So, cool! New Orleans recommends “restrained maintenance” of its historic buildings to preserve their aging patina, and I’m all in favor. I wondered just how aged they could be. What’s the oldest building in New Orleans? Who knows? My own house is older than the city of Portland thinks it is. Memories are short, and their curators dead.

But 632 Dumaine Street is a valid contender. It now belongs to the Louisiana State Museum, and they’re proud of it and furnished it with appropriate antiquities. It’s an early wooden entry dating possibly to 1726, before they started making nice brick buildings with what we shall call unpaid labor. “Possibly,” because whenever it was built, it had to be rebuilt after a fire that took out 80% of the city, but a bunch of its components were presumably recycled.

It’s not that impressive to me, even as an “excellent example of Louisiana-Creole residential design.” It looks like a box with garages underneath. No doodads. No wrought-iron frippery. I’ve seen similar apartment complexes dating from the 1970s here. But heck. Antiquity, and all that. It’s got verandas front and back. Well, so do I, and no one’s giving me period furniture.

1726 would certainly be plenty early for the town, which was officially founded in 1718. Where I live, you’re not going to find anything of that vintage. The oldest standing building in Portland dates to 1857 and it wasn’t until the 1860s that anyone found a mud-patch dry enough to plunk a house down. My sister Margaret’s house in Maine is quite a bit older than that and there’s nothing distinguished about it at all. There are lots of old houses in Maine and they’re still standing, because anytime it looked like they were going to keel over, someone slabbed on another section to hold it up. Now they lurch across the landscape in the Early Catawampus style and are casually maintained with redundant paint.

The Dumaine Street house in New Orleans caught my eye, though, because it is nicknamed “Madame John’s Legacy,” after a character in a short story by George Washington Cable, a then-renowned New Orleans author said to be the “first modern Southern writer”—the John The Baptist to William Faulkner’s Jesus. George Washington Cable is famous in my house for being my great-grandfather. So I pulled out my copy of “Old Creole Days” and read the short story in question, “‘Tite Poulette.” Two pages in, Madame John is bequeathed a house on Dumaine Street, sells it, puts the proceeds in the bank, and the bank promptly goes under. That’s the whole mention, in a much longer story, but it was good enough for the citizens of New Orleans to decide this house was Madame John’s Legacy, and it might as well be, because Madame John is fictional.

Cable had a wry and humorous cast to his prose and mainly wrote about class, caste, and color in Creole New Orleans, and this story is typical in its sly indictment of miscegenation laws. Meanwhile, white New Orleans was embarking on its post-Civil War enterprise of terrorism and re-enslavement. The Jim Crow project was clipping along pretty well, featuring decidedly unrestrained maintenance of a permanent black underclass, with help from the KKK and various paramilitary groups. Cable was not on board with the program, and—by the genteel standards of the time—he was mouthy. By 1885, he had been made to feel considerably less welcome in his home city, and he moved north, where he continued to take eloquent potshots at the Southern racist establishment from a pleasant perch in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Remarkable, really, all of it. Only three generations back, someone in my family predated the entire city of Portland by fifteen years, and white supremacists are still going strong.