“Night at the Museum” New Orleans Style
If you take a stroll down Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans’s long-established Esplanade Ridge neighborhood, be sure to stop by The Edgar Degas House Museum, Courtyard, Studio and Inn. There is much more behind the 18th century façade than meets the eye.
The first thing you’ll notice is the property consists of two houses. What you may not know is these were once a single dwelling, or that the family that once occupied it was also split in half.
Simon, Otto and I discovered this ironic tidbit, as well as a great deal more, during our stay at Degas House.
Degas House was built in 1852. Occupying almost an entire block, the mansion and grounds were considered to be among the most magnificent homes in the then new Esplanade Ridge Neighborhood.
In 1869, Degas’s maternal uncle, Michel Musson and his family rented the Esplanade Avenue mansion, where they lived for ten years. It was during this period Degas arrived in New Orleans from Paris,.
A total of 18 people lived in the large house. The upstairs rooms consisted of living space for each of the married couples and their children. Michel, a widower, used one of the two identical parlors as his room, and his daughter, Desiree, occupied the other. The parlors were separated by the foyer and staircase leading upstairs. Before Degas’s arrival, the family renovated a storage room at the back of the house for his bedroom and studio.
The home had a formal dining room, but at that time, the kitchen was in a separate building on the property. The reason? New Orleans summers and fear of fire.
In the late 1880s, the mansion became a girls’ finishing school, which closed in 1920. The property was then sold, and divided into lots.
The mansion sat on three of the lots, and, in the late 1920s, was cut in two. The structures were moved 20 feet apart, and became separate residences. The wing was moved to the back.
The houses were converted to apartments, and began a slow but steady decline until they fell into complete disrepair. Enter David Villarrubia. He purchased both buildings, beginning a miraculous revival of the property and the spirit of the French painter who once lived there..
Our Bed and Breakfast
The two nights we spent in the Estelle Suite at Degas House felt as if we had gone to sleep and woken up in the 19th century. This had been the room where Estelle, Degas’s first cousin, had lived with her husband and children.
The room was elegant, yet welcoming. A cut glass chandelier illuminated the bedroom’s king size fourposter bed, decorative fireplace and muted colors. Heavy gold-colored drapes created puddles of fabric on the floor. Whether the purpose was to keep drafts out, or whether it was simply the fashion of the time, the effect was charming.
The fold-out daybed in a cozy alcove could sleep two. And the glass door opening out on a balcony allowed guests to sit and enjoy the sultry air and view of the tree-lined street below.
A Victorian claw-foot tub intensified the sense of having stepped into another time. In reality, the original room didn’t have an ensuite bathroom. When Degas stayed in the house, the 18 occupants shared two second-floor bathrooms,.
We found the bed blissfully comfortable with fluffy pillows and luxuriously soft sheets. Leaving that bed was a challenge.
The breakfasts we enjoyed during our stay at Degas House consisted of a sideboard with cereal, juice and other morning standards, and our choice from among several tempting freshly made hot Creole dishes.
We received a warm greeting from Alex, the friendly and efficient gentleman who prepared out-of-this-world omelets and brought us strawberry accented mimosas and hot coffee.
To our surprise, Alex had joined the Degas House staff a few short months ago. His easy-going, yet professional manner made it seem as if he had been making breakfast a special event much longer than that.
When you book a room at Degas House, you’re not only treated to a magnificent breakfast, but the Edgar Degas House Creole Impressionist Tour, as well. We didn’t take the traditional tour, but had the pleasure of meeting Micey Moyer and Joanie Prados, Edgar Degas’s great grand-nieces. The sisters conduct the daily tours, and during the time we spent with each one, we developed a deep appreciation of Degas house, its story and the family who once occupied its rooms.
Micey shared detailed information about the Musson family and the six-month period during which Edgar Degas stayed with them. Degas adored his three first cousins, Estelle, Desiree and Matilde. The women can be seen in many of the replicas of Degas’s paintings adorning the walls.
