New Orleans Architecture 
The United States has but few cities wherein the architecture of their original inhabitants has left a permanent stamp of distinctiveness and individuality. New Orleans is one of them. As a city within a city, its Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, is unique; for this original portion of New Orleans still retains the same architectural dress and flavor that characterized it more than a hundred years ago. Perfectly conceived and admirably suited to the needs of its early citizens, the straight, narrow streets and brick houses of this old town remain as a monument to the people who first settled Louisiana.
[ continue ]
[ continued ]
But the architecture of New Orleans is more than that. It is a living chapter in the changing panorama of the city's historical and social development. The original city plan, as designed by Bienville and his engineers, was similar to that employed in the erection of most outposts in Louisiana. The town was rectangular in shape and was surrounded by a palisade and foss fortified by five forts. The streets, of even length and width, ran at right angles, and a place d'armes, or public square, occupied the central portion of town facing the levee in front of a small church. As the old quarters became too cramped, the city sprawled out gradually in several directions; while from its distant outskirts an inward movement took place. The curvature of the river, and the annexation of suburbs before the development of low-lying, swampy central areas was completed, made uniform street-plotting a difficult matter.
All the environmental changes brought about by the growth of the city coincided with other changes in wealth, social consciousness, desires, ambitions. These influences crept in as the city grew in size and importance; so that instead of retaining their original aspect, the houses and public buildings of New Orleans acquired a motley appearance, which owes its existence to the fusion of many tastes and temperaments. Thus the individuality of New Orleans, which is at variance with the character of other cities, likewise varies within itself. Certain localities stand out by virtue of their own peculiar architectural make-up, to which they cling tenaciously in the face of changing modes and modern standardization. Besides the old French Quarter, the two other sections of the city that most amply repay the architecturally minded visitor for his trip are the Garden District and the headwaters of the Bayou St. John.
Two centuries of expansion and change have not robbed the Vieux Carre of its identity. Few of its present buildings, to be sure, were erected by the founders of the city; yet most of those that stand today are reminiscent of the eighteenth century, having absorbed its charm, it would seem, through heredity. The earliest structures, hurriedly built of split cypress slabs, were of no architectural importance. They merely served as makeshift residences until the advent of the Ursuline nuns and the files a la cassette, whereupon more substantial and comfortable buildings became necessary. The half-timber method of construction was borrowed from Europe. Durable structures built of brick laid in between timbers (briquete entre poteaux, in which the soft porous quality of the domestic bricks was reinforced by stout cypress timbers) gradually replaced the wooden dwellings, although not until after the great fires of 1788 and 1794 did this type of construction gain widespread acceptance. These early buildings were of a type frequently found in European towns; that is, they usually combined shop and residence in one, the proprietor and his family dwelling above his place of business, in the gabled rooms under the roof. The houses were all low-roofed, seldom over a story and a half in height, with a wide, projecting overhang protecting the sidewalk, the roof sloping invariably toward the front and rear, and generally having gable ends at the sides. Occasional dormer windows and centrally located chimneys relieved the monotonous pitch of the roofs. This style of building persisted long after brick, stucco, and slate roofs were introduced; so that today the visitor may wander along street after street in the Vieux Carre and see many small shops of brick plastered over, the falling off here and there of the plaster revealing the soft-toned orange brick.
The finest example of the original French construction remains standing today in an excellent state of preservation. It is the Couvent des Ursulines, later known as the Old Archbishopric. The exterior of this two-storied brick edifice, with its plain stucco-finished facade, its high-pitched roof and well-spaced dormer windows, and its tall slender chimneys, strongly suggests the contemporary French Renaissance architecture. The interior, however, is quite plain and unpretentious. Its great bare beams remain today just as they were left by the axe that fashioned them. Completed in 1734, this building is said to be the oldest now standing in the Mississippi Valley, although recent research shows that Madame John's Legacy, 623 Dumaine Street, has a claim to the distinction.
