image description
An image of the Athenaeum building

Photo Credit: C. Milo Williams photograph collection (#19), located on the New Orleans Public Library website (


“One of the handsomest structures in the city will be the new building of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association,” [1] said an article from the New Orleans States when the Athenaeum opened in 1896. With various Jewish families from the New Orleans area wanting to join together to form an association, the Athenaeum was born after a November 22, 1891 meeting at the Grunewald Hotel where the organization, Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), was proposed. [2] This became a site for social gathering for New Orleans socialites, various musical acts from around the world, and, of course, the betterment of Jewish men until the building burnt down first on January 17, 1905, and then for a second time in 1937. [3]

History of YMHA

The YMHA was originally instituted to advance the mental, moral, social, and physical improvement of young Jewish men. The first was established in New York on March 22, 1874 at the home of Dr. Simeon Leo with the board of directors including Isaac S. Isaacs, Adolph L. Sanger, Oscar S. Straus, Lewis May, and others. After, similar organizations sprouted throughout the United States in such cities as Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, Louisville, Washington D.C., and New Orleans. [4]

YMHA in New Orleans

With the Jewish population growing and expanding in New Orleans, many young Jewish families began wanting to form an organization, named a Young Men’s Hebrew Association. After several attempts, a meeting at the Grunewald Hotel proposed the organization to 300 gentlemen gathered there and thus started the New Orleans branch of the YMHA, the Athenaeum. [5] At the induction of the building, the association’s first president, Sam Blum, talked about the intentions of the Athenaeum. “The young men of our Jewish community must be foremost in the arena of public activity, not only distinguishing themselves in art and science, not only a power in the commercial world, but maintaining the highest standard of intellectual culture [6] .”

But as the years progressed, it seemed as though the focus of the organization and the media of New Orleans leaned towards the social aspects of the organization, attaching a sense of high social culture to the building.

The YMHA Headquarters/Athenaeum

The Athenaeum was built on 1205 St. Charles Ave., at the corner of St. Charles and Clio St. The main purpose for the building was social reasons. As stated before, the New Orleans States deemed it “one of the handsomest buildings in the city.” The building itself was three floors with various rooms on each. The first floor included a parlor, a library, a chess and checkers room which adjoined to the library, a large billiard room with three billiards and three pool tables, a committee room, a smoking/lounging room, and a lodging room with a capacity for 150 people. The second floor opened up with a spacious foyer which adjoined to a ballroom. The ballroom itself is occupied exclusively by a stage (26 ft.) which had attached to it a green room, two dressing rooms for women, and two dressing rooms for gentlemen. Also on the second floor was a lounging room and a ladies dressing room with a staircase that lead to a gallery for musicians and promenaders. Finally, on the third floor, there was a banquet hall with an adjoining kitchen and serving room. The plans for the building were by Mr. D. Einseidel, and the building company was T. Carey and Co. [7]

Social Function

Being one of the principal Jewish organizations of the city at the time, one would think that the original intentions of the New York branch YMHA were the purposes of the Athenaeum. Not so, as it mainly functioned as a sort of social club. Dorothy Hayden points out in her article on space, the “twentieth century spatial segregation includes private men’s club, university faculty clubs, programs in higher education, and numerous other spaces [8] .” For many years the meeting of the courts of Rex and Pickwick Club at midnight on Mardi Gras day, the official end of Carnival, took place in the Athenaeum’s ballroom. [9] However, the krewe of Pickwick Club did not allow Jews in its membership, showing that even though the Athenaeum was socially prominent, there were still signs of slight segregation. Aside from the Mardi Gras conflict, another aspect of the Athenaeum’s social angle on the ballroom stage were musical acts that came from around the world and performed for a “select social tone.” With such people as Dr. Ludwig Wullner and Coenrad V. Bas (3-27/28/29/30-1930), Harold Bauer (1-24-1912), Eugene Ysaye (4-2-1913), Andor von Coboly (10-30-1913), Yvonne de Treville (12-30-1913), the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (5-17-1916), the French Opera Company, and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (1-24/25/26-1917) [10] , the music taste here seems to be of a higher class.

Works Cited

  • New Orleans States February 16, 1896 pg. 6
  • Lachoff, Irwin and Catherine C. Kahn. The Jewish Community of New Orleans. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.
  • “Crescent City Memories.” New Orleans Public Library.
  • Jacobs, Joseph and Percival S. Menken. “Young Men’s Hebrew Association.” Jewish Encyclopedia.
  • Lachoff, Irwin and Catherine C. Kahn. The Jewish Community of New Orleans. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005, p.75
  • The Jewish Ledger November 20, 1896 Vol. 47 pg. 10
  • New Orleans States February 16, 1896
  • Hayden, Dorothy. “Urban Landscape History: The Sense of Place and the Politics of Space.” The Power of Place Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995, 14-43.
  • Lachoff, Irwin and Catherine C. Kahn. The Jewish Community of New Orleans. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005, p.75
  • Performance Dates can be found in the newspaper catalogue at the New Orleans Public Library.

This page was last modified on 27 April 2012, at 10:02



1205 St Charles Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA