this Page Printer
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
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
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
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
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