Some people call it the Valery Nicholas House. Others call it Casa Hinard or Casa Flinard. The plaque next to the door identifies it as the one-time home of Casa Hové perfumery.
But for die-hard fans of New Orleans film, the two-story 1808 Creole cottage at 723 Toulouse St. is the “Lolita” house.
It’s there that filmmaker Adrian Lyne set up shop in 1995 to film scenes for his big-screen adaptation of the scandalous Vladimir Nabokov novel, starring Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged professor undone by his obsession for the 14-year-old title character.
While in town, Lyne’s “Lolita” — which starred the then-15-year-old Dominique Swain opposite Irons — also filmed at Loyola University, New Orleans Athletic Club and the auditorium of the CBD’s Masonic Temple building.
But 723 Toulouse makes as big an impression in Lyne’s film as any other New Orleans location, doubling as Humbert Humbert’s apartment during his stint at the fictional Beardsley Academy.
“(It’s) like a borrowed piece of clothing,” production designer Jon Hutman said of the film’s French Quarter scenes in a November 1995 interview with The Times-Picayune. “There’s a sense of decadence and decay, where Humbert starts coming apart at the seams — something a little hot-housey, a little overgrown.”
The stuccoed brick two-story at 723 Toulouse is also, preservationists will tell you, a particularly good example of architecture from the city’s colonial era, built, as many structures of the time were, to house a first-floor business with living quarters above.
Located just a few steps from Bourbon Street and the former site of the old French Opera House, it’s built on land once briefly owned in 1802 by Geronimo Hinard, thus its recognition by some as Casa Hinard.
It’s also sometimes called “Casa Flinard,” the result of an apparent misreading of the original cursive writing in historic documents related to the site.
According to a 1959 history of the building by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, the land was acquired by Valery Nicholas in 1807 from the heirs of Jeanne Touton Lemme, a free woman of color who had purchased it from Hinard. A relatively new but relatively small home was then situated on the lot, but Nicholas had it razed and hired architect-builder Hilaire Boutte to design a larger, two-story building to replace it.
As designed, Boutte’s building featured a porte-cochère, or carriageway, on its northwest end, leading through a brick-paved corridor to a brick-paved courtyard.
Show me the ‘Money Gate’
Just inside the carriageway is a metal gate known as “the Money Gate” (and which Irons passes through in a scene from “Lolita”). As the story goes, the gate was originally part of the old U.S. Mint but was acquired and installed at 723 Toulouse after the original gate was melted down to make ammunition during the Civil War.
Good fortune is said to await those who rub it.
A replica of a staircase designed by English architect Christopher Wren leads up to the second floor, where four additional rooms are situated. Four sets of French doors lead out from the biggest of those rooms onto a second-floor balcony overlooking Toulouse Street.
An old attic, adapted over the years for use as an apartment, peeks out onto Toulouse from a central gable window protruding from the traditional slate roof.
Out back, a service wing originally housed a kitchen on the ground floor and a dining room on the second level.
Few changes to the original
Preservationists have hailed the home for its relatively few alterations, but, like Swain’s character in “Lolita,” it’s something short of virginal.
Specifically, a 1955 watercolor housed in the Library of Congress — which was in turn based on an 1852 sketch from the Notarial Archives — shows that the ground-floor façade has been altered over the years.
The location of the carriageway hasn’t changed, although a window that was located next to it on the first floor has since been replaced by a set of doors. Additionally, a former door on the southeast end of the building’s façade has been converted into a bay window, presumably for display of wares by a downstairs business.
Early in its history, that first-floor business was a gunsmithy. From 1938 to 1982, it was home to the aforementioned Casa Hové perfumery, which still operates on Chartres Street.
More recent history
Since Casa Hové vamoosed, the “Lolita” house has been home to a range of businesses from art galleries to the Irish Shop of New Orleans to Uptown Izzy’s, a designer clothier.
“So far as we can learn, there have been no historical events of importance connected with the house,” the Historic American Building Survey history notes, “but because it is typical and centrally located, it could have served as the setting for many stories of the Vieux Carré.”
Those words, written in 1959, now seem prescient, as 723 Toulouse has been featured in a number of film and TV productions over the years.
That includes doubling as conspiracy theory figure David Ferrie’s apartment in Oliver Stone’s 1991 drama “JFK,” about the investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
Three years later, in the 1994 music video for Boyz II Men’s number-one single “On Bended Knee,” the R&B stalwarts crooned from the second-story balcony.
And then, a year after that, along came Lyne and his “Lolita.”
Given the famously squirm-inducing subject matter at the film’s core — that is, pedophilia — Lyne had trouble finding a distributor. Eventually, the premium cable channel Showtime aired it in 1998.
After that, it got a limited theatrical release. Unlike Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version, it drew praise for its faithfulness to the novel, even if it could never come close to capturing Nabokov’s brilliance with the language.
Today, 723 Toulouse is more of a faded beauty, one that looks its age.
Humbert Humbert would loathe it.
But when it comes to capturing that “sense of decadence and decay,” it’s perfectly cast.
Sources: The Times-Picayune archive; the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Collins C. Diboll Vieux Carré Digital Survey; Library of Congress; Historic American Buildings Survey
Know of a New Orleans building worth profiling in this column, or just curious about one? Contact Mike Scott at [email protected].
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