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The Legend of the Cornstalk Fence

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The Cast of Corn

Or Know Your Cornstalk Fences in New Orleans

New Orleans has a long history of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, no matter how mundane the event. Something so normal as a fence can spawn stories that start as an urban legend but then grow into something bigger. The legend then becomes so woven into the tapestry of the city it becomes cherished lore. The legend of the cornstalk fence is one of those stories. Continue reading below to learn the legend and the facts behind one of New Orleans most photographed fence. 

 

The Legend of the Cornstalk Fence

On the 900 block of Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans sits a unique home. It stands out amid the French and Spanish buildings typically seen in the Vieux Carre. This home is a beautiful side hall townhouse that sports Queen Anne styling. A large turret towers over the home. Normally, a unique home like this would hold its own, but not this house. The beautiful home takes a backseat to the cast-iron fence that guards the property. It is this fence that has spawned a beautiful story of true love and heavy metal.

Here is the story heard daily upon the streets of the Quarter, as told by ghost tour guides and mule buggies. They will stop to weave the tale of love, homesick brides, and a man going to extreme measures to make his new wife happy.

Legend has it that Dr. Biamonti and his bride moved into the home here on Royal Street. It did not take long for his young bride to become terribly homesick. She yearned for the cornfields from her childhood in Iowa. Wanting to make his young bride happy, the husband commissioned the fence. This way his true love could look upon her faux cornfields every morning.

On cue, the collective “ahh’s” come out, women squeeze their partner’s hand. The glow of love permeates the air like a whiff of Axe Body Spray after a group of middle school boys pass by. There it is, a story of true love, cast iron, and a love-struck man wanting to make the love of his life happy.

Who doesn’t love a wonderful love story? This story has it all, homesick brides, true love, and a Grand Gesture (™ pending) to prove that love. This story also has the bonus of having a name attached to the story. This makes it easier to research and gives the story more weight. New Orleans has the great fortune of having well-preserved archives. It is this access that makes researching these stories possible. We are also blessed with a fantastic organization, the Historic New Orleans Collection. Their physical and digital archives are an amazing resource for research.

The research used in this blog comes from the HNOC and from the Metal Museum found in Memphis TN

Cast iron corn cob door knocker at the Cornstalk Fence Hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans
Cornstalk fence Col Short's Villa

915 Royal Street

The home has a lot going on and would still be a stop on many a French Quarter tour with its beautiful Queen Anne design. So even without the rare cast-iron fence, it is easy to see the need to appreciate this unique architecture.

Planning and construction on the brick townhouse started in 1850 and finished in 1860. But was the fire in 1900 is what gave the owners the ability to add the quirky Queen Anne turret and bay.

The first official documentation on the property shows up on Monday the 8th of May in 1787. This is when the property is sold to Dr. Luis Fortin for the price of $700 pesos. In 1816 Francois Xavier Martin, who was the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, first Attorney General of Louisiana, and author of the first history of Louisiana, took possession of the property. Originally a native of France, he lived on the property from 1816 to 1826. The property changes hands several times until in 1834. This is when, yes, Dr. Joseph Biamonti takes possession of the home and property. The basis for the legend is holding up to scrutiny. As property records put Dr. Joseph Biamonti at this address in 1834.

We now have a nearly 20-year gap in the records before a flurry of activity happens. The good doctor parcels up the property to his children. This included two daughters who received the largest lot of property as part of their dowry. It is in the daughters’ era when she built the brick townhouse.

According to the legend, in 1857 Dr. Biamonti commissioned the fence for his homesick wife. The cornstalk pattern makes its debut in 1858 in the Wood & Perot and Miltenberger cast iron catalog.

Cornstalk Fence Hotel with their famous cast iron cornstalk fence on Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans

Iowa 1834

The legend places the responsibility of the fence squarely upon the shoulders of a homesick bride from Iowa. Even without going deeper into the records to get the name of the bride, breaking down her timeline makes Iowa problematic. Here is where the legend starts to falter a bit, as the Iowa connection to the bride does not hold up well under scrutiny.

1834 Iowa was not a hotbed of commercial farming, it was a handful of subsistence farming European settlers sharing the territory with several Native tribes. Iowa was still very much Native American Territory with multiple tribes laying claims to the grasslands of Iowa. In fact, contemporary sources describe Iowa as “a sea of grass”.

