The Cabildo in New Orleans
200+ Years of History
The site where the Cabildo now stands was set aside for government use in the plan for the new town of New Orleans, as laid out in 1721 by the French military engineer, Adrien de Pauger. The first building to occupy the site was a corps de garde built in 1729. It was one of the first all brick structures in New Orleans, and was replaced after thirty years of use due to decay. Ignace Broutin and Bernard Deverges designed the new brick masonry building facing the public square along St. Peter Street.
On August 18, 1769, Marshal Alejandro, Conde de O’Reilly took formal possession of the colony for Spain. One of his first acts as governor was to establish a Spanish Cabildo for the government of New Orleans and to order the construction of a new town hall on the site of the prison of the corps de garde. The new town hall was built on the foundations of the old structure and was of brick between posts construction.
In early 1787, signs of decay were evident in the building and plans for a new structure were proceeding when the old Cabildo and a large part of the town were destroyed by fire in 1788. On the site a corps de garde, prison, and jailers quarters were erected but these were again burned in the 1794 fire.
Don Andres Almonester y Roxas financed the construction of the Cabildo, the St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbytère. Master Sergeant Guilberto Guillemard, a French architect in the military service of Spain, who had drawn the plans for the St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbytère after the fire of 1788, was chosen to design the new Cabildo. On December 4, 1795, construction on the present building began under the supervision of Guillemard. He incorporated the remains of the brick walls from the 1750s French corps de garde and the old Cabildo into the new building.
Originally, the Cabildo was a two-story stucco brick building with a flat, balaustraded roof, topped by urns. The lower story had an arcaded open gallery with a second story gallery above. Inside the building, two long rooms were separated by a heavy wall with five arches. These rooms were restored for the use of the corps de garde. The five windows in the old wall along St. Peter Street established the spacing of the windows of the new council chamber or Sala Capitular, which Guillemard designed to occupy the new second floor space.
Marcelino Hernandez, a skillful craftsman and native of the Canary Islands, created most of the wrought-iron work on the railings of the upper gallery and in front of the windows of the Sala Capitular. The railings are among the finest Spanish colonial wrought-iron work in New Orleans.
A fireplace in the lower room was placed at the Royal Street end, and the fireplace in the Sala Capitular was placed at the center of the long inner wall of the room. The fireplace mantel in the Sala Capitular was removed in 1825 when the building was remodeled for the Marquis de Lafayette. The existing cupola and steep mansard roof that forms the third story were added in 1847.
Within a twenty-day period in 1803, the formal cession from Spain to France and from France to the United States took place in the Sala Capitular of the Cabildo. The building was known as Maison de Ville during the brief period of French rule from November 30 to December 20, 1803. On December 20, 1803, the final transfer of sovereignty of the Louisiana Territory from France to the United States took place in a ceremony held at the Cabildo.
From the time of the Louisiana Purchase, a detachment of United States troops was housed in the lower floor of the Cabildo. In 1805, at the mayor’s request, the troops were withdrawn and replaced by the local police. By 1806, the Cabildo housed the mayor, city council, superior court and its clerk, the county judge and the city notary. The upper gallery was used as an emergency hospital when the charity hospital burned in 1809. The Grenadiers and other companies of the Louisiana Legion used it as a banquet hall in the 1830s.
The pirate Pierre Lafitte, brother of Jean Lafitte, was the most famous occupant of the Cabildo prison from which he escaped on September 5, 1814. At the time of Pierre’s escape, Jean Lafitte was in negotiations with the governor for his assistance in repelling the coming British invasion. Although a $1,000 reward was offered for Pierre Lafitte’s return to prison, he never returned to prison. President Madison pardoned his piracy on February 6, 1815 for aiding Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans.
In 1850, Louis Pilié designed a block of six cells three stories high that remain as part of the present structure. The Cabildo continued to be used by the government of New Orleans until the mid-1850s. The Sala Capitular was used as a courtroom from 1799 to 1803. The Louisiana Territorial Superior Court was held in the Sala Capitular from 1803 to 1812. The Cabildo also housed several libraries, including the New Orleans Library Association in 1819, the Law Association Library from 1847 to 1910, and a public school library from 1857. It was also the home of the Louisiana Supreme Court from 1868 to 1910. The Cabildo continued to be used for public offices until 1911, when it became the Louisiana State Museum. It was at this time that the Supreme Court moved to a new building. The lower floor, which was occupied by the police station and the Second City Criminal Court, was not used by the museum until 1914.
1803 Louisiana Cession
In 1902 Swedish artist Thure de Thulstrup was commissioned to paint this depiction of France’s transfer of the Louisiana Territory to the United States for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Thulstrup selected the dramatic moment when the American flag was raised in the middle of Place d’Armes (present-day Jackson Square). In keeping with historical accuracy, the Cabildo is shown lacking the mansard-roofed third story added in the 1850s.
Preservation and Restoration
In 1895, William Woodward led a successful campaign to preserve and restore the historic Cabildo, which was in a state of decay and was proposed for demolition. Woodward’s campaign for the preservation of the French Quarter led to the establishment of the Vieux Carré Commission.
