In 1891, Lyle Saxon was born in Baton Rouge and, after attending Louisiana State University, moved to New Orleans to become a newspaper reporter. He played a pivotal role in the French Quarter Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.
When Saxon moved to New Orleans in the 1920s, the French Quarter was dilapidated and viewed as a dangerous area. Saxon restored a number of houses in the area and encouraged his friends to do the same. He also used the Times-Picayune to champion the renovation of the French Quarter. His friends credit him with playing a major role in transforming the French Quarter into “more art colony, less an underworld.”
Saxon began his career as a journalist and later gravitated toward a literary career. The latter part of his career was devoted primarily to work as the head of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project in Louisiana. Saxon was named the state director of the project in 1935, and was well known and well-liked among his peers. A great host and a gifted storyteller, he entertained at his three homes in the French Quarter, his apartment in Greenwich Village, his quarters on Melrose Plantation, and his suite at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans.
In 1937, Saxon bought the home at 534 Madison Street with the money he had earned from The Buccaneer, a film adapted from his novel Lafitte the Pirate. In the 1920s, Saxon had restored properties at 612 Royal Street and 536 Royal Street. He planned to make the property at 534 Madison his last restoration project before retiring there.
In the mid-18th century, Spanish soldiers occupied the property as they oversaw New Orleans’ transition from French to Spanish rule, and it was later converted into a slave hospital. The building that stands on the property today is an important two-story U-shaped porte-cochere building, constructed circa 1830 for Jules Baloc.
Baloc was attacked by a “mulatto” in the house and rescued by his slave, Baptiste. Before Baloc died from his injuries he left his fortune including a large number of slaves, to his wife. He freed Baptiste. The courtyard is framed by the main building and two wings which extend perpendicularly from the main building. The right wing has an attic story, and there are arcades on the first and second floors of one of the wings. The ground floor openings of the main building, however, have been greatly altered over the years.
According to Saxon, the house, with its elaborate courtyard, was “so peaceful and quiet … [that] I wanted to stay on, with Joe [Gilmore] to take care of me, and dream the rest of my life away, while I listened to the chiming of the Cathedral clock.” However, the Madison Street house meant “to keep him in his old age” did nothing but “ruin his middle years.” Not only did Saxon pour a great deal of money into the restoration project in the late 1930s, just as he planned to move from St. Charles Hotel, but his health began to fail and his duties at the Louisiana Federal Writers’ Project became increasingly demanding of his time.
Instead of moving permanently to the Madison Street home, Saxon continued to reside at his suite at the St. Charles Hotel, near his office. Saxon eventually sold the Madison Street home in 1945, but not before his close friend, John Steinbeck, married Gwyn Conger in the courtyard in 1943.