WWII and the Beauregard Center for Servicemen
It is a little known fact that the Beauregard-Keyes House was used as a recreation center for servicemen during World War II. Our senior staff and tour guides have heard a few secondhand stories on the subject over the years, but it wasn’t until the recent discovery of a scrapbook and corresponding oral history at the Historic New Orleans Collection that we learned the full extent of this operation. According to information found in the scrapbook, over 85,000 servicemen and women* visited the Beauregard Center from the day of its opening on December 20th, 1941, through its closing just after V-J Day in September, 1945. Most of these men were in or near New Orleans undergoing training before their deployments. They were all far from home and presumably very unsure of what their futures might hold. Along with pictures and newspaper clippings, the scrapbook at THNOC contains letters written by a number of these servicemen. They indicate that the Center served as a home away from home for the people it catered to, and offer gratitude toward the group of volunteers who worked 365 days a year to keep it running.
In this gallery, a few of the hundreds of thank you letters received by the Beauregard Center are pictured. Usually written by the servicemen themselves, a large number were also written by family members who had heard about the hospitable experience being offered to their loved one/s at the Center.
Just as men who served overseas were not known for discussing their wartime experiences once back on home soil, women who worked or volunteered to fuel the war effort didn’t do much bragging about their achievements, either, according to New Orleanian Nadia St. Paul Moise. Mrs. Moise spoke with THNOC's senior curator and oral historian Mark Cave for an interview in 2002, and it is only through this discussion that we know her mother, Nadia St. Paul, was largely responsible for the establishment of the Beauregard Center for Servicemen and ran its day-to-day operations. Mrs. Moise, who was ten years old when her mother opened the Beauregard Center, recalled, “She never spoke of it. She never bragged, complained or did anything. It was what they could do for the war effort. And they did it gladly. And then when it was over, it was over.”
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, “everything really geared up,” Mrs. Moise remembered in the interview. Though there are still a few military bases in the Greater New Orleans Area today, in 1941, New Orleans was a very different city. “New Orleans was a port of embarkation. We had military installations all over the place. There was the enormous Camp Plauche up where Elmwood and all that is now. What is UNO was a naval air station. So there were young men, young servicemen all over the place,” Mrs. Moise said. Sunday dinner was considered a major family event in 1940s life, Mrs. Moise recalled, and her mother and father, John, were early activists in a movement calling for local servicemen to be invited for dinner with a local family every weekend. Mrs. St. Paul founded the New Orleans Hostess Committee with this goal in mind, and she was soon contacted by Mayor Robert Maestri with an idea in late 1941.
According to Mrs. Moise, the mayor called her mother to say that he was disturbed by the fact that many servicemen stationed in New Orleans were doing little on their nights off but parting with their money on Bourbon Street. Mayor Maestri implored Mrs. St. Paul to," 'open a clean, decent place for the young servicemen to come and spend time.' And the whole objective was in the French Quarter," Mrs. Moise explained. "Maestri said that Bourbon Street would always be there for the ones that wanted Bourbon Street. You knew you could bank on that. But he also wanted those servicemen who didn't, to have a clean, decent place to go where they would be properly treated."
When the US officially joined the Allied cause, the Beauregard House (the ‘Keyes’ would not be added until the 1970s) had been vacant of its former owners, the Giacona family, for nearly twenty years. Saved from the literal wrecking ball in 1925, the house was maintained by a board of local women and used for a variety of community-based purposes. It had been a homeless shelter for a time, a site for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a craftsmen workshop funded by humanitarian W.J. Warrington. As the US entered the Second World War, Mrs. St. Paul, who was on the house's board, obtained permission to utilize the unoccupied basement of the Beauregard House for a center that would realize the mayor’s vision.
Right: Mrs. St. Paul is written up for her activism in the early days of the war.
On a tight wartime budget, Mrs. St. Paul set about opening the Center. Her daughter recalled, “Mama got on the phone, and she begged and she borrowed. She didn’t quite steal but some days I was worried. People donated all of the furniture [to the Center]. They had a ping pong table, a billiard table, a pool table, a beat up old upright piano.” They also had books, magazines and a writing area where servicemen could write letters home and not worry about the postage or shipment. The Center was open every single day of the year from 9-5, and was extremely busy during holidays.
