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The story of the Wedding Cake House on St. Charles Ave. is a slice of old New Orleans life

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One expects a certain opulence when driving down St. Charles Avenue, a certain grandness, an almost fairy-tale collision of architecture and affluence.

But even amid the palatial private homes that populate the oak-lined thoroughfare, the three-story house at 5809 St. Charles Ave., at Rosa Parks, has a way of standing out and taking people’s breath away.

It is the Wedding Cake House, a sprawling mansion that since 1896 has added a touch of turn-of-the-century glamour to one of the city’s most conspicuous thoroughfares. In the Friends of the Cabildo’s 1997 book “New Orleans Architecture, Volume VIII: The University Section,” it is described as “unquestionably the most impressive and photographed house on the avenue.”

Literalists might struggle with that name at first; the house, despite what some might expect, is not some whimsical, oversized reproduction of a wedding cake. It’s about class, not kitsch. More Sylvia Weinstock and less Willy Wonka.

That being said, its architectural elements undeniably combine to evoke a wedding cake.

Icing-white and layered

That includes the grouped Corinthian columns that suggest those supporting the tiers of a cake. It includes the detailed, garland-like carvings that transform the façade into something that looks like the delicate work of a particularly dexterous pastry chef. Perhaps most of all, it includes the brilliant all-white paint that looks ready for licking.

The whole dramatic affair was built in 1896 for Nicolas Burke, an Irishman from County Tipperary who immigrated to America in 1850, landing in New Orleans for a planned six-week layover on his way to Illinois.

He never left.

By 1853, he had opened the small grocery near St. Mary’s Market that — even with the significant disruption of the Civil War — would grow to become the thriving Burke & Thompson wholesale grocery house, “known the commercial world over (as) one of the most progressive, most enterprising and most reliable in the United States,” according to a 1905 article in The Daily Picayune.

While Burke & Thompson is no longer the household name it once was, Burke did have a connection to at least two enduring New Orleans icons. In addition to being a friend and business adviser of local philanthropist and famed “bread woman” Margaret Haughery, he was also a founder of Hibernia Bank.

A lavish lifestyle

As the turn of the 20th century neared, he had amassed a fortune, which he used to enlist the firm of Toledano and Reusch to design a suitably lavish home for him, his wife and their four children.

Their strikingly asymmetrical finished product, with a wraparound porch on one side and a porte cochère on the other, would be an ornate mishmash of styles. At its root is the Colonial style that was so popular at the time, albeit far more ornate than traditional Colonial structures, with Queen Anne and Renaissance Revival elements overlaid on it.

A Palladian-influenced main entrance and French doors galore add a touch of grandeur, as does the intricate exterior scrollwork, the wealth of exterior urns, pedimented dormers and a widow’s walk up top that feels as if its waiting for bride and groom statuettes.

In all, it would cost Burke a reported $13,265, the equivalent of an estimated $475,000 today, adjusted for inflation.

Burke loved it, although not for long. Nine years after he built it, he died at the age of 72.

‘Aglow with welcome’

“Home was a sacred word to him, and he was delighted in adorning it and keeping it aglow with welcome. As his fortunes grew, his castle broadened, and in his last years family and friends gathered around the patriarch in one of the finest mansions in the city,” read his obituary, published April 22, 1905, in The Daily Picayune.

“Great throngs” gathered outside that St. Charles Avenue home upon his death, paying their respects to a man described as one devoted both to faith and charity.

Two years later, a fire at the house — blamed on streetcar lines that were said to have been inadvertently crossed with those feeding the house, causing a fiery electrical surge — led to extensive damage, displacing his wife and kids to the Mississippi Gulf Coast as repairs were made.

Those repairs were undertaken by the firm of Toledano and Wogan, one half of which — noted local architect Albert Toledano — had built the structure a little more than a decade earlier with another partner, Ferdinand Reusch.

Over the years, there has been speculation that the house might not have been painted that stark white in its early days. Indeed, the cover of “New Orleans Architecture, Volume VIII” features a watercolor sketch of the house on its cover but with a lavender hue.

A 2000 story published in The Times-Picayune speculates it may have been painted white after the 1907 blaze, although Burke’s 1905 obituary suggests otherwise, referring to his home as “the great white mansion.”

Celebrity visits

It reportedly wasn’t until the 1960s that it began being called the Wedding Cake House. It’s unclear who first coined the name, but it stuck.

Perfect nicknames have a way of doing that.

Over the years, it has changed hands, with various restorations and renovations keeping it in wedding-ready shape — and keeping it camera-ready for the frequent tours that pass by.

The house has even caught the eye of the occasional celebrity. In early 1998, while it was on the market, none other than Barbra Streisand and then-beau James Brolin dropped in for a last-minute look around.

They didn’t buy it, although it may have inspired them in another way.

In July 1998, just a few months after their tour of the Wedding Cake House, Streisand and Brolin were married.

Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected].

Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; “New Orleans Architecture, Volume VIII: The University Section,” by The Friends of the Cabildo

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