It’s not easy to live in the shadow of Gallier Hall.
One of the more iconic structures in the New Orleans skyline, its stately, Greek-temple-inspired elegance has a way of drawing the eye, even when it’s not serving as ground zero for the city’s Fat Tuesday celebrations.
By comparison, neighboring buildings have a way of being overlooked and underappreciated.
Such is the case with the building right next door to James Gallier’s eponymous edifice, looking out over the leaf-strewn swards of Lafayette Square from 601 St. Charles Ave.
The three-story building dates to 1903. The institution for which it was constructed, however – Soulé Business College – boasts a storied history all its own, with a presence in the city for more than 127 years, dating all the way back to 1856, just three years after the dedication of Gallier Hall.
That was the same year New York native George Soulé arrived in New Orleans – via Illinois then St. Louis – and established his namesake school.
Training for jobs
Soulé had been versed in medicine and in law, but he saw a local need for education in more practical pursuits. His Soulé Business College – also known over the years as Soulé Commercial College, Soulé Commercial College and Literary Institute or simply Soulé College – would focus on training young minds in bookkeeping, typing, shorthand and similarly marketable office skills.
That first campus, at Camp and Common streets, was a tiny affair. Given the local dearth of training in such areas, it grew quickly.
“It then consisted of one small rectangular room, whose adjacent sides measured about 20 by 30 feet,” Soulé remembered in 1902, in a story published in The Daily Picayune. “In this room the commercial sciences were taught during the day and accounting work was performed during the evening for the business public.”
Soulé’s stated goal was a noble one: to train young minds in useful arts.
Civil War intrudes
In 1862, with the Civil War raging, he shuttered his school and joined the Confederate war effort as an officer with the Crescent Regiment of Louisiana Volunteers.
After being wounded at Shiloh, and rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, he returned to New Orleans in mid-1865 and set about re-opening his school.
“Since then,” the Picayune reported in 1882, “by invincible labor, good judgment, marked talent, and a fidelity to duty rarely equaled, he has built up a school second to none in the state.”
A growing concern
By 1874, in need of more space, Soulé bought the then-dilapidated former Second Municipal Hall, located on the site of the current building, and set about renovating it. Made of brick and standing three stories, it served the school’s purposes dutifully for the next quarter century.
Meanwhile, Soulé’s school continued to flourish. By 1882, it had a faculty of 10 teachers. By 1885, it began welcoming female students. By 1887, Soulé – later described in a Picayune editorial as “the most picturesque personality in New Orleans” – earned the distinct honor of reigning as Rex.
And by 1902, it was again in need of more space.
Instead of moving again, Soulé commissioned his son, Robert Soulé – then just starting out in what would be a successful architectural career – to design a new building to replace the municipal hall.
What he came up with was a four-story structure made of pressed colonial red brick adorned with a white terra cotta base and additional terra cotta embellishments on its upper floors. Highlighting its façade would be a row of arched, two-story windows encircling the structure’s second and third floors.
Embossed on the arched terra cotta pediment over the building’s St. Charles Avenue side were the words “Soulé College.”
A signature feature
Easily its most eye-catching exterior feature, however, was a rooftop clock tower facing Lafayette Square.
It wasn’t just any ordinary clock tower.
“The clock tower surmounting the St. Charles Street front contains one of the most ingenious devices in the country,” The Picayune wrote upon the building’s dedication. “Just beneath the face of the clock is an alcove, from which every half hour emerges a figure in cap and gown that strikes the large tubular bell.”
Perched atop the clock – which was designed and built by “the clever local mechanician” R. Schmutz – was a white terra cotta owl, “emblematic of wisdom.”
Inside, the first floor was tiled with Italian and Georgia marble. Elsewhere, the interior was trimmed with mahogany, polished wood floors and similarly luxe materials.
“All clocks in the building are regulated by a master clock in the President’s office, which is also occupied with telephonic connection with every room in the building,” the Picayune reported.
The school occupied the building for only 20 years, eventually moving into the three-story Buckner Mansion at 1410 Jackson Ave.
There, Soulé continued to take an active role in educating its students until his death in 1923, after which his son and grandson ran it into the 1980s.
In 1987, the former Soulé College Building next to Gallier Hall became home to the Louisiana State Bar Association.
It is unclear what happened to the clock tower and its bell-ringing automaton. But the building’s history is evidenced by the two words still embossed over its St. Charles Avenue entrance:
Sources: The Times-Picayune; “History of New Orleans, Vol. 2,” by John Smith Kendall; The Times-Picayune Tourist Guide Book to New Orleans
Do you know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or are you just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.