I began with information from the Hotel Villa Convento website, but have since amended the timeline based on information from The Historic New Orleans Collection. Next time I’m in the city, I’ll be stopping by THNOC to dig further into the characters and history of Hotel Villa Convento.
At 616 Ursulines Avenue stands a three-story Creole townhouse with a very distinctive history. One New Orleans haunting expert claims it to be the most haunted location he could find in the entire city.
This past July, I decided to spend the night there. The Hotel Villa Convento impressed me both with its unapologetic past and the comfort it still offers guests today. Here’s why.
The Origins of Hotel Villa Convento
The story of Hotel Villa Convento begins with the Ursuline Sisters’ arrival in the 1720s. The sisters migrated to the city from Rouen, capital of Normandy, another port city on the banks of the River Seine.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the Ursulines. They created one of the most influential schools for women in the city (Ursulines Academy in 1727) and began the very first school of music in New Orleans. They even offered the United States its first pharmacist when Sister Francis Xavier took up the vocation.
The land where the hotel now stands had previous owners, changing hands a few times starting in 1722. THNOC’s Chain of Title shows that ownership shifted from Col. Joseph Deville Degoutin Bellechasse to the nuns in August of 1805. The nuns then sold the land 14 years later in 1819 to Arnaud Magnon, who died just a few years later.
Magnon’s widow, Henriette Roche, passed away a little over a decade later in 1833, and the property then went to Louise Forstall Poeyfarre, Jean Baptiste Poeyfarre‘s second wife after Marianne Cantrell had passed away. The Widow Poeyfarre then built the current structure as a private residence sometime around that year.
It seems generally believed that Louise’s husband built the house, however he had already passed away in 1824, so the property belonged solely to Louise. This is supported by THNOC records that show the property shifting from Henrietta directly to Louise, rather than to Jean Baptiste.
In case you’re curious, everyone we’ve talked about so far (except Bellechasse) are now residents of St. Louis Cemetery #2.
Setting the Scene: New Orleans in the Early 1800s
Thanks to its status as a primary trading port with the Caribbean, South America, and Europe, New Orleans is quickly becoming the wealthiest city in the United States.
Most people in the state still speak French.
The War of 1812 is wrapping up, and the threat of the Civil War is still years away.
The two Great Fires have come and gone, cooking up a special brew of French and Spanish architectural influence across the oldest parts of New Orleans.
St. Louis Cathedral and Place d’Armes have long been established, but the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson won’t appear until 1856.
And the city has developed the strategies that, to this day, serve as its most important defenses against the harsh landscape, civilizing the swamp to an impressive degree to allow for the city’s rapid expansion.
The Widow Poeyfarre’s New Home
The Widow Poeyfarre designed the building as a three-story Creole townhouse, the predominant style of the time throughout the French Quarter. Architectural fashions began to favor Antebellum styles in the 1830s, prompting the builders of the townhouse to incorporate a few Greek Revival accents. Unadorned friezes hang above the doors and six-paned windows, and white square columns and wide trim loom over the marble steps leading in the front door. Four round columns with hexagonal bases support the balconies that jut out from the upper two stories.
Before the mid-1800s, balconies and porches were typically framed by wood. Around the time the townhouse was built, decorative cast iron became popular. The ironwork surrounding the balconies is likely original, though it could have been added later.
Louise passed away in 1845, and the property with the house shifted to Citizens Bank of Louisiana as part of her estate in 1846. It is reported that at this point there is a brick stable on the property, as well.
An Artist’s Residence?
According to THNOC, the property next moves from Citizens Bank of Louisiana to “Paul Desdunes Poincy.” Could this be the same Paul Poincy who is considered one of the best portrait painters in New Orleans’s history?
Close…after some digging, I figured out that this was Paul’s father and namesake. The artist Poincy would have been 14 at the time.
The property’s next sale to Octave Voorheis in 1853 coincides with Poincy’s time at École des Beaux-Arts in France. His father was a marquis and owned several homes, so it’s difficult to ascertain whether 616 Ursulines ever served as a family home for the world-renowned artist during his formative years.
