Colorful benches are labor of love for Magazine Street artist

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Dave Holt perches on one of the bus benches he built and placed at Bourdeaux and Magazine streets in New Orleans.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Dave Holt perches on one of the bus benches he built and placed at Bourdeaux and Magazine streets in New Orleans.

In the dark of night, a figure silently moves through the shadows of oak trees along Magazine Street.

Carrying a bundle, he is disconnected from the auspices of any community improvement organization, acting of his own volition.

Stealthily, he places a brightly painted bench at a bus stop for anyone who might wait to board the No. 11 Magazine Street bus. Working undercover, do-gooder Dave Holt, known as Magazine Street Dave, has built and placed at least a dozen 5-foot-long benches on Uptown street corners without being cited or even detected.

“At first, I was putting them up in the middle of the night and nobody complained,” said Holt, who likes to take the Magazine bus when he goes downtown to avoid parking his car.

The first bench appeared near Guy’s po-boy shop at Magazine and Valmont streets three years ago. Holt is a fan of Guy’s fried pork chop po-boy. Restaurant owner Marvin Matherne predicted the bench would be stolen within a day. But it is still there, as is a second bench across Magazine Street on the bus’ outbound route.

“People always say they will get stolen, but they never do,” Holt said.

Traveling from Canal Street to Audubon Park, the bus comes every 30 minutes, but the wait can seem long, particularly in summer heat. Holt said he hated standing at the bus stop and could tell everyone else hated it, too.

“It makes me happy to drive or walk by and see people sitting on my benches,” Holt said.

Holt made a bench for Domilise’s on Annunciation Street. Its shrimp po-boy sandwich, featured on the Travel Channel, can draw a crowd. The staff brought the bench inside for customers to rest until their numbers are called.

There are Magazine Dave benches in Audubon Park, outside Capital One Bank, Surrey’s Uptown, Xavier University Preparatory High School and Henry’s Bar.

Having worked in construction for more than 30 years, Holt hunts recycled wood and paints it with leftover samples from Lowe’s. “I’m always dragging stuff home, and it drives my wife crazy,” he said.

Sarah Holt admits her husband has hoarding tendencies, which she tries to keep in check, but making benches is his way of connecting to the community.

The benches have a definite New Orleans flavor, with beer and soda-bottle caps affixed to the sides with a staple gun.

He also makes wooden wall hangings decorated with bottle caps, some with literary quotes such as, “In memory, everything seems to happen to music,” by Tennessee Williams. Individual words in calligraphy are pasted on as with a ransom note.

Holt asked Matherne if he could hang his artwork on the walls at Guy’s. “We sold out the whole first set within a month,” Matherne said.

Another bench sits in front of Le Bon Temps RoulĂ©, a few blocks away, because “that’s my bar,” said Holt, who never misses the club’s free oysters served on Fridays. Bartender Peggy Myers believes people intuitively understand that someone took time to handcraft the benches, and that is why they are not stolen.

“I jog Magazine Street and see people using the benches every day,” she said.

Her oldest daughter keeps a cup in the kitchen to collect bottle caps and contribute to the cause.

“She tells me, ‘Mom, you have to drink more beer,’ ” Myers said.

Peggy and Townsend Myers met Dave and Sarah Holt the day the couple moved in next door on Bellecastle Street, six years ago. They’ve become good friends.

“They do little things, but they’re little things that add up,” Peggy Myers said.

Dave and Sarah Holt had never been to New Orleans until they visited for their first wedding anniversary. They fell in love with the music, food, lifestyle, climate and architecture, he said. Thereafter, the couple visited regularly and Dave Holt started playing New Orleans music in Lancaster, Pa.

“We were the only New Orleans band in the region,” he said.

In 2007, they came for Jazz Fest and started searching for jobs. As a physician, Sarah Holt quickly found employment. Dave Holt had intended to give up construction for music until he realized local musicians were working for tips. Instead, he volunteered with St. Bernard Project rebuilding flooded homes.

The Holts bought the first house they visited. Four musicians lived on the same block and it was walking distance to Tipitina’s — it was perfect. Their son enrolled at Isidore Newman School. The family became part of the local landscape.

By day, Dave Holt also spearheads a more public anti-litter campaign.

“He walks Ralph (the dog) up and down the street and picks up trash,” Peggy Myers said.

“How many people you know walk down Magazine Street and pick up three bags of garbage?” Matherne asked.

“He sweeps the whole block — an amazing fella,” Matherne said. “He’s everything a New Orleanian should be.”