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NOLA’s Got That Je Ne Sais Quoi: European Architecture

New Orleans has roots as a French city, but Spanish influences are present within the architecture and cultural activities.

balcony
Wrought-iron balconies reflect Spanish building codes. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Everyone thinks of New Orleans as a “French” city. Yes, La Nouvelle Orleans was founded by the LeMoyne Brothers, Jean-Baptiste and Pierre. Yes, a Frenchman, Adrien de Pauger, laid out the design for the original city, what we now know as the French Quarter. Yes, the French controlled the city, and the Louisiana Territory, for the first sixty or so years of its existence. And yes, we celebrate Bastille Day with gusto.

But there is so much more to the story of New Orleans than just its French influence. Locals know and appreciate those other influences, and we love to share them with our visitors. So, how did America’s “French” city become so eclectic?

French Beginnings

French map of New Orleans, 1728.
French map of New Orleans, 1728.

French explorers, and later, trappers and merchants, came down the Mississippi River, staking their claims on the river’s delta. As Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, better known by his title, Sieur d’Bienville, developed and fortified his king’s city, New Orleans’ influence in the region grew. That attracted trade from other colonies in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. The English, Spanish, and Portuguese came to New Orleans in increasing numbers, bringing their traditions with them. The French were on their way to being a major player in the New World.

Architectural drawing of the second Ursuline Convent in New Orleans, 1745.
Architectural drawing of the second Ursuline Convent in New Orleans, 1745.

Unfortunately for France, the wars that plagued Europe in the 18th Century spilled over into North America. They were forced to give up Louisiana to Spain, ostensibly to compensate the Spanish for losing Florida to the British. This move, known as the Treaty of Fontainebleau, kept the British from acquiring the massive Louisiana Territory.

The Spanish Arrive

The immediate effect of the end of the Seven Years’ War was the arrival of a Spanish governor and civil servants in 1766. While there was some resistance to the Spanish initially, trade and commerce were the driving forces in New Orleans at the time, so things kept rolling on. In fact, because there were more Spanish colonies near New Orleans than any other nationality, trade grew at an even faster rate.

The French colonists adjusted to the introduction of Spanish bureaucrats into their business dealings; after all, one bureaucrat is as good (or bad) as another to merchants. Those bureaucrats required citizens to follow Spanish Colonial laws and regulations. This was easy in the business world, but in terms of housing and construction, a large portion of the city’s structures were French-built and did not meet the requirements of the Spanish. For example, the Old Ursuline Convent, on the corner of Rue Chartres and Rue Ursulines, was always in various stages of decay, because of its wood frame.

A large portion of the city’s structures were French-built and did not meet the requirements of the Spanish.

Two Fires Yield a New Style of Architecture

French Church of St. Louis, constructed in 1724, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1788.
French Church of St. Louis, constructed in 1724, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1788.

Then came Good Friday, 1788. A fire started in the home of Don Vincente Jose Nuñez, who was Treasurer of the army detachment in the city. Wind gusts from the southeast fanned the flames north. The wooden structures built by the French were quickly engulfed, as the fire spread from the Nuñez home on Rue Toulouse and Rue Chartres, up to the government buildings and the church of St. Louis (which was not yet a cathedral), next to the Place d’Armes. The fire continued to spread and burn, eventually consuming 856 out of approximately 1,100 buildings. Because it spread north from Rue Chartres, the buildings and wharves along the riverfront were spared. This included the largest structure, the convent.

Since Good Friday, which marks the day Christ was crucified, is a solemn day of fasting and quiet reflection, the priests of St. Louis parish refused to allow the church bells to be run to alert the city. The fire raged for over five hours. When the flames finally died, the city was in ruins.
The Spanish didn’t waste any time. They immediately began to rebuild New Orleans, this time, in the Spanish style, following their building codes.

Detroit Publishing photo of a Spanish-style Creole Courtyard, from the early 1900s (public domain photograph)
Detroit Publishing photo of a Spanish-style Creole Courtyard, from the early 1900s (public domain photograph)

New Orleans’ reconstruction received a major setback on December 8, 1794, when a second fire struck. This fire spread across the waterfront, engulfing many of the remaining French-built wooden structures. The Old Ursuline Convent suffered some damage, but the newly-rebuilt St. Louis church, survived. The church was dedicated earlier in 1794, and designated a cathedral, upon the arrival of the first Bishop of Louisiana from Havana. One of the Spanish bureaucrats, the city’s notary, Don Andres Almonaster y Rojas, donated a large sum to underwrite the church’s reconstruction.

Interior courtyard of the Cabildo, constructed in the late 1790s. (1963 photo courtesy National Park Service)
Interior courtyard of the Cabildo, constructed in the late 1790s. (1963 photo courtesy National Park Service)

New Orleans dusted the ashes of fire off again, and continued the rebuilding. By the late 1790s, Nueva Orleans looked like many of the other Spanish Colonial cities in the Caribbean region. Don Andres donated more of his personal fortune to rebuild the main government buildings, most notably the building where the Cabildo, the city council met, which was on the upriver side of the cathedral. He also funded the construction of a rectory and office building on the other side of the church, which became known as the Presbytere.

New Orleans dusted the ashes of fire off again, and continued the rebuilding.

Creole_Courtyard_Royal_Street_Historical_Sketch_Book_and_Guide_to_New_Orleans
Historic sketch of a Spanish-style courtyard, late 1800s. (Public domain image

Cultural Gumbo

One of the interesting ironies of the re-development of New Orleans as a Spanish city is that the 1790s was a period of heavy French immigration. The combination of revolutions in France itself, and the island colony of San Domingue (present-day Haiti) generated a large influx of French folks into the city. Those refugees from the islands and Europe may have been French, but they arrived in a Spanish city. That mixture of cultures is the base – the roux – of the gumbo that is modern New Orleans. In another twenty years, the French and Spanish citizens of New Orleans were joined by Americans, as the city became American territory in 1803.

A mixture of cultures is the base – the roux – of the gumbo that is modern New Orleans.

Running of the Bulls

In July, the city honors its Spanish roots with San Fermin in Nueva Orleans, a race in the style of the “running of the bulls” in Pamplona, Spain. The run doesn’t use real bulls, of course, relying instead on the skills of the New Orleans Rollergirls, with their pointy hats and inflatable bats to keep the white-and-red dressed runners moving. Of course, a lot of sangria, beer, and wine is consumed, and there’s a big Spanish-style fiesta after the formal “run.”

The run-fun continues into August, with another event taking over in downtown and the French Quarter. The Red Dress Run, sponsored by the New Orleans Hash House Harriers (NOH3), is a fundraiser for a number of charities. After the public excitement of both of these events winds down, locals and visitors alike make their way back into the Vieux Carre’, the Old Square, to seek refuge from the heat in those relaxing courtyards built by the Spanish all those years ago.

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