Half a century after the city was founded it was under Spanish domination. And despite their unpopularity, the Spaniards gradually superimposed their own architectural ideas upon those already established. The eventual result was a native style, part French, part Spanish, but not quite either or even both, which has no duplicate on the American continent. This new type of architecture flowered during the third epoch of the city's growth; that is, in the years following the two conflagrations that ravaged the town of virtually all its original residences and public buildings. At first the changes in design were relatively slight. One-and-a- half-story buildings, which served as residence and shop, continued in vogue; but tile and slate roofs replaced shingled ones, and brick houses superseded frame ones, in a concerted city-wide effort to prevent future disasters. Now, however, a more dignified class of establishments began to appear, two full stories in height, or two stories and an attic.
This was the era of the patio or courtyard dwelling. Wealthy citizens began building large houses along Royal, Bourbon, Conti, St. Louis, and Toulouse Streets, the chief function of which was to provide comfort and spaciousness in a neighborhood which, with its sloppy, poorly drained streets and narrow lots, gave evidence of neither. Originally created for the sake of expedience, these houses form the most architecturally interesting group of buildings in the Vieux Carre. They are in a real sense, as one authority says, architecture, inasmuch as their style and arrangement are founded upon the fundamental conditions of a contemporary society. Social customs, climate, local materials, and cultured taste have each contributed toward making these delightful dwellings almost personal witnesses of their environment/ Latter-day architects have found it difficult to devise anything more suitable for year-round habitation in New Orleans than these elegant courtyard dwellings.
They were built flush with the street line, and instead of affording a broad, flowered front-lawn vista from a wide veranda, such as was common to their contemporaries, the plantation dwellings on Bayou St. John, they hid their interior beauties from the outside world. Casual passersby saw nothing but a plain, two-story facade fronting the banquette, above which hung a lacy, web-like pattern of ironwork galleries adorning the second stories. These delicate traceries, which offset the austerity of the smooth-stuccoed brick walls and delighted the eyes of generations of visitors, have been pronounced by critics the chief distinction of New Orleans architecture.
Of the two distinct kinds of ironwork, wrought and cast-iron, the wrought decorations are the older. For grace and balance of mass, and painstaking craftsmanship, this is the finer work; but the intricate detail of the cast-iron is more varied.
Charming but preposterous tales have been circulated concerning the making of these grilles and balconies. They are supposed to be the handiwork of unskilled slave labor, sweating before open hearths; other legends have them made by the brothers Lafitte, Jean and Pierre, whose black smith shop was a blind for the lucrative trade of slave-smuggling. The Lafittes were even said to number among their black ivory customers such respectable citizens as the church wardens of the cathedral, and the Governor himself, all entering the shop ostensibly to contract for iron mongery.
These tales, though interesting, are highly improbable; although records show that the Lafittes did own a blacksmith shop there is nothing to show that the shop was ever anything other than a blind. The earliest ironwork was imported, there being then no known deposits of iron ore near New Orleans. According to Stanley Arthur's Old New Orleans, the wrought-iron decorations were probably made in the vicinity of Seville. Mr. Moise Goldstein and other authorities, however, dispute the Seville origin. Later, local artisans began to produce wrought iron comparable to the imported article.
The more pretentious houses used monograms, the initials woven repeatedly through the design. This fashion extended well into the cast-iron era, which dawned in New Orleans in the late 1820's. By 1840 cast-iron had superseded the finer, but more costly, hand-wrought decorations. It was clear that there were great possibilities for freedom of design in a material that could be easily worked into intricate and delicate lines, and the early architects immediately put aside the tendency to appropriate the architectural forms and ornaments of other nations and sought their motifs of design in the infinite variety of plant growth luxuriant in their own southern climate. The tulip pattern, the rose vine, the morning glory, the maize, and the live oak predominate in the work produced at this time. Among the other designs one of the most interesting is the bow-and-arrow, in which the bow is a bow of ribbon tying two crossed arrows.