While Iowa was a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1802, it wasn’t until the 1830s that negotiations started with the various tribes. In the 1820s when the bride would have been a child, Iowa would have been a handful of farmers scattered in with native tribes growing mostly beans, squash, and yes, corn. She would not have seen large fields of corn as commercial farming did not take off until the 1850s when both a population boom and advances in agriculture made large scale farming possible.

Vintage postcard of the cornstalk fence in the French Quarter of New Orleans

Wood & Perot Forgeries

Cast iron became a thing in 500 BC China and cast iron grew as cookware and having domestic and agricultural uses, but it wasn’t until the 1850s when cast iron became purely decorative. Robert Wood fired up his first forge in 1839, making simple window guards, smaller iron works, and statues. Wood continued to grow as both an artist and business owner where he built large bronze statues. Robert Wood would continue to grow and retool his operations until the 1850s when he retooled his factory to do statues, fencing, gazebos, and other extensive iron works. It is in 1858 the Wood Ironwork had 153 fence patterns, one of which is the cornstalk pattern. Wood would work along with Perot, Cotton, and Miltenberger in the cast iron industry.

Demand for cast iron skyrocketed in New Orleans mostly because of the Pontalba Buildings boasting one of the first examples of decorative cast iron. This had the fashionable people of New Orleans scrambling to put cast iron on their homes. Demand was so high that Wood and Miltenberger opened up a shop on Camp Street where they would supply most cast iron to New Orleans until they closed up shop in 1878.

The forgery was in operation until almost 1880, when several factors came together to end the run of Robert Wood and his metal factories.

A fact that must be pointed out, directly across from 915 Royal Street are the 3 interconnected mansions of Michel Heine. Michel Heine was a wealthy financier who also was married to Amélie Marie Céleste Miltenberger. It is Amelie’s father, who is both an architect and importer of cast iron. With Amelie being neighbors, it is very plausible that Amelie and Maria Biamonte were friends. That will be a subject for a future blog.

915 Royal Street Time Line

1797 – Dr. Luis Fortin buys property for $700 pesos

1800-1833 – Original lot is subdivided with several transactions on smaller tracts from the original plot

1834 – Dr. Joseph Biamonti purchases the largest lot

1857 – Lot is partitioned into 3 plots with a large annuity of $14,000 paid twice a year for life

1858 – Via a will transaction Dr. Joseph Biamonte property is transferred to Aimee Christine Biamonte and Maria A Biamonte

*Note the spelling difference in the last name spelling is per documents from HNOC archives

1878- Maria Biamonte is the last Biamonti(e) whose name appears on title records as the lot she owns is sold.

Other Examples Around Town

The cornstalk fence pattern is a rarely seen pattern. It was a very expensive pattern, but also cast iron is usually the first to go in times of financial difficulty. Fashion trends in architecture and landscaping put incredible pressure on cast-iron fences. Add in the fact they can be costly to maintain and it is easy to see why so few examples still exist.

That New Orleans can boost of 5 examples is a stunning feat. The pattern is hard to find with few examples of this fence outside the city.

Col Short’s Villa

1441 Fourth St.

Col Short was a Kentucky Colonel who hailed from the great state of Kentucky. He was not a military colonel but a Kentucky Colonel. It is an organization of philanthropists, Col Sander of KFC fame was a Ky Col. It was Col Short who had this center hall, double gallery American townhouse built. The house is stucco-covered brick built in 1859. Architect Henry Howard designed it.

Col Short’s home has the same fence as found on Royal Street. The Col also added corner posts that depicts harvest and not corn. The fence posts have morning glories and beans that use the cornstalks for support. The toppers have the beautiful bouquet of corn while the corner posts have a cornucopia gracing the tops. The fence is a beautiful example of the Picturesque Movement that was a part of the American Romanticism. The movement added whimsy and spontaneity to design as a rejection of the rigidness and colder logic of the Neoclassical Period. Col Short’s Villa has a lively history to it that makes it an integral part of any Garden District tour.

Washington and Pyrtania

Just around the corner from Col Short’s villa is the driveway gate. It has several pieces of the cornstalk fence on both the driveway gate and the doorway. The cast iron is in great shape but while the driveway gate has a relatively fresh coating of paint. The doorway has a careless paint job that takes away from the beauty of the fence.