The Cabildo was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. An exhaustive research was undertaken in 1966 prior to the restoration of the Cabildo. Murvan M. Maxwell and Denvrich C. LeBreton were appointed as architects along with the firm of Richard Koch and Samuel Wilson, Jr., as associates. It was determined that most of the old walls of the French corps de garde survived the fires of 1788 and 1794, and had been incorporated into the present building. The French colonial floor structure of bricks on edge as described in documents from the period was found beneath layers of flooring. It was decided that this oldest part of the building would be restored to its approximate appearance at the time the Cabildo was completed in 1799. This included the replacement of the small French casement windows along St. Peter Street and the reconstruction of large open fireplaces on their original foundations. The central arcade was restored with a pier that had likely been removed when the museum was established in 1911.
Following the research, a plan was developed to provide circulation throughout the Cabildo, including the Arsenal and the Jackson and Creole houses. A new stair and elevators were added, and links between the Cabildo and Arsenal were built. The mansard roof was extended to conceal the elevators and provide access to the third floor. The rooms on the second floor were restored to their appearance at the time of the Louisiana Transfer in 1803. The extensive restoration of the Cabildo was based on research, early plans and structural evidence.
The pediments on the doors opening from the front rooms to the upper gallery were restored based on the one remaining example located on the end door of the gallery nearest the Cathedral. Cristobal Le Prevost sculptured the originals in 1799.
Many original structural details were discovered throughout the restoration. In the original lamplighter’s room on the ground floor nearest the Cathedral, a floor of bricks was found, with each brick about eight inches square and two inches thick. A floor of clay tile of the same size and colour had been used to replace it. The room had retained its original beamed ceiling and casement windows, and its fireplace was restored based on the indications on the wall and ceiling. The exterior of the six cells was restored based on original drawings.
The main stair was left unchanged, with the exception of an arch beneath it to the courtyard that was restored to provide a view and access to the courtyard. Old, segmental-headed doorways found in old walls were reopened. In the courtyard, the rear stair was enclosed in glass and louvers to provide air-conditioned access to rear buildings.
On the second floor, the gallery, its doors and over-door pediments were restored. Two mantels, previously installed in the Presbytère, were used in the small private office and anteroom adjacent to the Mayor’s parlor. These rooms and parts of the stair hall were the only areas on the second floor to retain their original beamed ceilings. The original beams had rotted and were replaced and plastered when the mansard roof was added in 1847. New beams were added to the ceiling below the structural timber in these areas to restore the original appearance.
On the third floor, it was discovered that the walls had been sheathed with high flatboat timbers, covered with split cypress laths and plastered. The old crumbling plaster was removed and most of the flatboat timbers were left exposed along with most of the truss members.
In the upper part of the stair hall the timbers were left untouched on the walls, except for cleaning. The roof trusses in the large room nearest the cathedral were left exposed to reveal their mortise and tenon peg construction of 1847. The stair leading to the cupola was left in place and extended to a small balcony from which the trusses can be examined. The cupola was repaired, and two rear attic rooms with 1847 mantels were replastered.
Spanish Cannon (ca. 1812)
This Spanish long cannon was originally mounted at Fort St. John near Lake Pontchartrain, known to locals as Spanish Fort. It was used in the American defenses at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and then once again during the Civil War against Captain Farragut’s fleet in 1862. It was sunk in Bayou St. John after the city’s capture. The cannon was raised in 1872 to return it to Spanish Fort for display. Prominent businessman, Fritz Jahncke, gave the cannon to the Louisiana State Museum in 1908.
On May 11, 1988, a third fire struck the Cabildo when a welder’s torch used during roof repairs sparked a blaze that destroyed the museum’s third floor, roof and cupola. Firefighters, museum employees and volunteers rescued many of the museum’s treasures from the burning building. After the fire, the State of Louisiana provided funds to repair the building, but not to replace museum exhibits. The citizens of New Orleans launched the Cabildo Rebuilding Fund to raise the millions of dollars needed to restore and replace museum artifacts. Thousands of people from across the United States donated to the fundraising campaign as well. The Cabildo was restored and reopened to the public in 1994.
Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, passing 30 miles east of downtown, with relatively minor damage to the downtown area. Days after Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana State Police used the business offices of the Cabildo to set up Troop N. The “N” was a designate for New Orleans. From the Cabildo, Louisiana State Troopers patrolled the streets of the city along with other state police agencies from New Mexico and New York.
Friends of the Cabildo
Friends of the Cabildo is a private non-profit volunteer group that provides financial and volunteer support for the Louisiana State Museum, its projects and properties. Since incorporating in 1956, Friends of the Cabildo has grown into a statewide membership organization supporting the goals of the Louisiana State Museum. They offer two-hour walking tours of the historic Vieux Carré (French Quarter) with an emphasis on architecture, history and folklore.
Tours are held Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30 AM to 1:30 PM. Reservations are not required.
Friends of the Cabildo
1850 House Museum Store
523 St. Ann Street on Jackson Square
Telephone: (504) 524-9118
Tickets: $20, $15 Students/Seniors/Active Military
The Cabildo Louisiana State Museum
The Cabildo is located at 701 Chartres Street across from Jackson Square in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM. The museum is closed on state holidays.