To enter the courtyard house one passed through massive portals into a high-arched flagstoned alleyway which, wide enough to admit a carriage, led from the banquette to an inner courtyard garden, surrounded by high walls that provided an abundance of shade throughout the day. Life in such habitations as these possessed a distinctly European flavor; for the inhabitants, seated in their cool patios or on the verandas that surrounded them, enjoyed absolute freedom from the hot, dusty streets. Most of the houses of this type were built during and immediately after the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The exquisite details of fan windows, spiral staircases, handrails, door panels, and cornices are still revealed today.
After 1840, a new era, born of antebellum opulence and expansion, had begun. Along with the demand for more cotton and more slaves, flush times on the Mississippi created a corresponding demand for newer, finer, costlier mansions. During the quarter-century between 1835 and the Civil War probably more elegant homes were built in Louisiana than during any other period before or since. It was the era of the Greek Revival. Archaeological discoveries in and around Athens set a new mode in American architecture: residences, public buildings, hotels, churches, theaters, tombs all were designed in what was thought to be the best tradition of ancient Greece. The effect was extremely imposing.
Many of the finer residences built during this period are still in use. Most of them are concentrated in the neighborhood above Jackson Avenue, now known as the Garden District because of the spacious and beautifully flowered grounds that surround the houses. As a class, the houses themselves are large, and represent the highest expression in domestic architecture that the wealth and talent of the day were capable of producing. Usually designed with an L-shaped plan, these massive brick houses rise to a height of two or three stories, their side-wall surfaces of plain, smooth stucco or plaster, adorned with richly designed cast-iron galleries, ending in a parapet unbroken by conspicuous horizontal band or cornice. Two tall chimneys, which serve the fireplaces in their double drawing-rooms, break the raked lines of the side wall that mark the gable end of the roof; while tall windows and doors relieve the classic plainness of their colonnaded facades the arrangement being one of perfect symmetry.
The interiors of these mansions are stately and elegant in effect, and often monumental in proportions. High ceilings, often sixteen to eighteen feet on the ground floors, blend harmoniously with tall French windows and double doors; the mahogany handrails of the gracefully curving stair cases are most delicately turned. Smooth, white plastered walls, surmounted with cornices of ornate plaster scrollwork and the fine marble mantels and full-length mirrors, standing in adjoining drawing-rooms, complete a background of classic beauty.
Coincidental with the development of the two types of residential architecture mentioned above, a third style of dwelling arose. It may be called the plantation house, for want of a more specific name, since that was its original purpose. This style of architecture probably owes its origin to the Spaniards, though the dictates of climate and environment were primarily the cause of its widespread adoption. Basically, this type of dwelling differs from the courtyard and Greek Revival residences in that it generally has all its main rooms on one floor, through the center of which runs a wide hall that gives independent access to each room. The house is raised some eight or nine feet above ground level and is completely surrounded by a broad veranda that rests on massive, round brick columns, which are in turn surmounted by slender wooden posts that support the overhanging eaves. The piazza or corridor beneath the veranda is usually paved with flagstones, and the basement beneath the house may be used for service quarters, laundry, and the like. A straight, wide staircase in the center front leads to the veranda, which is accessible from virtually all rooms because of their tall French windows. There were, of course, numerous variations in this basic type, particularly in exterior columnar treatment.
Many simple plantation homes as well as a number of extremely elaborate ones are still scattered throughout Louisiana, but in New Orleans only a few remain. They are most concentrated in the neighborhood of the Bayou St. John headwaters, where they stand today, long after the plantations that surrounded them have been subdivided into city blocks. The Schertz residence, formerly the old custom house, typifies this style of architecture, though variations of the plantation house can be seen in the Westfeldt residence at 2340 Prytania Street, the Delord Sarpy home at 534 Howard Avenue, the Olivier Plantation house at 4111 Chartres Street, the Stauffer home, No. 3 Garden Lane, which was formerly the Hurst Plantation, and Madame John's Legacy in the Vieux Carre.