Cornstalk fence piece on driveway in the Garden District of New Orleans

Cornstalks in the Marigny

2408 Dauphine St.

Another beautiful example of the cornstalk fence, this time in the Creole neighborhood of the Marigny. The fence guards a beautiful double gallery Creole townhouse that has a touch of haint blue to guard the home even more. The darkly painted cornstalk fence does not sport the larger and more decorative posts but has lovely cast iron toppers to give a sense of balance to the fence.

DuFour-Plassan House

1206 N. White St.

This is an incredible example of the Picturesque style of the American Romanticism period. This style came in response to the more rigid of the Neoclassical Age. The Neoclassical Age was a return to democracy and reason after the fires of Revolution spread through France and beyond. This rejection of the elaborate Baroque and Rococo Ages and embracing of democracy meant a rise in the ideas of Greece and Rome. This mostly meant their columns. After decades of these solid styles, the Victorian Age swept in with new ideals. The Victorians embraced the ideas of whimsy and the dramatic use of color. This becomes a delightful period in architecture history. Bright colors and a returning to nature that becomes a hallmark of this period are everywhere.

The DuFour-Plassan House had originally faced Esplanade before they moved it to its current location around the corner. The posts and gate are all that are left of this gorgeous cast iron work. The blue morning glories and beans use the cornstalks to climb their way to the top of the corner posts. This is where beautiful sunflowers sit atop a colorful cornucopia. The fence posts carry on the theme of harvest, with the bouquet of corn adding to the pumpkins as footrests. While the cornstalk fencing is gone, this is the most complete and exquisite example of the posts.

Fence post from a cornstalk fence in midcity of New Orleans

A Few Places Outside of New Orleans With The Cornstalk Fence:

The Banning Museum in California

The Second Line Restaurant in Memphis

The Metal Museum in Memphis

To Sum It All Up

The history of the cornstalk fence and 915 Royal Street is shrouded in the’ mystery of time, but we can come up with a few facts. The facts are that yes, Dr. Joseph Biamonti purchased the property and buildings in 1834 for himself and his young bride. Although here is where fact and fiction do go separate ways. This is because of 1834 Iowa not being a hotbed of corn farming. In fact, in 1834 Iowa was being described as “a sea of grass”. Both Native Tribes and a handful of European settlers were farming for their own needs. Large-scale commercial corn farming would not come to Iowa until the 1850s. This is long after the young woman would have left the territory of Iowa. The 1850s brought a lot of changes, the rise of cast iron as decoration, and the death of Dr Biamonti. The end of the 1850s sees the good Dr’s daughter build her own home. It is during this time frame of the daughter building her home that the cornstalk fence makes its debut.

The factory used several artists who designed the patterns. We do not have records on who those artists are, unfortunately. As luck would have it, the Biamonti family had great neighbors. The Miltenberger and Heine families lived across the street from them. It is the patriarch of the Miltenberger’s who opened up the ironwork company with Wood here in New Orleans. Miltenberger could import directly from the factory, saving him a lot of money.

While we do not have proof, it is likely that the two families were, at least, friendly with each other. With sharing young families, their ties could have been even deeper. It is not too far of a leap to have a neighbor offer a deal on the fencing. “Be the first to have it” would have been a fabulous selling point. It must have worked as the Royal Street residence was in 1858. The fence shows up in 1859 at Col. Short’s Villa in the Garden District.

The cornstalk pattern would remain beautiful and rare, as there are few examples of this pattern. The pattern had the bad luck of debuting when tempers were flaring pre-Civil War. The ravages of blockades and war meant that the cornstalk fence would have to try again after the war. Americans who had grown tired of suffering of war, embraced the beauty and joy of Romanticism. Bright colors and patterns are what Americans craved after the malaise of Reconstruction.

New Orleans is the only city with so many examples of of the cornstalk fence. We are so proud to share this beautiful and rare example of 19th century architecture. New Orleans can have these fences because of our strong history of preservation. 

So while the beautiful story of love and heavy metal isn’t true, we can still enjoy both the fence and a good story.

Next time you are in New Orleans, contact us so we may show you this beautiful pattern in person.

Book Your Tour

Visit the sites and examples of the cornstalk fence when you book your New Orleans tours. The French Quarter Tour and the Garden District walking tours take you to examples of this beautiful fence here in New Orleans. 

Written by Riding Writer

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