Valley of the Dolls’ House

I probably should have bolted as soon as I saw the reception menu included something called a “Cascade of Fruit.” Or when the brochure heralded the large collection of dollhouses. Actually, the gaudy pink rose wallpaper that greeted me when I stepped into the antebellum foyer might have tipped me off.

If not the foyer itself, than the giddy bride to be, her plaid skirt unwrinkled, her diamond solitaire large but tasteful, and her mother, in a cashmere sweater and helmet of hair, ought to have been a clue that this wasn’t my kind of place.

Stephen, my mom, and I braved the wet weather and took the streetcar to the Garden District to look at potential wedding venues, so look we would. We were damp and, for New Orleans, regrettably sober. My hair, which does unspeakable things when it’s humid, and my bright orange jacket were immediately out of place. However, the House of Broel, like many Garden District residences, just screams “Get Married Here!”

For a couple of history nuts and nostalgic displaced Southerners like Stephen and me, the house was particularly seductive. Built in the 1850s and expanded in 1884, it’s got enough verandas, wrought iron, and ornate woodwork to make us swoon. The problem was twofold: we are, by Southern wedding standards, an unconventional couple, and I, by any standard, am a terrible bride.

We’d been together for more than 10 years and engaged for two by the time we made our wedding planning trip to New Orleans, but after all that time, we didn’t really know what kind of wedding we wanted. New Orleans itself was the only thing we were sure of. We knew we liked history, gluttony, and drinking during the day, so the city was the perfect choice.

Terrible bride that I am, I’d never imagined my wedding day in anything other than abstract terms. Worse, I wasn’t motivated to supplement my lack of vision with any kind of research.
Back when we went public with our engagement, I flipped through wedding planning books and immediately felt overwhelmed. For a couple that fancied the idea of a party where they ended up married rather than an actual wedding, the literature on the subject mostly just harshed our buzz.

In retrospect, more concrete knowledge about the norms of wedding planning might have saved us some agita, even if it was just to learn the rules so we could choose not to follow them. At the time, we were mostly just terrified of getting sucked into the wedding industrial complex and becoming discouraged about the whole business. Everything seemed so expensive, so stylized, so controlled.

In our previous trips to the New Orleans, our research focused on things like where to get the best Ramos Gin Fizz instead of where to stage magic moments, so we went into the three-day research trip essentially cold. We made a loose list of places that looked promising and figured we’d drop by each of them, just to get a feel. That was our first mistake.

Did you know wedding venues want you to make an appointment before you come by to look around and pick up a brochure? I sure didn’t. They probably covered it in one of those books I didn’t read. Miss Plaid Skirt and Mrs. Hair Helmet obviously did, but with just a hint of shocked derision, they and the proprietress of the House of Broel let us tag along on their tour.

Although I understand that Ms Broel was at one time a clothing designer and is currently a wedding planner, nondenominational minister, and dollhouse collector, her primary occupation seemed to be that of Proper Southern Lady. Gracious, elegant, and polite, she was also rather rigid.

The house was similarly elegant and unyieldingly ladylike. And pink. The rose wallpaper in the foyer was just the beginning. The walls, the drapes, and the carpets were all shades of pink, from seashell to Pepto. Here and there, on top of a bureau or table, sat a meticulously detailed dollhouse, untouchable behind glass panes. Combined with the antebellum architecture, it was like a sorority house for Scarlett O’Hara, Emily Post, and half a dozen Disney princesses.

I knew, at least in theory, we’d be struggling against the relative inflexibility of the Southern wedding format. I wasn’t prepared for the way Ms Broel ignored Stephen, presumably from the assumption that my mother and I had forced him to come along on the feminine exercise of venue selection. His opinions couldn’t have mattered less.

I also didn’t know how unimportant our personalities and preferences could become. At the House of Broel, ceremonies were held in one of three locations only. Food at the reception, always a buffet, was chosen from a set menu that included the Cascade of Fruit. Said fruit was always arranged on a specific table in the dining room.

Finding myself unenthused by the menu, I mentioned that we were thinking of having the ceremony in one location and then going with our guests to a restaurant for a more formal, seated meal. Ms Broel, with all the sniffy hauteur of an etiquette teacher who just caught you eating salad with a crab fork, dressed me down utterly.

“This,” she said, “is New Orleans. In New Orleans, people like to have fun. No one can have fun sitting down at a table.”

With that, the subject was closed.

At some point in the process, what I can only assume was some kind of trance came over my mother. A woman known for her direct manner and lack of willingness to kiss butts had become passive and polite, utterly in Broel thrall.

As Stephen became accustomed to being ignored and I started searching for some way to avoid anymore of Ms Broel’s attention, my mom grinned and nodded. She expressed a hitherto unguessed interest in dollhouses. I was tugging her sleeve, trying to get her attention so we could plan an escape, but she didn’t seem to see me.

Instead, she was agreeing with Miss Plaid Skirt and Mrs. Hair Helmet that it would be a smashing idea to deviate from the standard wedding tour and go upstairs for a peek at the full dollhouse collection.

I don’t have anything against dollhouses. In theory, I find the minute attention to the historical details of domestic life rather fascinating. In practice, an whole floor of a house filled of dozens of miniature rooms with wee mannequins locked behind glass in an eternal simulacrum of an imagined past is straight up creepy.

There was even a scene of a miniature bride, dressed in her lacy meringue gown, waiting for a wedding ceremony that would never happen. As we stared at the little frozen people in their little formal rooms, I started to feel like, if I turned around fast enough, I’d catch a glimpse of an even bigger person staring down at me.

After easily 17 hours of shuffling from dollhouse to dollhouse, peering in and trying to find new ways of saying, “Why that’s quite small and detailed!” and “Indeed, that furniture looks exactly like a tiny version of real furniture!” we headed back downstairs for the crown jewel of the House of Broel.

The room looked like a bedroom, complete with a canopy bed lushly draped in pink velvet, but no one ever slept there.

Ms Broel said, “This is the room where the bride, along with her mother and bridesmaids, gets dressed.”

Presumably, the groom is relegated to a shed out back somewhere. She led to a wide bank of mirrors, brightly lit, with a raised, rotating platform in front like a giant Lazy Susan. She swept her arm out and said, her voice loaded with drama,

“And here is where the bride will stand, like a princess, to admire her trousseau.”

Until that moment, the lovely garden and dramatic architecture, the immersive Southern-ness had me thinking that the House of Broel was still a viable venue. I thought we could possibly work around the pink drapes and fierce proprietress. When I saw the princess platform, I knew there was no way.

Stephen caught my eye, which was no doubt as round as the Lazy Susan itself, and for the first time in the wedding planning process, we were totally in accord. We still didn’t know what kind of wedding we wanted, but we knew there was no way we’d be having it there

I’m a terrible bride, and Stephen’s an opinionated groom. We were in New Orleans to have fun, and we knew nobody ever has fun locked in a fairytale mansion.

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