Joanie showed us an award-winning documentary, “Degas in New Orleans: A Creole Sojourn”. Using excerpts from Degas’s letters among other techniques, it explored the significance of Degas’s time in New Orleans.
Joanie also explained the family timeline, and how it grew and branched out. She and Micey are direct descendants of Estelle.
We toured the two parts of the house, admiring the antique furnishings on display. The atmosphere created was that of Degas’ time.
Joanie drew our attention to the size of the original furniture. The chairs were small and low. In the 1800s, the average woman stood 4 feet 9 inches, and the average man, 5 feet 4 inches.
The house was built of cypress, and was completed just in time to have gas piped in to light the chandeliers. The large mirrors in the parlor demonstrate how natural daylight and chandelier light were reflected, increasing the illumination in the room.
Michel Musson had once been a wealthy New Orleans cotton broker. Then the Civil War changed everything. Fearing for their safety, he sent his wife and daughters to his sister in Paris.
At that time, Estelle was a young widow whose husband had been killed in the early days of the Civil War. As if life wasn’t complicated enough, she had an infant for whom to care in a time of terrible uncertainty and upheaval.
While in Paris, Estelle and Edgar Degas’s brother, and her first cousin, Rene, fell in love. Despite practical, religious and social taboos against a marriage between first cousins, the couple tied the knot upon the family’s return to New Orleans.
Estelle had five children with Rene, but in 1879, Rene abandoned his family, and ran off with another woman.
Michel was so enraged by this betrayal of his daughter, he changed the last names of Estelle and her children to Musson. Michel was determined the name Degas would never be spoken in his house again. That is why the two parts of Degas House are so symbolic of the family that once lived there and was also cut asunder.
As for Estelle, only two of her six children survived her: a daughter, Odile and a son, Gaston. Gaston Musson was Joanie and Micey’s grandfather.
Edgar Degas in New Orleans
Edgar Degas lived in Paris, and painted ballerinas in the mid-1800s. He painted them well, but something was missing. And by the early 1870s, he was in crisis both physically and artistically.
In the fall of 1872, Degas set sailed for New Orleans and a six-month stay with his maternal uncle and his family. He hoped the change would enable him to redefine himself as a painter.
By the time Degas returned to Paris in, the spring of 1873, he had created 18 paintings and 4 drawings of his New Orleans family. At the same time, Degas developed and refined the techniques he would later employ as he evolved into one of the lead French impressionist painters of the late 1800s.
Degas’s letters from New Orleans were full of vivid descriptions of beauty, color, light and exotic scenes, but he never painted any of them. Instead, he chose to paint his beloved cousins, and to capture the sense of melancholy of an old life that was vanishing.
Degas loved all his cousins, but was especially close to Estelle, who was blind. Perhaps he felt a certain empathy with Estelle, because his own eyesight was failing. Although this was a constant source of concern, Degas never lost his sight entirely.
During our tour, Joanie noted how Degas painted Estelle’s eyes as if she was looking inward. Then she drew our attention to “Song Rehearsal”. The painting shows Estelle and Desiree singing, while Rene accompanies them on the piano. “Degas took artistic license with the room,” she said. “He moved the location of the door.”
Degas took all his paintings of his New Orleans family with him, and today, they can be admired in museums around the world.
Saving Degas’s New Orleans Legacy
David Villarrubia’s roots are in New Orleans. Although he flew internationally as a pilot for a major air carrier, the city always meant home and family to David.
In 1993, while walking down Esplanade Avenue, David saw a “For Sale by Owner” sign on a vacant apartment building. A historical marker indicated Edgar Degas had lived there. Appalled at the run-down condition of this piece of history, David immediately purchased the property.
At first, David didn’t know what he wanted to do with his new acquisition, but after losing two brothers in just over a year, he needed to become involved in a project. And so David began working on renovating and modernizing the house, while still flying three days a week for the airline.
During the reconstruction, David found a book in the attic describing the family and how they dealt with the devastating effects of losses through wars and diseases. Having recently experienced painful losses of his own, David was able to relate.
