to bottom: The French Style Par Terre Garden of the Beauregard-Keyes
House; An Ornamental Garden Wall of the Place d'Armes Hotel.
walled gardens. Banana trees and gingers in shady enclosures. Wisteria
and bougainvillea spilling over brickwork. Colorful cannas in mass
profusion. Fragrant sweet olives reaching higher. The very notion
of the walled garden suggests two-fold values. Urban living with
privacy. Enclosed but outdoor spaces. The works of nature, green
and flexible, with the works of mankind, solid and mineral. "No
garden should be without a wall," says garden writer Mirabel
Osler in The Garden Wall. This seems to be a given in the New Orleans
French Quarter. What was indeed a calamity for the inhabitants,
when the town burned down twice in the late eighteenth century,
gave rise to walled courtyards, which lasted. In the earlier Colonial
period, the old French lots were wide and spacious. Houses sat
in mid lot, with flat and spreading par terre gardens around them.
The sunny potager or kitchen garden was a necessity. But after
the two great fires, houses rose with new and closer alignments
on deep but narrower properties. Adjacent buildings rested on common
side walls (carefully computed as to costs, of course), and along
the street the fronts were continuous. This pushed open spaces
rearward, giving rise to walled spaces with vertical accents.
Creole chickens, guinea hens
and privies out back
Sometimes numerous dependencies made the courtyard irregular and
complex. Early Creole houses had detached kitchens, placed not
at the rear line, but along the sideline or in the middle. The
arrangement broke up courtyards into working spaces with an observable
hierarchy. At the bottom of the "pecking order" was the
basse cour, the rearmost space behind the kitchen, devoted to chickens,
guinea hens and other comestibles--along with the privy. More prominent
sections contained cisterns, corners for clothes drying, a place
for some cooking chores, perhaps a well or a fountain. The rise
of public markets toward the end of the eighteenth century made
the colonial potager unnecessary in these spaces.
Ornamental features competed for space in
working courtyards of the antebellum period. Building contracts
tell us that the yards were always paved for work and traffic.
Small, rounded brick gulleys carried water to the street on an
imperceptible decline. Sometimes, a modest flowerbed was included
in the courtyard. It might hold shrubs of althea, camellia, or
pomegranate. Ferns, jasmine, and Rosa Montana could grow along
a sidewall, staying out of trouble politely. When an owner had
the equivalent of two lots, everyday work could proceed in the
rear of the main house, while a French-style par terre flourished
near it. Visit Beauregard House on Chartres Street or the Hermann-Grima
House and Gardens on St. Louis Street to note this phenomenon.
as bathhouse and outhouse
Courtyard gardens were less detectable after the Civil war in
the Quarter when yards were dirty and the immigrant poor used
courtyard wells and fountains for bodily washing. Old photograph
collections document well the condition of houses, with tottering
outdoor stairways, peeling paint, and dependencies sinking progressively
lower than their main houses. A renaissance was long in coming,
but it gathered steam in the 1920s with bohemian attractions,
the founding of the Vieux Carré Commission and historic
district, and the arrival of architecture-loving residents. The
old courtyards were still waiting for their gardening heyday.
Today you may enjoy the colorful bromeliads
in the patio of Broussard's Restaurant, the bright mix of perennials
against the pink walls of the Historic New Orleans Collection
courtyard, or the deep greens of luxuriant trees comfortably
ensconced at Brennan's or the Court of Two Sisters. But remember
that the lush, tropical patio of the French Quarter, which we
take as normal, was largely an invention of the twentieth century.
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.