Monday, April 9, 2012

120 Years Ago

The American Architect and Building News reported on a disastrous New Orleans fire:

"The terrible fire which has just occurred in New Orleans, causing the destruction of nearly four million dollars' worth of property, and drawing probably six million dollars from the pockets of the people who pay insurance premiums throughout the country, calls to mind the fact that New Orleans has no proper building law, unless one has been adopted within a few years. If anything of the sort has been done, the enforcement of it must have been rather feeble, to make it possible for the careless disposition of a lighted cigarette to consume a large part of the town. Merely as a matter of legal interest, it would be curious to know whether the insurance companies, who have suffered heavy losses, might not get some of their money spread to the buildings in which they had an interest. It has been held, in other matters, that the laws of England, which were adopted as the common law of the States formed from English colonies, do not form part of the common law of Louisiana, Texas, or the other States formed from Spanish or French colonies. Now the common law of most of our States, which relieves a man from responsibility for damage by fire spreading from his premises to those of his neighbors, is founded on an English Act of Parliament. No such statute was ever known to the French law, or probably, to that of Spain. On the contrary, the French code, which embodies the common law as it existed in the time of Napoleon, expressly imposes that responsibility; and it would be a nice point for the lawyers to determine, whether the Code Civil forms part of the common law of Louisiana, or, if not, whether anything in abstract justice, which, as we take it, supplies such ingredient in the Louisiana common law as is not furnished by descent from the French law, entitles a man to arrange cotton bales, or construct buildings, in such a way that, if they take fire from a cigarette, they communicate fire to the property of other people."(1)

The article was in direct reference to the Cotton Warehouse Fire of April 1892, which had been blamed on a cigarette cavalierly discarded near the cotton bales.(2)  Shortly after the fire, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company developed a new atlas for New Orleans, including a special sheet dedicated to the Cotton Warehouse District.  New firehouses and water reservoirs were delineated, and structures considered "fire proof buildings" were identified by color.

The Southeastern Architectural Archive retains an extensive collection of fire insurance atlases for New Orleans and other municipalities in Louisiana and Mississippi.  An inventory of those atlases may be found online at:

(1) The American Architect and Building News (9 April 1892): p. 17. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

(2)"Acres of Fire: Two of the Largest Conflagrations That Have Afflicted New Orleans for Half a Century." The Daily Picayune (4 April 1892): p. 1.

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