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B Y W AT E R b e f o r e B Y W AT E R : The Olivier Plantation House, 1820s-1949 BY RICHARD CAMPANELLA, TULANE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE THE PRESERVATION MOVEMENT gathered momentum in New Orleans over the course of the 20th century, but the trend was not a steady one. Rather, it had a series of inflection points, each a reaction to particularly grievous losses. Among them were the 1903 razing of an entire block in the heart of the French Quarter (400 Royal/Chartres) for the Louisiana State Supreme Court (1910); the 1916 de- molition of the famed old St. Louis Hotel across the street; and the accidental burn- ing of the beloved Old French Opera House on Bourbon Street in 1919. From these setbacks arose such organizations as the Vieux Carré Restoration Society (1920), which would eventually win legal protection for the French Quarter in 1937. Two generations later came another major impetus, the circa-1960s Riverfront Expressway battle and a spate of downtown demolitions amid an era of inner-city divestment. The crises helped launch the Preservation Resource Center (1974), publisher of this magazine. Here we focus on an intermediary inflection point, in 1949, and the controversy behind it: the fate of the majestic Olivier Plantation House. The Olivier House was built sometime in the 1820s for the Frenchman Antoine David Olivier and his American family at what is now 4111 Chartres Street. Today we call this neighborhood Bywater or the upper Ninth Ward; two hundred years ago, it was known as the lower banlieue, mean- ing the outskirts downriver from the city proper. It constituted a bucolic landscape of villas with gardens, orchards, horse farms, dairies, and intensive agriculture, as well as brickyards and lumber mills inter- spersed with commodity plantations, usu- ally enslaved. Along the riverfront, spaced every two to four arpents (192 feet), were what scholar S. Frederick Starr has de- scribed as “a formidable collection of high- end Creole, French American, and Ameri- can rural architecture.” Most of them were current or former plantation homes, each fronting an array of dependencies, sheds, and slave cabins, behind which were sugar cane fields extending back to the swamp. The parcel belonging to Antoine David Olivier measured two arpents wide, be- tween today’s Bartholomew and France streets, and ran 40 arpents deep, roughly to today’s Florida Avenue. The plantation home Olivier had erected here was the epitome of the West Indies-influenced French Creole design found throughout 12 PRESERVATION IN PRINT • www.prcno.org the New Orleans region since early colonial times. Set back from today’s Chartres Street by over a hundred feet, the edifice had an airy wrap-around gallery sup- ported by cypress spindle colonnades and brick Doric columns, incorporating an outdoor staircase. Solid brick-between-post walls, with seven frontage bays and five on the side, rested on a raised basement. Above was a dramatic double-pitched pavilion-like hipped roof, with dormers and center chimneys, and adjacent were pigeonniers, a kitchen and a stable. A fine example of French Creole architecture, the Olivier House nevertheless had a center hallway, a privacy feature more typi- cal of Anglo-American domestic design. As such, the Olivier House reflected New Orleans’ impending Americanization. Antoine David Olivier died in 1844, having lived just long enough to see much of the old working farms of the lower banlieue transform to urban street grids. One by one, city residences were built along the dusty arteries, and riverfront parcels came to host port-related industries as well as religious and social service institutions. Among them were Catholic convents, schools and orphanages. “Their existence,” Starr wrote in his book Une Belle Maison: The Lombard Plantation House in New Orleans’s Bywater, “can be explained by the fact that nearly all the plantations [in the lower banlieue] were owned by French Catholics. When several decided to aban- don agriculture, they were only too glad to deed or sell their properties to the church.” Olivier’s house became part of the Catholic Orphans Association’s St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, established by the Con- gregation of the Holy Cross in Le Mans, France. Work began on St. Mary’s in 1835, and would eventually entail a series of buildings around the perimeter of the en- tire block, surrounding the Olivier House and ensconcing it from most street views. The institution boomed for tragic reasons: periodic yellow fever epidemics left be- hind thousands of orphans, particularly among Irish and German immigrants. To accommodate the youngsters, St. Mary’s expanded with an annex designed by ar- chitect Henry Howard for 300 boys plus staff. A lovely brick chapel in an English Gothic style, named St. Aloysius, was add- ed to the campus in 1891, by which time St. Mary’s ranked as the region’s premier boys orphanage and vocational school. By the turn of the 20th century, the sur- rounding neighborhood had fully devel- DECEMBER 2017