David began reading about Degas. During a layover in Paris, through one of those coincidences that would turn out to be life changing, he met Henri Loyrette, Senior Degas Biographer and former Director of Musee d’Orsay. It was then David learned the house he was attempting to bring back to life was the only known home or studio of Edgar Degas in the world. Loyrette gave David access to books, papers, letters and drawings, which assisted him in recreating the house as it was in the 1870s.
The first part of Degas House opened as a bed & breakfast in 1996, in time for Mardi Gras. Later that year, Degas House became a wedding venue, and a historic site offering public tours. The second part of the house was completed and incorporated in mid 1999.
Preserving the Past for the Future
David retired in late 2005, after 27 years with the same airline. He would have loved to continue flying, but after having buried two brothers and his father, and watching his mother – now 90, become increasingly frail, David knew he needed to be in New Orleans full time.
Like so many inhabitants of New Orleans, David’s family lost all its property during Hurricane Katrina. Despite heavy personal losses, David turned Degas House into a sanctuary. As soon as the power came back on, the FEMA Historic Preservation Team moved in. As soon as the team moved out, the waiters from Antoine’s moved in. And so it went for the better part of three-and-a-half years. The bed & breakfast became an establishment for long-term rentals. “We were in humanitarian mode,” David recalled. “Tourism was dead.”
Deciding it was time to renovate the Degas’s studio, David enlisted the expertise of an artist from the east coast. The artist was so enthused by the project, he offered to work pro bono, in exchange for staying at Degas House. He was going to stay a week but ended up staying a month.
The first thing the artist suggested was to repaint the studio, but David had other ideas. He wanted to capture Degas artist spirit by showing the space as if Degas had stepped out to spend time in the main house with his cousins. So, the pealing paint stayed, accompanied by wine in a glass, papers on the floor and pencil shavings here and there.
In a poignant gesture, David erected a plaque dedicating the restoration to his deceased brothers. Thus intertwining Degas House’s past with its present and future.
To say David is passionate about Degas house would be an understatement. He has used every ounce of his experience as a pilot – leadership, team work, attention to detail, customer service – to make this museum house a jewel in New Orleans’s historic crown.
“The first thing I believe in is service,” David explained. “It makes our job easier if we just treat people the way they want to be treated. I want Degas House to be an experience, not just an overnight stay.”
Since Simon and I decided to follow our passions of photography and travel writing respectively, we’ve stayed in a wide range of hotels, motels, hostales, bed and breakfasts, AirBNBs, and even one night in a Bedouin tent. Many of these experiences have included at least one unique element worthy of a blog post, freelance article and/or photos. But for us, Degas House lifted a curtain on scenes of art, history, every day family life in the late 19th century and stories of individuals past and present you won’t find anywhere else. Interwoven with the comfort of a period suite and top-notch breakfast, these priceless elements made our stay nothing short of outstanding.
If You Go
The Edgar Degas House Museum, Courtyard, Studio and Inn is located in the Esplanade Ridge neighborhood, and is a long walk or short cab ride to and from the French Quarter, and the famous old cemeteries. City Park, as well as a variety of restaurants are within easy walking distance.
Degas House has nine air conditioned guest rooms with private bath and small refrigerator. Two of the suites have a small kitchen. A hot Creole breakfast for two is included in the room rate.
Degas House is a popular venue for weddings, private parties and receptions, and can accommodate up to 250 guests on the grounds.
All the guest rooms in this historic home are located on the second level and are not wheelchair accessible.
Degas House is is the recipient of numerous awards, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The property is also recognized by the French Ministry of Culture, through the French National Order of Arts and Letters.
- Free tour with room
- Complimentary wine upon arrival
- Robes in each bedroom
- Hair dryers
- Flat screen TVs with cable
- Wireless internet
- iPod docking stations with clock radios
- Antique furnishings
Information about Degas House, room rates, tours, art classes, weddings or other events, can be found on the inn’s website.
2306 Esplanade Avenue
New Orleans, LA, 70119, United States