New Orleans best-known monument to the age of the Spanish domination is the Cabildo. The solid repose of this edifice, originally known as the Casa Curial, or courthouse, emanates from the graceful repetition of massive arches that make up its facade. Yet an air of delicacy is also manifest: the French wrought-iron balconies and the proportioning of the cornices, pilasters, and pediment are delightful to an eye trained in the appreciation of architectural details. The one incongruous note in the whole conception is the mansard roof, which, with its dormer windows and cupola, was added half a century after the Cabildo's erection in 1795. As originally conceived, both the Cabildo and its neighboring counterpart, the old Presbytery, which was built in 1813, were flat-topped structures, their pediments rising several feet above the roofs; while the Cathedral, originally designed in the Spanish mission style, with short bell-shaped towers on each side of a central pediment, was considerably different from its present appearance.
Nevertheless, Jackson Square today possesses an individual charm of its own. Together with its entourage of stately buildings, it is a monument to Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, the altruistic Spanish grandee whose funds built the cathedral where he lies buried; and to his daughter, Micaela, Baroness Pontalba, who in 1848 built the long row of handsome red-brick apartments that still bear her name, and bestowed the name of her friend General Jackson upon the place d'armes.
Among other public buildings of the city's early period, the French Market deserves mention. Built in 1813, it is an arcaded structure of stuccoed brick, with a flagstoned floor. The plan is that of a central corridor or promenade from end to end, with stalls between the arches or columns.
Another fine old building, designed in 1822 by Latrobe, one of the architects who designed the Capitol at Washington, stands at the corner of Conti and Royal Streets. Heavily constructed of brick, and as nearly fireproof as was then possible, this building originally housed the Louisiana State Bank. Diagonally across from it stands another brick building, massive and colonnaded, which was erected in 1826 for the Bank of Louisiana. The list of public buildings in the Vieux Carre runs on, too extensive to permit individual treatment here; yet each building deserves more than the visitor's merely casual attention.
Paul Morphy's house, another former bank building, the old United States mint, the old arsenal behind the Cabildo these can still be appreciated because they can be seen. But the splendor that belonged to such buildings as De Pouilly's masterpieces, the St. Louis Hotel, and the Citizens Bank adjoining it, and to Gallier's French Opera House, and to the old St. Charles and Orleans Theaters, has perished forever. The loss of the St. Louis Hotel, with its dome constructed of hollow cylindrical earthenware pots, has been termed an architectural calamity. A still greater calamity is in store, however, for unless the famous old buildings of New Orleans are carefully and properly preserved against the corrosive effects of time and modern standardization, the city will eventually lose its most distinctive claim to fame a native architecture that flourished a century ago and has never been equaled since.
But perhaps New Orleans is fortunate in that even a few of its most impressive old edifices still stand, gallantly serving their original purpose. The men who built them built well: the Dakins, the De Pouillys, and the Galliers, pere etfils. The elder Gallier was perhaps the ablest exponent of the Greek mode; at least he preferred it to the exclusion of all other styles. Besides the numerous fine residences he built, he was commissioned to design several public buildings, churches, banks, and the original St. Charles Hotel. The City Hall is probably the finest example of Gallier's art. Completed in 1853, this building is hardly surpassed in dignity and beauty of proportion by any other building of the Greek Revival in the United States.
Some of the most interesting architectural forms in New Orleans are to be found in the churches and cemeteries. Generally speaking, the earlier churches, like their contemporary dwellings and mansions, deserve the greater recognition; for they were designed and built by men whose sole idea was to create simple, straightforward edifices for the purpose of worship. One is immediately struck with the dignity of conception and precise workmanship evident in such fine old buildings as these: Saint Louis Cathedral; Saint Alphonsus, on Constance and Josephine Streets; Our Lady of Guadalupe, on Rampart and Conti Streets; The Holy Trinity, on St. Ferdinand and Dauphine Streets; Saint Augustin, at Bayou Road and St. Claude Avenue; Rayne Memorial, on St. Charles Avenue and General Taylor Street; and Saint John the Baptist, 1139 Dryades Street.