From the Blessed Ground of the Ursulines to a Den of Iniquity
At the close of the Civil War, the South was devastated. The city’s once fast growth slowed, replacing its previous pockets of wealth and virtue with poverty and a flourishing taste for vice.
Voorheis lost the property in 1872 in a sheriff’s sale to Lafitte Dufilho and Company after a lawsuit. From 1873 onward, the house changed hands three times before 1902, before another interesting family (the Taorminas) own the home for 44 years.
The history before the Taorminas in 1902 is impossible to deduce. The three property owners apparently didn’t earn enough notoriety for this writer to find much about them: Jeanne Sarbarthes Letellier bought it from Lafitte, Dufilho and Company in 1873, then sold to Jean Mon Soubiraa in 1877, who sold to Vincenzo Losecco in 1894. Losecco owned the property until 1902 when Pasquale Taormina took over.
Many think that the townhouse probably became a brothel during this period. Some think the hotel might be the original “House of the Rising Sun” – though there are several candidates for that famous title throughout New Orleans.
A Family Rift, An Inheritance, and Another Sale
Pasquale Taormina was an Italian immigrant who married Maria Uddo in 1924. They had a daughter that year, Rosalie Maria Agnes Taormina Compagno, who went to live with her maternal aunts after her mother died the following year. Taormina’s remarriage in 1932 caused a rift with his first wife’s family that briefly became legal due to the existence of a company and assets. Taormina then left for Italy and stayed for World War I, briefly reporting for military service in the Italian Army and passing away sometime around 1945.
Either Pasquale’s second wife Rosa or his first daughter Rosalie inherited the house at 616 Ursulines and promptly sold the property a few months later to Louise Reynes Trufant Jr.
It’s easy to imagine why Rosalie Maria may have sold the house quickly, having no sentimental feelings toward the house as it was never her family home. She is now interred at Metairie Cemetery. Second wife Rosa may be at Greenwood Cemetery.
The Evolution of Old Town Villa
Before it was Hotel Villa Convento, the property was known as Old Town Villa.
The divorced Ms. Trufant and the never married Isabelle L. Carter sell the property a few months later to Joseph M. Cortinas in 1946. Cortinas appears to have had several lawsuits waged against him in the period surrounding 1950, and sold the property the following year to Dixie Realty Company, Inc. Dixie Realty is based out of Old Town, Florida, creating a likely connection that explains the name Old Town Villa.
However, Dixie only held onto it for 4 years, selling it to Raymond Voelker, co-owner of Busy Electric Company, in 1951. Voelker sold to Nowell Schaumberg two years later, who then sold to Yvonne Hildebrand three years later, who then sold it back to Voelker in 1965. Voelker then sold the property a few months later to E. Lorenz Borenstein, Allan Jaffe, and Joe Levinson.
Borenstein is known for owning property and dealing art, but his most famous moniker is the “father of Preservation Hall.” He rented the building in the sixties and dedicated himself to preserving the music and ensuring jazz artists always have a place to play in New Orleans.
Jaffe was an American jazz tubist and the entrepreneur who is also credited with developing Preservation Hall into a New Orleans jazz tradition. He started managing the Hall in 1961, playing tuba with the band.
Levinson was a beloved character in the French Quarter, called “Mr. Joe” by all who knew and loved him. He was a Merchant Marine, active in the Vieux Carre Commission and known for his “white balcony” at 1109 Royal St, which was featured in many films. Mr. Joe worked as a funeral embalmer and sculptor, and his talent for facial reconstructions was known throughout the city.
If only I could figure out what these music mavens had planned for 616 Ursulines, I’m sure it was something interesting!
Borenstein and Jaffe sold the property to Kenneth Nahan (perhaps the father of fine artist Ken Nahan?) who sold it three years later to Ursulines Inn, Inc./Ursuline Properties, Inc. in 1976. The title then changed hands across various agents for the Ursuline Property Company, landing with the Campo family in September of 1981.
At some point after the property left the Taormina family, it was converted to a multi-unit rather than single family dwelling, and became a popular spot for musicians/transients.
