History of the French Quarter
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Founded as a
military-style grid of seventy squares in 1718 by French Canadian
naval officer Jean Baptiste Bienville, the French Quarter of New
Orleans has charted a course of urbanism for parts of four centuries.
Bienville served as governor for financier John Law's Company
of the Indies, which in naming the city for the Regent Duc d'Orleans
sought to curry Court favor before failing spectacularly in the
"Great Mississippi Bubble." The French Period legacy
endures in the town plan and central square, church of St. Louis,
Ursuline Convent and women's education, ancien regime street names
such as Bourbon and Royal, the charity hospital, and a mixed legacy
of Creole culture, Mardi Gras, and the important effects of African
enslavement combined with a tolerant approach to free persons
The "Spanish" Quarter
In 1762 the indifferent Louis XV transferred Louisiana to his
Bourbon cousin Charles III of Spain. Emboldened by a period of
Spanish vacillation in taking power, Francophile colonists staged
a revolution in 1768, summarily squelched by Alejandro O'Reilly
with a firing squad at the Esplanade fort. Spanish rule lasted
for four decades, imparting a legacy of semi-fortified streetscapes,
common-wall plastered brick houses, and walled courtyards used
as gardens and utility spaces with separate servants' quarters
and kitchens. Olive oil cooking and graceful wrought iron balconies,
hinges and locks in curvilinear shapes, and strong vestiges of
civil law remain from the Spanish presence. After great fires
of 1788 and 1794, the Cabildo or town hall, Presbytere or priests'
residence, and ironically the "French" Market, arose
to take a permanent place in French Quarter history.
After the Louisiana
The 1803 Louisiana Purchase, signed within the elegant salon of
the Cabildo, transferred the colony to the United States, inaugurating
an era of prosperity. American culture made slow inroads, largely
owing to the arrival of 10,000 refugees of the French and Haitian
Revolutions and Napoleonic wars. The "glorious victory"
of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, led by Indian fighter and future
president Andrew Jackson over numerically superior British forces,
fixed loyalty to the American nation. The French Quarter's golden
era followed as cotton, sugar and steamboats poured into the city.
American, Irish, German, African and "Foreign French"
immigrants swelled the population, creating a heterogeneous matrix
of culture, language, religion and cuisine.
Civil War to WPA
Civil War and Reconstruction, played out politically on the streets
of the French Quarter, put an end to prosperity and inaugurated
a tug of war between reform and machine factions as the Old Square
declined. Creoles moved to Esplanade and later Uptown, and famine-driven
Sicilian immigrants found cramped lodging in the grand spaces
of French Quarter mansions of the 1890s. The 1900 birth of jazz
in nearby Storyville nurtured musical legends Jelly Roll Morton,
Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Nick
LaRocca, and other jazz and ragtime greats. By 1920 the legacy
of a storied past first celebrated by George Washington Cable
and Lafcadio Hearn in the 1880s attracted writers and artists
in increasing numbers. William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Tennessee
Williams and Truman Capote were among American writers attracted
to the French Quarter for its freewheeling urbanism, quaint surroundings
and creative stimulus, even as the building stock declined.
Vieux Carre Commission
Nineteen thirty-six marked the onset of regulatory controls in
the form of the state-sanctioned Vieux Carré Commission.
Residents dug in to preserve the quaint and distinctive character
of the old Quarter as art galleries and antique stores sprouted
on Royal Street and brassy Dixieland-style jazz flourished in
Bourbon Street nightclubs and strip joints. By 1960, with traditional
jazz in decline, Preservation Hall emerged to serve beleaguered
musicians. Here Sweet Emma Barrett and other traditional and largely
African-American musicians found appreciative and sober audiences.
Today, these and other preservation battles are the order of the
day as increasing pressure from a tourist-driven economy lures
some 10 million visitors annually to the time and foot-worn streets
of the Vieux Carré.
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