Nathaniel C. Curtis writes: 1850-1860 was a period when brick masons of rare skill flourished in New Orleans In these old churches built entirely of brick, architectural forms and details appropriate to brick have been devised and employed with an intelligence superior to that shown in later work. It may be said with probable truth that as examples of the organic expression of brick architecture, these edifices are hardly equalled by any elsewhere in the United States, and are fairly comparable to the latter fifteenth century brick churches of Rome. The exteriors of these early churches are, on the whole, in better taste than their interiors. The splendid little Holy Trinity Church on St. Ferdinand Street, however, proves an exception to that statement, for there are combined grace, harmony, and simplicity of design and execution, both inside and out.
Street Names in New Orleans
The visitor on a tour of New Orleans finds a great deal of interest and amusement in the endless list of odd names attached to the streets of the city. Those familiar with the five successive eras of government and the racial comminglings which have finally given the life and population of the city its cosmopolitan atmosphere will see in these names an epitome of the colorful history of New Orleans.
The French sought to perpetuate the memory of the reigning royal family of France by naming for its members several streets in the old French Quarter. Here one finds Royal, Dauphine, Toulouse, Bourbon, Dumaine, and Burgundy Streets. Bienville, Iberville, and many other personages connected with the early history of New Orleans are likewise honored. The nuns who became the first teachers and nurses in Louisiana established themselves on a street, the name of which was afterward changed to Ursuline in their honor.
The early French and Spanish settlers showed their religious inclinations in giving to streets such names as Conception, Ascension, Nuns, Religious, Annunciation, Piety, and Assumption. Scores of streets were named for their various saints, such as St. Louis, St. Peter, St. Ann, and St. Philip Streets. Other names which are somewhat unusual are Virtue, Genius, Pleasure, Desire, Humanity, Industry, and Mystery Streets.
The classical names of Greek mythology were not ignored when the city was being laid out. Among streets named for mythological characters are Calliope, Euterpe, Terpsichore, Melpomene, Polymnia, Erato, Clio, Urania, and Thalia. In addition to the Muses one finds such names as Homer, Socrates, Ptolemy, Coliseum, Dryades, and Olympia.
Several Governors of the State and mayors of the city, as well as prominent Louisiana planters, soon became included in New Orleans street names. Among the many Governors thus honored were Nicholls, Galvez, and Claiborne; mayors whose names were attached to streets include Freret, Capdeville, Behrman, and Montegut. Outstanding citizens whose names are familiar through street names include Forstail, Marigny, McDonogh, Clouet, and Delord. National figures, such as General Pershing, Henry Clay, Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Beauregard, were also drawn into street nomenclature.
The aborigines who had first inhabited Louisiana and adjoining territory are also well represented. Tchoupitoulas, Opelousas, Choctaw, Apache, Chippewa, Chickasaw, Navajo, Teche, Cherokee, Natchez, and Seminole are among the names of tribes honored with street names. Some of the most fascinating chapters of early Louisiana history are bound up with the redskins who once flourished along the Louisiana shores.
The civic councils showed their literary bent, also, when new streets were being laid out and the city enlarged. Among those of great literary fame one finds Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Rousseau, Poe, Hawthorne, and Spencer. Even astronomy was resorted to for Zenith Street, Mars Place, and Eclipse Alley.
One street is called Perdido, since legend has it that this by-way once lost itself in a cypress swamp. Another was called Julia Street, and writers assure us that Julia was a free woman of color. Other names which are typical of the State or section of the country are Magnolia, Pelican, Bayou Road, Redfish, and Iris.
Nearby Towns: Gretna City •