Mrs. St. Paul and her team of volunteers alternated shifts of 3-4 hours on Christmas, serving “a completely donated turkey dinner, with all the fixings,” according to Mrs. Moise, and bringing musicians in to play on these special days. The holiday turkey dinners were delivered by the storied, and now long closed, Solari’s Grocery on Royal Street, but Mrs. Moise said the donations came in year round. “On regular days…this little tiny area produced coffee, donated tea, hot and iced, donated doughnuts, pastry and everything else. All the bakeries in town donated. We had many coffee companies here. They all donated.”
In addition to donations, the Center was given $150 a month by the City of New Orleans, which also provided a lone staff member/ secretary. Mrs. St. Paul was responsible for raising the funds beyond that, and her daughter recalled one recurring donor in particular: "One of their biggest supporters was Andrew Higgins**. He was so generous to them... Mama was a product of of her generation and her time. And she would get on the phone. And Higgins always took her calls or called her back... [They'd be on the phone] and she'd [say], "Oh, Mr. Higgins. I am so embarrassed. It seems like I was just talking to you... And then she'd finally get around to telling him. And he would say, 'you'll have it tomorrow'. And sure enough, the next day they would have the check for what they asked for or more for a special event, you know, something that they wanted to have more food for or this big Christmas dinner or it was the Fourth of July and they wanted to serve hot dogs and whatever, whatever, Mark [Cave, the interviewer]. The check was always there when he said it would be."
The basement of the Beauregard House was bare and simple but the women who volunteered at the Center worked to keep it clean and welcoming.
Mrs. Moise emphasized the patriotic, helpful attitude that permeated the city during World War II. “We had two banana companies here then; United Fruit and Standard Fruit. And she [Mrs. Moise's mother] called both of them. Again, what do you need? That was all that people said in those days, Mark, what do you need." What Mrs. St. Paul needed in this case was fruit for the servicemen, and not long after a deliveryman, “stopped down in the middle of the street in front of the Beauregard House and took off the truck a huge stem of bananas, you know, like when they machete it off a tree, and staggered into the basement with it. There was a huge hook hanging on one of those rafters that just happened to be there. And he just went on and hung it up on this iron hook and said. 'when you need more just call the office.' And the two banana companies took turns keeping that hook hanging with four or five feet worth of bananas.”
The exterior of the Beauregard-Keyes House as it appeared between 1941 and 1945. Photo by Guy F. Bernard, courtesy of the Photographic Archive of the Historic New Orleans Collection. The upper and middle signs read, "Beauregard House Center" and the lower sign reads, "Beauregard House Center. For Service Men Only. Free Stationery, Games, Coffee, Cake, etc. New Orleans Hostess Committee."***
Mrs. Moise continued, “And one day a very young man came in. And he walked up [to the bananas] and he was looking at it. I don’t know where he was from. But remember, before you had all of the refrigerated shipping and things like that there were places in this country that didn’t get a whole lot of things. And he stood there looking at this big stem of bananas and he said, 'I’ve never seen anything like that before.' And the hostess of the day said, 'Oh, well, here you go. Let me get you a chair. And here’s your own trashcan. And you just sit right here and you look at that and you eat them or whatever you want as long as you want.' And they all took off and left him alone. He spent quite a while. And when he got up to leave they asked if he wanted coffee or anything. He said, 'No' and he left. Of course they all made a beeline to the trashcan. He had eaten thirteen bananas. They found thirteen peels in the trashcan. But nobody ever said anything about it." Funnily enough, Mrs. Moise may have been mistaken on this last fact, as the incident was mentioned by Elizabeth Kell in the Times-Picayune/New Orleans States newspaper in early 1942: "Enough bananas to satisfy even hungry soldiers like the one who ate 10 in one gulp are being supplied [to the Center] by Crawford H. Ellis and Camille D'Antoni," she reported.
Hundreds of women donated their time to the Beauregard Center during WWII. Pictured here in the New Orleans Item on Dec. 22, 1941 is volunteer Mrs. James M. Thomson, with servicemen G. Ronald Garrity, Eldridge Zigler, and Julius Slocum. They were some of the earliest visitors to the Center. Local newspaper articles often highlighted specific volunteers and their contributions to the Center. On Sept. 13, 1945, the New Orleans States describes Mrs. Joseph Fisher who had become known as the "house mother" and received letters personally from all over the world.
