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Blood, Mobsters, and Feds: the Purpera Building Revealed

 

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This is the Purpera Building, a familiar sight to anyone traveling on North Boulevard near downtown (corner of 18th Street). I’ve wondered for years about the former uses of this building. 

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Why yes, this is a photo of my own photo from my book because we are technologically distanced from an external hard drive where the file lives

Well!

Hold onto your masks, because you're about to learn about some of the life and a few of the sordid times at the Purpera Building. 

I first shot a dismal-looking Purpera exterior in 2007 and then went inside the building in 2008 after Hurricane Gustav blew the boards off the windows.

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There were no real clues, just lumber, litter, and a Red Dog tallboy can, but there was a lovely pressed tin ceiling.

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The structure's original purpose still eluded me as I was wrapping up work on my book in 2018, but I did discover one of its uses: from the '50s through the '70s, it was Vince’s Bar and Lounge. (Remember bars?) 

Frequented by local politicians and Holsum Bread employees, Vince's featured a mahogany bar and racing results coming over ticker tape. According to Donna Bonura Lensing, the daughter of operator Carlo Bonura, they had the best roast beef po’ boys in town.

Vince's was also the kind of place where everybody probably knew your name but they were not always glad you came. 

 

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Above is just one of the follies of Vince’s bar to make the paper, from 1955. Poor F.L. Smith. And they gave his address, which seems unnecessary.

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And above is another caper from 1970. Discuss.

That clip says the place had been closed down, but they must’ve reopened, because two years later Vince’s made the news again. In 1972 a man interceded in an argument and the arguing woman stabbed him in the hands, chest, and back with his own knife.

"I remember the rooftop break in," said Donna Bonura Lensing. "After the race riot in [the] early 70's daddy closed it and moved to another location, changing the name to The Tallawah. Holsum bakery had already moved to North Baton Rouge and he followed them. The neighborhood declined."

Thereafter, Donna says, "I'm not sure if anything was viable in that building. Not too very long ago a potter was using it as a studio." 

But back to the salacious bits about this building. 

"Many an illegal bet was placed there, until the Feds raided and dad arrested," she said. "His bookie career came to a halt and our income was never the same! Old Baton Rouge men that are still alive have some secrets about this place. Dad moved The Tallawah to Lobdell and Jefferson Highway in the '70s."

The mahogany bar came with him from Vince's, and Bonura operated the Tallawah until his death in 1988. Donna says the original bar from Vince's is still in the building that housed his last bar, which is now Cafe Americain.

Baton Rouge music producer and promoter S.J. Montalbano's 2018 memoir, "I'm Leaving it Up to Me," included what Donna calls a "not-so-flattering chapter" about Carlo Bonura at Vince's. She said it tells how her dad introduced Montalbano to singer Dale Houston, one half of Dale & Grace who performed the 1963 hit "I'm Leaving it Up to You," as well as New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello. Of the former figure, the Washington Post said "there is reputable suspicion that the long-time Louisiana mob boss helped mastermind the JFK assassination."

I'm awaiting confirmation from Montalbano and would love to hear about his memories of the site (will update if I hear from him, but I see there is a chapter titled "Making Dale Houston an Offer He Couldn't Refuse"). But if the Marcello bit is true, it's probably safe to say the Purpera Building was once a mafia hangout of Baton Rouge. 

 

Note: Some of this information was presented locally in 2018 when promoting my book, Abandoned Baton Rouge: Stories from the Ruins and the rest gleaned from communications with Donna soon after. In writing this post, I saw that a journalist has since taken a deeper dive on the building's history, which you can find here

Comments

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Wendyvee

Great piece!
"Frequented by local politicians and Holsum Bread employees" might be the favorite sentence fragment of my (very long) quarantined day :)

I'm sure that you're like me and wish that the walls could talk!

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