Madame Pontalba’s Buildings
Jackson Square, and the land around it, was always for the use of the public, or so it seemed. There was the church, and the priests’ house, and the town hall with the prison. There was the square itself, with its parade ground, and the view of the river. The idea of flanking the sides with important buildings was a natural one. The French put the governor’s house there, along with one for the top administrator, the intendant.
Today the church and the old government buildings are standing in their current incarnations, but flanked on the sides by the stately and privately-built Pontalba Buildings. In 1849 the Baroness Pontalba came home from France to her native city to build them on land she inherited. Somehow, years earlier, the Spanish crown had allowed her father, the notary Almonester, to acquire the lots where the governor’s house had once opened to French-style gardens. In later years, long rows of military barracks had succeeded them. But by 1780 Almonester had two rows of rental properties on them, the base of a fortune in real estate. When the town burned down some years later, he had the wealth to design and reconstruct the church and the Cabildo, especially after he raised rents in the fire-devastated section. After his death in 1798 his widow, reluctantly, made good on his earlier promise to rebuild the Presbytere also. And so it was that Madame Pontalba’s father before her had shaped the appearance of the public square. In her own time, she would meet the challenge of what was by then a family tradition.
Baroness a strong-willed designer and shrewd business woman
The Baroness was both designer and business woman. Would the council relinquish the sidewalk to erect colonnades to render that portion of our city pleasant in all seasons? The design is upon the Palais Royal and the Place des Vosges of Paris! And would the council agree to a tax break for twenty years in light of our expenses in this project, in which we beautify our city? In an age when houses took six months to complete, the Pontalba buildings were a dozen years in planning and two years in construction. Begun in the spring of 1849, they were not finally finished until the winter of 1851. The Baroness had hired and fired the finest architects of the community, used their plans, then altered the product to her liking. The result was an amalgam of Creole, Parisian, and Greek Revival tastes and uses. A mélange, perhaps, but a reflection of the sophisticated preferences of their creator.
Thirty-two stately row houses, sixteen to each side
The buildings are row houses, thirty-two of them, sixteen to the side, each with three stories and an attic. If the outsides with their cast iron galleries are French and American, the floor plans are Creole. There are stores downstairs and doors leading to passageways instead of stair halls. At the end of the strange dark passageways, stairs curve gently to the second and third floors and the privacy of residences. Downstairs a walkway shelters customers. It is that way because Creoles liked to live upstairs on the second and third floors–the premiere and deuxième étages–and because Madame the Baroness Pontalba wanted it that way.
Elegant Pontalbas spur development of Jackson Square
In response to her plans the council began its own building program. The Cabildo and Presbytere soon had third floor, French-style Mansard roofs like those in nineteenth century Paris. Church wardens let a major contract with the architect de Pouilly to rebuild the cathedral. The council then had the city surveyor design and build the iron fence around the square and redo the inside landscaping. The Andrew Jackson Monument Association gathered funds to erect an equestrian statue of their hero. By the middle 1850s Jackson Square was in the form it has had for parts of three centuries, substantially unchanged.
Today the Pontalba buildings are owned by the city and the state, gifts of citizens. There are still stores below and residences over them. And tenants carry groceries down the long narrow passageways to the gently curving staircases leading to the upper floors.
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 New Orleans.