Friday, June 4, 2010

Fourscore and Three Years Ago. . .

New Orleans architect Allison Owen (1869-1951) wrote for The Southern Architect and Building News:

New Orleans A City of Architectural Inspiration
Note: spelling from original article maintained...

There has been a great deal written on the subject that is delightfully done, much painstaking research work accomplished, but there has also been a good deal of carelessness. Inaccuracies have here and there crept in and have been quoted from one to another until it is now hard to run the facts to earth particularly as they have been glossed over with the charm of romance until many of us feel that we prefer the traditional tale to the cold reality.

We are told that the event of laying off the infant capital of the province of Louisiana La Nouvelle Orleans occurred shortly after the ninth day of February, 1718. Bienville who received his commission on that day proceeded from Biloxi, the former capital, with fifty men to make a clearing on the banks of the Mississippi, for his prospective city, also to make arrangements for carrying on his colonial government. "New Orleans was designed in imitation of Rochefort, a fortified port near the mouth of the river Charente on the western coast of France, historical as the embarking point of Napoleon on his exile in 1815."

The earliest houses were built of hewn cypress timber, one story high with possibly palmetto thatch or split cypress slate roofs. There are a few of these cottages still to be seen outside of the swath of the great fire which swept diagonally across the town in 1788, so we can now know that nothing we find in the area from Chartres and Conti and a line from the Cathedral to Dauphine and St. Philip can be older than 1788 or 1794, due to a second fire six years later.

The one story houses that were built after the fire are described by Latrobe as follows: "These one story houses are very simple in their plan. The two front rooms open into the street with glass French doors. Those on one side are the dining room and drawing room, the others the chambers. The offices, kitchens, etc., are in the back of the buildings. The roofs are high, covered with tiles or shingles and project five feet over the footway, which is also five feet wide."

Speaking of what we call the plantation houses, we have that delightful group at the head of navigation on Bayou St. John, the Lake Port before construction of the Carondelet Canal or the Pontchartrain Rail, road, the Blanc House, the so called Spanish Custom House, and the others, old St. Simeon's School, Thomas Saulet's plantation House of 1763, the Delord Sarpy House. All with no European original that I have been able to discover. A type which I suspect developed in many of the island colonies of the gulf and the Caribbean. They breath the generous days of comfort and open handed hospitality, which must have been indeed a golden age. Lieutenant F. Wilkinson was fortunate indeed in selecting this style when he planned that splendid group at Jackson Barracks in 1833 to 1845. One of the queer characteristics of all these houses was the external stair and no internal stair.

In 1769 the colony passed under Spanish rule and from that period we find Spanish influence in the work that followed particularly in the wrought iron work of the lovely balconies. I have been unable in France to find anything so good as some that we have here. The nearest prototype that I have thus far discovered is at Palma on the Island of Majorka.

It is quite different from the spindle type of Seville and the usual conception that we have of Spanish iron.

There is this to be said of the Spanish influence: That while during the period of the Spanish domination, as it is called, the large number of officials, soldiers, clergy, etc., were Spanish, the population as a whole remained French. There was some intermarrying but it was not general and when Spain relinquished control in 1803, some remained and gave us a few great names that have survived. But the language and customs of the French did not yield. While we have the gifts of Almonaster, the old Cathedral, the Principal, which we now call the Cabildo, and the Presbytere with their heavy arches and terraced roofs are strongly Spanish, we have no Plateresco, or Chirugurisque, or what we know as the Mission style of Mexico, Texas and California. True we have our old French Market, and the old Parish Prison, now gone, with its hall for imprisoned debtors, the arches of both suggestive of the cloisters of the padres of the West, but they were done by Joseph Pilie in 1822. The chapel of the Ursulines below the city was the nearest approach we had. Arches and balconies and patios of course are Spanish, but they are also Southern French and here we have a merging of the feeling of the architecture of both in our houses along Chartres, Royal, and Bourbon, St. Louis, Toulouse, Orleans and Dumaine Streets, all quite devoid of ornament except for the iron work. In fact, I know of no architecture which depends so completely for its effect on its mass and proportion and so little upon ornament for its charm.

From 1810 on, New Orleans was favored with the services of trained architects and there still exists many lovely examples done by the talented architect Henry S. Latrobe.

Owen, Allison. "New Orleans a City of Architectural Inspiration." The Southern Architect and Building News Vol. 53 No. 6 (June 1927), pp. 31-34. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

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