Mrs. Moise contextualized the work that her mother and the other volunteers did at the Center. She noted, “Another point that I would like to make is none of these women were a Rosie the Riveteer. They didn’t know how to do that. As wives and mothers and housekeepers what they knew how to do was entertain, make people feel at home, make people feel good. And that’s what their object was, to make the atmosphere as home-like as it could be.” Though the women at Beauregard Center had not joined the workforce as many famously did during the war, their volunteer work was extremely dedicated. Mrs. Moise credited all of the women involved: “There were so many ladies... It’s hard to mention everybody by name. But Mrs. Jessie Rosenfeld who took over what they called the canteen which was this two-bit kitchen early on… You talk about a worker and an organizer. I think her two sons were both in the service. Mr. Rosenfeld was with the famous Sternberg’s Suits. And they were a local family. And you talk about work. You talk about organize. You talk about beg, borrow. You talk about getting nice things for her boys. Like a dog, Mark, she worked like a dog.”
Of her mother, Mrs. Moise remarked, “I think she was a genius… I mean she should have had General Motors or something to run that was worth her talent.” With 365 days a year to staff with volunteers, Mrs. St. Paul employed a simple but effective system:
“Remember, all of this is volunteer. You understand this is twelve times a year. 'You must be there or have a substitute. We have a list.' [Mrs. St. Paul would tell her volunteers.] She made up a list of substitutes, people who weren’t willing to sign up for every month but who were willing to go in from time to time. And she got thirty-one women to be, each the chairman of a certain day, make up their own committee or bring in their own staff and help. And it worked like a charm. There was very little infighting or, you know, personality problems, because all of these people were good friends," Mrs. Moise described.
Left: Mrs. St. Paul working from her desk at Beauregard House, sporting her signature New Orleans Hostess Committee armband.
Sadly, Nadia St. Paul passed away in 1954. An insulin dependent diabetic, Mrs. St. Paul, "walked around [the Beauregard Center] with some mints in her purse in case she started a reaction and kept right on going, never stopped," her daughter said. Nadia St. Paul Moise graduated from Tulane Law School in 1953 and became an attorney, remaining in New Orleans throughout her life (she passed at age 84 in 2015).
In the early 2000s, Mrs. Moise had become aware of a re-emerging swell of public interest in WWII history. Nationally, Hollywood was releasing numerous films on the subject from A Thin Red Line and Pearl Harbor, to 1997's Best Picture, Saving Private Ryan. Locally, noted historians Stephen Ambrose and Nick Mueller opened the D-Day Museum in 2000 to so much success that it became the National World War II Museum by 2004. Also in 2000, Mrs. Moise attended a program on WWII history held at the Historic New Orleans Collection. Though she was enthralled by the presenters and topics at the event, she could not believe that no one seemed to be aware of the Beauregard Center, which had been located just down the street. She told Mr. Cave, “I’m thinking, all of this went on seven blocks down Chartres Street and nobody's saying a word about it...This was absolutely homegrown. This was absolutely local. It was a totally New Orleans thing and it wasn't even mentioned.” She thought of how she could best bring this piece of local history back into the minds of New Orleanians, and decided to donate the scrapbook that her father had made, long ago, for her mother. This scrapbook honors the work of Nadia St. Paul and her volunteers and shared, through the eyes of the servicemen themselves, the good they had accomplished.
Do you know someone who may have worked or been served at the Beauregard Center for Servicemen during WWII? We want to talk to you! Email Lily at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes of historical context:
*Though many women served in the military during WWII, and we do not intend to overlook them or their service, the vast majority of service-people who visited the Beauregard Center appear to have been male. We have decided to refer to the visitors at the Center as 'servicemen' in this article for the sake of brevity.
**Andrew Higgins was the founder and owner of New Orleans-based company Higgins Industries. He designed LCVP boats, dubbed "Higgins boats", which allowed US troops to land on beaches, as they did in the battle of Normandy. General Dwight Eisenhower is quoted as saying, ""Andrew Higgins ... is the man who won the war for us. ... If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different."
***There are no definitive outward signs that the Beauregard Center for Servicemen was segregated, but this, unfortunately, was likely the case in the 1940s. Staff at BK House are currently conducting further research to see if African American servicemen visited the Beauregard Center, and if not, aim to discover what types of services were available to them in New Orleans.
All pictures, newspaper clippings and oral history quotes provided by the Historic New Orleans Collection.
New Orleans Hostess Committee Beauregard House Center for Service Men Scrapbook and Interview, p 2, 4, 5, 7-14, 24, 25, 27-34. Courtesy the Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Mrs. Nadia St. Paul Moise, 2002-94-L.
No 2 Beauregard House Guy F. Bernard courtesy of the Photographic Archive at the Historic New Orleans Collection, 2000.46.2.195.