Recently I found myself in New Orleans, where I had never been before, with a couple of days to explore. My first thought was to take a guided tour, and I found a plethora of offerings: walking tours, horse-drawn cart tours, bus tours, boat tours. I could choose the French Quarter, within walking distance of my hotel, or the upscale Garden District, upriver plantations or swamps, haunted mansions or cemeteries.
Instead, I decided to create my own tour, following my own taste and at my own pace. My own interests centered around history and atmosphere, and I admit to a certain skepticism of the accuracy of tour guides who have no background in history or architecture. So my first move was to locate a bookstore (actually, a jazz music store that also had a reasonable selection of books about New Orleans). I wanted a “walking tour” guide, and I found one, Walking Tours of Old New Orleans…written in 1936. Stanley Clisby Arthur, a researcher also known for his biography of John James Audubon, had been hired as regional director of the Survey of Federal Archives and began cataloging and transcribing the notarial records of New Orleans. As a result, his book contains a wealth of information about who sold or bequeathed what to whom, as well as the relationship of architecture, culture and history. Although the book has been updated, I found the combination of Depression Era sensibility, historian’s obsession, and today’s lively tourism industry an interesting if occasionally unsettling blend.
My second book was contemporary, with more general history, lots of photos, and a lesser amount of building-by-building description and history, but it covered areas not detailed in Arthur, such as the cemetery “district” at the end of Canal Street, and the devastation of Katrina.
What struck me immediately, when walking the streets and reading about the history of the city, was how many story ideas I found at every corner. LaSalle had laid claim to the area in 1682, and by the early 1700s a small city had grown up along the grid of streets created by Bienville. He laid out a square running from the Mississippi River to Rampart Street, and bounded by Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue. Waves of new populations basically mushed together within these confines: the original French, African slaves and their descendants, the Canadian Acadians (“Cajuns”), German farmers. And the Spanish. Let’s not forget than in 1772, King Louis XV took it into his head to give Louisiana to his cousin, Charles III of Spain. No wonder the entrenched French society were just a tad standoffish when they found themselves preremptorily handed back to France and then, almost immediately, to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase — 1803– with its rowdy, uncultured rivermen and adventurers. To make matters worse, most of the Americans were Protestant and the French and Spanish were Catholic, an uneasy mix in those days.
The “Vieux Carré” (“old square”), populated by Europeans, had a distinctive architectural style (houses built right up to the sidewalk “banquette,” inner courtyard gardens accessible through a wide gate called a porte cochère, and balconies with gorgeous railings of either wrought or cast iron, often imported from Cadiz. The Americans, finding themselves largely excluded from this part of town but possessing new fortunes from their sugar plantations, built imposing mansions on the other side of Canal Street. These reflect the architectural styles of the 19th rather than 18th Century. Further west, toward the Garden District, they were surrounded by opulent gardens (hence the name). So you have two cultures, each with its expressive architecture, one elitist and private, inward-facing, and the other exuberant, public, self-aggrandizing. (And of course, when you throw into the mix the demi-monde, African and Caribbean influences, pirates and fortune-seekers and alligators, oh my, you have a very interesting city.)
I was struck, over and over, at the role women played in the development of the city. So many of the buildings or the land upon which they were built were once owned by widows or daughters, who did not shrink from using their wealth as they saw fit. A few examples: In 1819, Dame Marie Josephine Reine Cenas sold the land that became the Louisiana State Bank. Arthur describes 719-721 Toulouse Street as the home of Madeline Bizot, a free woman of color. In 1819, Demoiselle Julie Robert Avart bought the “Mansion Jacob” at 628 Toulouse Street (for $27,00, which says much about both the value of the property and her own financial position).
Perhaps the most influential woman in terms of architecture was Madame Pontalba, who constructed the two long red brick buildings that flank the Cathedral in Jackson Square. She was born in 1795, Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester Y Roxas y Brontin (her father, Don Andres Almonester, had come to New Orleans as a poor notary, became fabulously wealthy, and constructed not only St. Louis Cathedral, but the Presbytere and Cabildo to either side.) At 16, she was married off to her cousin after her family managed to get a dispensation from Rome because of their close blood relationship. You know how it goes from here. She refused to hand over control of her own fortune, separating from her husband. Her father-in-law, Baron Joseph Xavier de Pontalba, was so incensed that during her visit to France, he shot her and then himself. He died, she didn’t, and upon recovering, she obtained a divorce. (I am not making this up — but isn’t it juicy?) She returned to New Orleans in 1848 and decided that the Americans were getting ahead in the architectural coolness contest, so she built two rows of houses to spiff things up. The wrought iron railings feature the intertwined initials A and P, for the union of the two families.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.