I wish I knew more about this period, but all I’ve been able to find is a brief mention that Jimmy Buffet liked to stay here and brought a documentary film crew back to see it at some point. I haven’t been able to locate the film or determine its title.
With Buffet born in 1946, it makes sense that the Old Town Villa years could have taken place during the sixties and seventies. Perhaps Borenstein and Jaffe conceived of the idea of a house for musicians and the Ursuline Property company maintained it during that period.
A Quiet Family Home Becomes One of the Most Haunted Locations in New Orleans
James Caskey stayed at Hotel Villa Convento while writing The Haunted History of New Orleans. He claims that the hotel is the most haunted location he found in all his research throughout the city.
If you believe the hotel was likely a brothel, it explains a lot about the spooky stories associated with the property. Brothels are considered a breeding ground for events in life that often become hauntings in death.
Many believe that a former Madame still stalks the halls of the hotel, knocking on doors to indicate that a couple’s “time is up” to make room for the next customer. Coquettish whispers in feminine voices can be heard over the white noise of window air conditioners, usually settling in the ears of male guests. Some men even see feminine figures appear – figures to which their female companions are usually blind.
In fact, if you ever stay in the hotel and hear a pair of newlyweds celebrating next door, keep in mind that their room may actually be completely empty. It’s happened before.
There are documented stories of guests seeing apparitions in rooms 209, 302 and 305, but room 209 is considered especially active. The rumor goes that a man tragically committed suicide in the bathtub, harboring a dark secret that to this day no one knows.
Regardless of what you believe happened at the hotel between 1872 and 1902, stories told by guests and employees alike make it clear that this small plot of land saw more of the baser aspects of life than the Ursulines imagined it would.
The land that would become Hotel Villa Convento will forever be associated with both the virtue and morality of the nuns and the sensuality of late 18th century New Orleans – making the story of Hotel Villa Convento the perfect microcosm of the larger city.
Hotel Villa Convento in the 21st Century
Today, the red brick Hotel Villa Convento stands tall on Ursulines Avenue steps away from the original Convent, the oldest surviving structure this side of the Mississippi. Jackson Square, Bourbon Street, and the riverfront are also within a short walk, giving the hotel a prime location in addition to its rich history. Look for the building with the forest green iron lacework and bright white trim around the windows and doors.
I stayed in room 202. It was old fashioned but comfortable, with bare brick walls. It’s easy to imagine echoes of the past imprinted on the porous surface, if you believe such a thing is possible. The carpet is a bit threadbare and the stairs creak in the same predictable way all old houses do.
Tour groups frequently stop on Ursulines at the foot of the hotel, no surprise given its location. During my stay on the second floor, I spent most of the evening on the balcony. I noticed that tours always lingered the longest in front of Convento, though the Haunted Hotel is just across the street.
It certainly is a kick having a smoke on your balcony while watching the tourists below shudder at the thought of merely entering the room where you’ll later be sleeping.
I spent the rest of the evening wandering out for drinks and chatting with a friend in the secluded courtyard. The courtyard is a gorgeous and typical New Orleans specimen right down to the centrally located three-tiered fountain. It gushes loudly with water, surrounded by lush tropical greenery.
Several rooms encircle and overlook the courtyard, the upper two stories surrounded by narrow galleries and stairways linking them to the flagstones below. The wrought iron tables and chairs are more comfortable than you’d expect, inviting long conversations and even longer daydreams.
In supernatural terms, the night passed uneventfully. I heard no whispers and saw no strange apparitions. Given that I had a 12-hour drive home the next day, I call this a success. Others may not.
If you’d prefer a scare, Hotel Villa Convento is undoubtedly the ideal place to try your luck. The hotel is locally owned by the Campo family, which makes it a great choice over a chain hotel. It’s also affordably priced, so budget-minded travelers like myself can still get a room with a great view and compelling history in the very heart of the French Quarter.
This was my first stay at the hotel, but it won’t be the last. I highly recommend you check their online reservation system for vacancies the next time you plan a visit to New Orleans.