Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, an early governor of French Louisiana, founded Vieux Carré in 1718. The City of New Orleans later developed around the district of Vieux Carré. The Great New Orleans Fire on March 21, 1788 and a second significant fire in 1794 destroyed most of the district’s original French colonial architecture. The Great Fire of 1788 began when a candle ignited the lace draperies of an altar in the home of the colony’s military treasurer, Vincente Jose Nunez, on Chartres Street. The Church of St. Louis, the priests’ residence, and the Casa Principal, which housed the Cabildo, were among the buildings destroyed by fire.
Father Antonio de Sedella, who was pastor of the church, wrote of the rapidity of the fire. Father de Sedella wrote in a letter on March 28, 1788, that he had sent several church records to the home of the tobacco director, “distant from the Presbytére about two rifle shots,” but they were lost when that house caught fire. By early 1789, the charred remains of the church were removed and construction of a new church began, which was completed five years later in December 1794.
The Spanish overlords of the late eighteenth century rebuilt Vieux Carré in the Spanish Colonial style. Many of the ornate buildings date from 1803, when New Orleans was acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.
The old French peaked roofs were replaced with flat tiled roofs, and wooden siding was banned in favor of fire-resistant stucco that was painted in pastel hues. As a result, the colorful walls and roofs and elaborately decorated ironwork balconies and galleries from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries gives the French Quarter its unique architectural style.
After the fire in 1794, strict fire codes were mandated to ensure that all structures were physically adjacent and close to the curb to create a firewall. The Cornstalk Hotel at 915 Royal Street was exempt from the new fire codes. The hotel is listed on the National Historical Register, and is the most photographed hotel in the French Quarter.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Anglophone Americans began to build on available land upriver, across modern-day Canal Street. This thoroughfare became the meeting place of two cultures, one Francophone Creole and the other Anglophone American. Local landowners retained Barthelemy Lafon to subdivide their property to create an American suburb. The median of Canal Street became a place where the two cultures could meet and do business in French and English. The median on Canal Street became known as the neutral ground.
Prior to the Civil War, French Creoles had become a minority in the French Quarter, and in the late nineteenth century the French Quarter became a less fashionable part of town, after immigrants from southern Italy and Ireland settled in the neighbourhood. In 1905, the Italian consul estimated that one-third to one-half of the Quarter’s population were Italian-born or second generation Italian-American. Irish immigrants also settled heavily in the Esplanade area, which was called the Irish Channel.
In 1917, many French Creole families began to move uptown when vice and prostitution activities from the Storyville neighbourhood moved into the French Quarter. Two years later, the French Opera House was destroyed by fire, marking an end to the era of French Creole culture in the French Quarter.
In the early twentieth century, cheap rents attracted a bohemian artistic community to the area. In the 1920s, many of those new inhabitants became active in the first preservation efforts of the French Quarter. As a result, the Vieux Carré Commission (VCC) was established in 1925. The VCC was an advisory body until a 1936 referendum to amend the Louisiana constitution gave it a measure of regulatory power, and it began to exercise more power in the 1940s to preserve and protect the district.
Since the 1920s the historic buildings in the French Quarter have been protected by law and cannot be demolished. Building renovations and new construction must be made in accordance with city regulations to preserve its historic architectural style. On December 21, 1965, the “Vieux Carré Historic District” was designated a National Historic Landmark.
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.
Architect Louis H Pilié built New Orleans’ most famous landmark, Place d’Armes, in 1721. Pilié based his design on the seventeenth century Place des Vosges in Paris, France. Clark Mills‘ statue of Battle of New Orleans hero and future US President Andrew Jackson, for whom the square was renamed in 1815, was erected in 1856.
Life in the French Quarter centers on Jackson Square with its collection of artists, musicians, and tarot card readers. Formal concerts and the French Quarter Festival are held annually in Jackson Square. The St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytère, the Cabildo and the Pontalba Apartments overlook Jackson square.
The Pontalba Apartments
Built in the 1840s at a cost of more than $300,000, the Pontalba Apartments are two matching four-story red brick buildings that overlook two sides of Jackson Square. The French, Creole and Greek revival style buildings are named for Baroness Micaela Almonester Pontalba, the only child of Don Andres Almonaster y Rojas, a leader of one of the oldest Creole families in New Orleans. The Pontalba Apartments were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974.
Today, the ground floors house shops and restaurants, and the upper floors contain apartments that are the oldest continuously rented apartments in the United States. Prominent residents and guests of the apartments include William Faulkner, Somerset Maugham, Edna St Vincent Millay, Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Booth Tarkington, and Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind.
The Presbytère is an important historical building in the French Quarter along Jackson Square, adjacent to the St. Louis Cathedral. The Presbytère and the Cabildo, with their impressive Spanish Colonial architecture, are prominent features in one of the most important architectural plazas in the United States. Today, the Presbytère is a state museum with exhibits from Hurricane Katrina and the Mardi Gras.
St. Louis Cathedral
The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France with its three towering steeples, is one of New Orleans‘ most notable landmarks. Today, it is more commonly known as the St. Louis Cathedral. New Orleanians have worshipped in Roman Catholic churches on the site of the Cathedral since 1718.
The French Quarter remained substantially dry due to its distance from areas where levees were breached during Hurricane Katrina. Although the neighbourhood is five feet above sea level, some streets had minor flooding and several buildings suffered significant wind damage. Fortunately, most of the major landmarks suffered minor damage, and nearly all of the antique shops and art galleries escaped the looting and violence that occurred after the storm. On September 26, 2005, Mayor Ray Nagin officially reopened the French Quarter to business owners so that they could inspect and repair their property. Within a month, a large number of businesses had re-opened.
Did you know?
- The French Quarter is approximately 78 square blocks and includes all of the land along the Mississippi River from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue and inland to North Rampart Street.
- Millions of tourists visit its bars, boutique shops, hotels, restaurants, and music venues annually.
- The most popular areas are Bourbon Street, Chartres Street, Royal Street, Jackson Square, and the historic French Market.
- Street musicians have performed on the streets of the French Quarter for more than a century.
- The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone is the perfect venue to see the fabulous Lena Prima perform with her band.
- Free concerts are held in Jackson Square during the French Quarter Jazz Festival.
- The Café du Monde serves its famous beignets and café au lait 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
- The French Quarter is one of a few places in the United States where possession and consumption of alcohol in open containers is allowed on the street.