandeville, the Advocacy Center of Louisiana, and the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission. HE presently serves as Chairman of the Friends of the Dew Drop.
Recognized as an authority on Mandeville historic architectural styles, Lynn is author of the city of Mandeville’s design guidelines, Mandeville Historic Preservation District Ordinance, and still serves as Chairman of Mandeville’s Design Review Committee. Additional civic contributions include presentations to the Jefferson Parish Board of Standards and Adjustments, the National Fire Protection Association, the American Planning Association, the city of Slidell, Tulane University Mayors’ Institute, LSU Resilient Louisiana Conference, and participated in TV and radio documentaries on historic buildings in St. Tammany Parish, including the Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Hall.
Recently, Lynn dedicates his time in adapting historic Mandeville architecture to comply with FEMA and NFIP requirements and guidelines.