Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Heart of the French Quarter

Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella's book Geographies of New Orleans (2006) addresses shifting accounts of the district known historically as the Irish Channel. The area where I live, near the intersection of Esplanade and North Prieur Street, has been variously described to me as part of Tremé, the Seventh Ward, and Esplanade Ridge. And now from the past, as "the heart of the French Quarter."

The Vieux Carré Survey (1961-1966), the important index to every property in the French Quarter, is on permanent loan to the Historic New Orleans Collection from Tulane University. Under the direction of then Tulane School of Architecture Dean John Lawrence (1959-1971), the Vieux Carré Survey was organized and financed to record a 100-block area of New Orleans. The boundaries of the French Quarter remain today as they were denoted in the survey, but have they always been as such?

In November 1893, an unidentified Daily Picayune reporter published an account of his visit to the 267 North Prieur Street (now 1400 block) home of noted Louisiana historian Charles Etienne Gayarré (1805-1895):

"Where Prieur intersects Kerlerec street is the heart of the French quarter--that quarter which has no parallel in the world, and which, is, perhaps the best-known feature of New Orleans. It is just around the corner from Esplanade Street, but the difference is curious. Esplanade, with its stately homes, and the thick foliage of the trees shadowing the roadway, even at noontime, is a boulevard; but the streets below dribble off in outlandish no-thoroughfares, fringed with tiny homes, gabled, balconied and antique.

In summer time the vines grow up lovingly around these little houses, wreathing their casements with green tendrils, and when they burst into bloom, fill the air with powerful perfumes. In winter, however, the leaves fall off, and the wind blows them merrily into the street. As one passes along the pavement the foot disturbs their rest. It is a sort of impiety to stir them; they are like everything else in this dreamy quarter, lodged in corners where no one ought to intrude irreverently.

Improvement makes a detour around this place. It remains year after year just as it has been since the brave days before the war. One or two buildings have been erected there, but when they were finished was long ago, and the winds have stained them with the dull hue of age, till their newness is hardly perceptible. . ." 20 November 1893.

Clearly, to the reporter, any place inhabited by Gayarré was the heart of Creole New Orleans.

To read documents related to Tulane University School of Architecture's role in developing the Vieux Carré Survey, see the Samuel Wilson, Jr. Papers, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

No comments: