A center-hall cottage in the Carrollton neighborhood is on its way to becoming a local landmark for its distinction as the last residence of John Kennedy Toole, the author of the Pulitzer-awarded novel “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
The Historic District Landmarks Commission approved the building at 7632 Hampson St. at its October meeting for further study, the next step in becoming an official landmark.
Although the property has displayed a Orleans Parish Landmarks Commission plaque since 1987, it does not have landmark protection. The designation would help to safeguard the site’s preservation.
Toole lived in the house from 1966 to 1969, the year he died at 31. During that time, the “Dunces” manuscript mostly stayed at the top of an armoire in his bedroom, according to a biography.
The senior editor at Simon & Schuster had returned the manuscript in 1966 after a year of back-and-forth correspondence and revisions. Reportedly stung by the rejection, Toole began living with his parents in the rented house at Hampson and Adams streets.
The location was convenient to his job teaching literature at St. Mary’s Dominican College, an all-female Catholic liberal arts college at Broadway and St. Charles Avenue. (The college closed in 1984, and Loyola University purchased its campus.)
Toole also made steps toward finishing his doctorate, enrolling at Tulane University in 1968. It wasn’t long, however, before his colleagues and students noticed increasingly erratic behavior and signs of paranoia, according to biographers.
He didn’t return to Dominican after winter break in 1969. Instead, he set off on a three-month road trip, ending near Biloxi, Mississippi, where he died from asphyxiation, leaving a suicide note.
His mother, Thelma Toole, famously lobbied for the publication of “Dunces” after his death, eventually soliciting the help of novelist Walker Percy.
Although it had an arduous road to publication, the book quickly caught the public’s attention after its release by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. It first attracted a cult following, then became a commercial success once it received the 1981 Pulitzer for fiction. It has sold more than 2 million copies in over two dozen languages, according to LSU Press.
The book is beloved for its humor and its adroit portrayal of New Orleans’ idiosyncrasies. As Kenneth Holditch, a Tennessee Williams scholar, wrote of Toole: “No other writer, native or otherwise, seems to have known the city as well nor to have been able to evoke its sights and sounds and smells as powerfully as he.”
The house at 7632 Hampson was approved for landmark study because of its connection to Toole. It is also, as Sandra Stokes of the Louisiana Landmarks Society noted in her letter of support, “architecturally beautiful in its own right.”
The five-bay Italianate style cottage dates to 1889 and stayed with its original family for more than a century. It appears well-preserved, with louvered shutters, intact double-hung windows, an iron fence, and a row of brackets supporting the front overhang.
The house was built for John Paul Hecker Jr., a grocer who lived there with his wife and 11 children until his death in 1909, according to Robert Cangelosi Jr.’s “New Orleans Architecture, Volume IX: Carrollton.” Two of the Heckers’ daughters purchased their mother’s share in 1944 and bought out their siblings’ shares in 1952.
They retained it as rental property until 1995, when it was sold for $150,000. It has changed hands three times since then, Assessor’s Office records show, most recently for nearly $1.7 million.
The HDLC staff will now thoroughly study the property to determine whether it meets the city’s landmark criteria. To be designated an HDLC landmark, a site must be found to be of “particular historic, architectural or cultural significance.”
The commission will vote on whether to declare 7632 Hampson a landmark after the HDLC staff completes its study.
Editor’s note: This story was corrected to reflect that Toole committed suicide outside of Biloxi, not in Biloxi. His body was found by a Harrison County sheriff’s deputy. Also, the name of the Louisiana Landmarks Society was corrected.