Features of the French Quarter
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in the muddle of the French Quarter's raucous street life linger
elements that still impart a kind of stately antiquity. They
are Spanish and French-era pieces. Some are rightly celebrated
for their survival of the epochs; others, dressed in
garish costumes at the shop level, maintain a quiet dignity
overhead. There are only about a dozen known Colonial
era buildings in the Quarter. Surely more would have
survived except for two late eighteenth century fires. But
armed with some simple guidelines, you can recognize the early
types. Check the corner of Chartres and St.
Louis Streets. There, on the river side of Chartres is
a house with a well-known restaurant and a balcony. Note
that the balcony is higher than usual, almost too high for
the building. The arched, barred transoms under it are
bringing light to a short middle floor called an entresol. This
is where the old Spanish shopkeeper Juan Paillet kept his wares. The
entresol house was an early experiment in vertical living,
with the shop on the ground floor, the warehouse in the middle,
and an elegant residence on the upper level. Note the
type at 440 Chartres, at Bourbon corner Bienville, at Royal
corner St. Louis, and in mid-block at 500 Decatur. Most
date to the 1790s.
Brennan's Restaurant at 417
Royal is an example of a more elaborate business and residence
of the late Colonial period. Dating to the 1790s, it was
once a private bank and home. The Banque de la
Louisiane, whose initials are on the balcony, made the building
public in 1805. In the early 1900s it first became
a restaurant called the "Patio Royal." It has
been the home of Brennan's since 1946.
The Girod House at 500 Chartres corner St.
Louis, is better known as Napoleon House.
Tradition abounds, both as to its one-time purpose as a haven
for the deposed Emperor, and in modern times about the charms
of its resolutely unregenerate bar. Its rear wing was built
just after the Great Fire of 1794. The three story main
part, with its towering belvedere, dates to 1814.
Above the tavern is an elegant salon and residence, now
restored for entertaining.
Another private home in the grand style was
that of Bartolome Bosque at 617 Chartres,
dating to 1795. Its Arabesque monogram on the balcony represents
the style of Spanish Colonial ironworking in New Orleans.
This type of home is called a "Creole townhouse."
One accesses the rear by a porte-cochere or carriageway,
and ascends the stairs in the rear of the building. Creole
townhouses never had inside stair halls. Bosque's daughter
Suzette was the third wife of the state's first American governor,
W.C.C. Claiborne. On his third try the governor finally
married a Catholic, making better friends with the Creoles!
She proceeded to outlive him.
Like the Bosque House, the Pedesclaux-Lemonnier
House, 640 Royal at St. Peter, has a colonial origin. Begun
by the grand old Spanish notary Pedro Pedesclaux, it was sold
to a doctor from the islands. In 1811 Dr. Yves Lemonnier
had the building enlarged, adding his initials to the balcony.
His curved-wall salon on the second floor is the finest in the
Quarter. After the Civil War, a later owner added
the fourth floor, making it a "skyscraper." The
building was identified with George Washington Cable's romance
"Sieur George" in later decades. Today it is sadly
hung with T-Shirts.
The old Spanish Cabildo and
Presbytere or priests' house flanking the
St. Louis Cathedral, were designed for the Spanish governing council
by Guillemard, a French-born architect. The Cabildo, built in
the style of Spanish town councils in Spain and the Americas,
was begun in 1795. The Presbytere has never housed clergy,
although buildings underlying its site were always the priests'
residence. Also begun in 1795, it was not completed until
1847 and was used for most of its history as a court house.
The Mansard roofs on both buildings were added in 1847.
For nearly a century both buildings have been part of the Louisiana
"Madame John's Legacy,"
another Museum property at 632 Dumaine, is also named for a romance
by Cable. Dating to 1788, it was built immediately
after the great fire that year, duplicating the house type of
the French Colonial era. With its free-standing mass and
surrounding galleries, it is more like a French West Indies home
than a Spanish townhouse. Still, its first owner was a Spanish
officer and its builder an American, Robert Jones!
The hall-less floorplan here is important. It is three rooms
wide and two rooms deep with cabinets and cabinet
galleries, a derivative of French-Carribbean house types.
The oldest building in Louisiana and the Mississippi
Valley is the stately Convent of the Ursulines
at 1100 Chartres. Designed by a French-trained military
engineer in 1745, it was completed in 1753. It resembles
Continental French buildings of the Louis XV period more than
colonial institutions. The façade we see from Chartres
is the rear of the building, which faced the river and was surrounded
by herbal gardens. The nuns used their herbs and potager
to feed their staff, students, orphans, and soldiers whom
they cared for in the neighboring military hospital.
Jackson Square, the old Place
d'Armes, is the oldest space in the city. Laid out
with the town in 1718, it was always the parade grounds.
The city began to make improvements to it in the 1830s, adding
trees and walkways. The fence and equestrian statue of Andrew
Jackson, hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, date to the 1850s.
Sally Reeves is a noted writer and historian
who co-authored the award winning series New Orleans Architecture.
She also has written Jacques-Felix Lelièvre’s New
Louisiana Gardener and Grand Isle of the Gulf – An Early
History. She is currently working on a social and architectural
history of New Orleans public markets and on a book on the contributions
of free persons of color to vernacular architecture in antebellum