Last week’s column about the old Academy of Music on St. Charles, which burned down and was replaced at the turn of the century by the Rathskeller restaurant, raised questions for some readers.
Specifically, he brought a question, asked by several people. This question, presented in various forms, boils down to:
It’s a fair question, and the answer touches on the city’s German influences, Prohibition and early jazz. Includes a cameo by a young Louis Armstrong.
But before we get there, we’ll have to go back to the early 20th century and the rise in popularity of rathskellers in America.
The back story
Rathskeller is a German word and has nothing to do with rodents in your basement. Rather, it refers to a brewery operating out of a building’s cellar – or “skeller” in German. Originally, it applied specifically to taverns operating from the scheller of a town hall or “rathaus”.
So: Rathaus + skeller = ratskeller.
In the early 20th century, numerous American cities—many with newly arrived German populations—saw the opening of restaurants or bars calling themselves “rathskellers,” often featuring German decor.
(An etymological aside: unlike Europe, American units tended to keep the “h” after “rat,” presumably to avoid the inevitable parasite connotation.)
And now in New Orleans…
In July 1904, the trend was said to have come to New Orleans.
“This will be a rathskeller, frequent and famous in St. Louis and other northern cities, but hitherto unknown here,” read a Daily Picayune article. “It will have a real old German taste with distinctly Dutch beer and edibles.”
The two-story building containing it would be designed by Favrot & Livaudais in the colonial style, with a gray brick exterior, marble trim, and a prominent pediment centered on its wide, three-bay front.
Behind the glass windows of each outer compartment was room for a shop, each with an entrance to the street. Between them was the entrance to an arcade 12 feet wide, running to the back, where the Rathskeller was. (This is New Orleans; there was no cellar.)
“It will be treated in the old Dutch style,” Picayune wrote of the Rathskeller, “with dark woodwork and walls covered with Dutch tapestry. It will be a 7-foot-tall wainscot, with a plate rack and rail above to hold long rows of multi-colored glasses.”
The floor was covered with red tiles – “of the old German pattern” – as were the two huge fireplaces that flanked the room.
Designed and opened by Dr. GK Pratt, it was purchased in 1905 by restaurateur Peter Fabacher, who started the street-front tenants and expanded the restaurant operation, taking over the entire floor.
This would begin the glory days of the renamed Fabacher’s Rathskeller – not to be confused with the famous Restaurant’s Fabacher at Royal and Iberville Streets, which had been founded in 1880 by Fabacher’s parents and later run by one of his brothers, Laurence Fabacher.
Three in one
In turn, the Rathskeller was more than just a Rathskeller.
“(It) really consisted of three units, all served by the same kitchen,” said Sister Mary Josephine, an Ursuline nun and one of Peter Fabacher’s 14 children, in a 1973 interview with The Times- Picayune. “The most elaborate, of course, was the dining room, which sat around 100 and stayed open until the early hours of the morning. Then there was the 24-hour lunch room and the canteen, only open from 11:00 to 14:00.”
In addition to dining and drinking, Fabacher’s Rathskeller would become a hot spot for late-night dancing, with Max Fink and his jazz orchestra providing the music. A plus-sized night manager with a plus-sized personality known as “Big John” Terbeck added additional color to the night’s contest.
“It’s a place where dim lights sing above the table while the music steals away from you like you never thought it could,” read a newspaper ad.
A soon to be famous connection
It was also a place on the coal delivery route of a 19-year-old Louis Armstrong.
In his 1954 autobiography, “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,” Armstrong writes of a morning in November 1918 when he was unloading coal from his mule cart and carrying it to Fabacher’s. While he was “sweating like crazy”, several cars drove by “making all kinds of noise”.
It seems that the Armistice of 1918 had been signed, ending the First World War.
That got Armstrong thinking. He quit his coal delivery job on the spot, telling his mother, “The war is over and I quit the coal job for the last time. Now I can play my music the way I want. And when I want.”
Killed by Prohibition
Prohibition came soon after, and in January 1921, federal agents raided the Rathskeller, confiscated cases of booze, and arrested Peter Fabacher. It will close the same year.
In eulogizing Rathskeller, Picayune placed him nicely in context in the New Orleans of the day.
“No longer will its cozy corridor provide (a) a comfortable and convenient meeting place for couples or parties; they will no longer inspect the crowds of curious and hungry, as they appease their appetites, the ancient and many-shaped glasses which decorated the interior and gave it much of its bohemian atmosphere; they no longer supply the fast lunchroom meals or the time-honored “coffee” and the ever-rushing workers with whom eating is always so much wasted time; “Big John” will no longer receive and serve jovially his hosts of friends and patrons.”
It was replaced by a short-lived string of deals. Until 1938, the building was used as a parking garage.
Today, the InterContinental New Orleans Hotel stands on the site. In it is a pub called Pete’s, where the willing can pick up a beer for Peter Fabacher, Big John Terbeck and the old New Orleans Rathskeller.
We recommend a German drink.
In a glass, if you can handle it.
Sources: Times-Picayune archive; “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans” by Louis Armstrong.
Know a New Orleans building worth featuring in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected]
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