Manor House

Originally a servants' quarter

Originally a servants’ quarter

Former home of O.J. Key
Russell Guerin
The years at my home in Clermont Harbor were maybe just too good to be true. I called it “Harbor View,” and my first grandchild said it was “Paw Paw’s Beach.” I now call it simply “my land,” because that’s about all it is now, after Katrina.
I still love the site, even though it is mostly bereft of trees. I rebuilt my little pier and bought a small boat, neither of which I use much anymore. I even tried trailer living, but a Fema trailer is indeed all things one reads about. Vandalism was rampant because of the seclusion of my site, and the trailer was positively trashed by vandals before Fema finally sent someone to get it.
But the Mississippi coast, whether it be at Clermont Harbor, Pass Christian, Bayou Caddy or Bay St. Louis, still beckoned. After I gave up on the trailer, I took up a suggestion from Marco that I should maybe rent an apartment. My first reaction was that there could not be many available, what with other misplaced residents wanting to return.
I checked anyway, and much to my surprise, I was able to secure a two-bedroom unit one block from the beach in the Bay, and two blocks from the historical society. That was almost three years ago, and I have not doubted the wisdom of my choice.
I may not be building any equity, but paying rent is sometimes a good choice. In this way, I have my headquarters near to the historic society, giving me a way to continue what I have enjoyed for the last fifteen years, while I keep another apartment in New Orleans for its obvious advantages.
Manor House is the complex where my apartment is located. It is, however, misnamed, but that is not all bad.
When I first took up residence there, the managers happened to find out that I was a volunteer researcher at the historical society, and they asked me to find out what information was available about the building called the manor house.
I am always hesitant to inform someone that what had been believed – or at least hoped for – is not historically correct. But being the good people that they are, in this case they were happy to find out the right information.
To begin with, the so-called manor house is a very attractive building, with architecture in keeping with what would have been expected of 19th century construction. From the beginning, though, I had my doubts.
The primary reason for my lack of conviction that the main house used to be a plantation home lay in the fact that it faces a side street, one that would probably not even have been cut many years ago. It is pleasing to the eye, situated just behind a grove of old oaks, and so it looks authentic, except for it facing the wrong way. Any self-respecting plantation owner would certainly have built his main quarters with a direct view of the Gulf.
A simple checking of our standing files disclosed that in the first half of the 20th century it was called the O.J. Key house. That in itself was an exciting find, for having been somewhat a fan of Tulane sports in my younger years, I recognized that name. Key, even now, is still honored in Tulane’s halls. He was a great athlete and a star football player, still holding – as far as I can tell – the record for the longest punt in Tulane history.
Initially recruited by Frank Leahy for Notre Dame, Key enlisted to serve his country in World War II. After release from service, he enrolled at Tulane. There, he became a star half back. The punt record is for 87 yards against Florida on October 5, 1946.
After a game against USC in Los Angeles, a Hollywood scout noticed Key and offered him a screen test. The result was a long career in western movies, usually in bit parts, but nonetheless productive. He played opposite John Wayne, Tony Curtis, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Robert Stack and James Arness, among others.
He was quoted as saying that he went to Hollywood to kiss all the pretty girls, but wound up just kissing horses.
After his acting career Key returned to Louisiana again, and lived for a time at what is now called the manor house.
As it turns out, my interest had been aroused to review the Tulane star’s history, but I have since found that the “manor house” had actually been purchased by the athlete’s father, who was O.J. Key, Sr. Nonetheless, I am happy to have reviewed the old memories of Tulane football.
As both Mr. Key, Sr. and Jr. are now deceased, requests were made of relatives to find what else can be known about the history of the house. What we found was that it had traditionally been thought to have been the servant quarters for a house facing the beach and long since burned down. One note from a relative, an email in our files, reads in part, “He remembers seeing real estate history about 4 or 5 inches thick telling about the history of the house. The house was originally the kitchen and servant quarters (probably house slaves) for a French land grant that went from Waveland to Pearl River….Whoever bought the house from Mama Casey was given the papers that told the history.”
That email goes on to name an attorney thought to have passed the act of sale in 1964 or 1965. I had interviews with some of the descendants of the Key family, who added that the documents mentioned traced the origin of the title to a land grant from “King Louis.” I was also told that the name of the attorney was incorrect, and that he had in fact been Freddie Gesevius. Finding that he too was long deceased, I gave up any attempt to find the papers.
Of course, if anyone who reads this happens to know of such documents, it need not be explained that they could add substantially to our history.
A city map of Bay St. Louis dated 1897 shows the building in question as being to the rear of 508 Front Street, which included what is now 216 Front. The latter site was once owned by by Mrs. G.H, Boyle; regrettably, her home burned in 1901. Good photos show a lovely house with a tree house built into an old oak near the beach.
Later, this became the land of the Tulane Hotel, which included according to our maps, the subject “manor house.” It can be identified on early Sandborn insurance maps.
Early photos show the building as it was before wings were added. It then looked like a traditional raised servant quarter, two stories plus and attic, with a veranda and five columns.
By a matter of luck, I have another file, this one about the Jackson House, on land that is now Buccaneer Park. For many years after Jackson lost his holdings in Hancock County, it was leased to the deBlieux family. One of the descendants of that family had given me several pictures of buildings in the complex. One was of the servant quarter, a remarkably similar construction to the manor house.
Eventually, I delivered some of the photos of the original building to the managers of Manor House Apartments. Instead of being disappointed at not having proof that it had been a plantation house, they were thrilled to know the actual history. These photos were then framed and hang proudly in the manager’s office.