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The Louisiana Sugar & Rice Exchange 1884-1963 BY RICHARD CAMPANELLA, TULANE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE FOR NEARLY 80 YEARS stood, in a French Quarter riverfront area now domi- nated by parking lots, the central marketplace for two key Louisiana commodi- ties. Known as the Louisiana Sugar and Rice Exchange, the elegant edifice formed the heart of a vital industry district, while the trading inside influenced thousands of Louisianans toiling on hundreds of plantations. Its demolition in 1963 reflected preservationist sensibilities of that era, and how they would later change. Sugar cane became a chief Louisiana export shortly after planter Jean Etienne de Boré in 1795 successfully replicated protocols for granulating cane juice, which, in this subtropical environment, differed from those practiced in the West Indies. Granulation made sugar dry, light, compact, durable, and therefore exportable, at a time when the slave insurrection in Saint-Domingue drastically reduced sugar exports from that French colony. An opportunity opened for Louisiana planters to seize market share, and they responded by abandoning rice, indigo and tobacco crops in favor of sugar cane cultivation. They would additionally benefit from the 1809 arrival of thousands of refugees from former Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, many of whom had expertise in sugar agronomy and refining technology. Within a decade of Boré’s breakthrough, over 70 cane sugar plantations lined both banks of the river from present-day Kenner to English Turn. American do- minion over Louisiana further spurred sugar expansion, through import tariffs, new production technologies, mounting demand, and ever-expanding levees and drainage projects. But the economic success came at a terrible human cost: so insatiable was the demand for enslaved labor that nearly one million African Americans would be transferred out of the Upper South for sale into in the Lower South, oftentimes through the New Orleans slave market and destined for the Louisiana sugar fields as well as interior cotton plantations. By 1850, Louisiana produced 105,000 tons throughout the “sugar bowl,” from the lowermost Mississippi River up the Red River to Natchitoches and westward to the Attakapas and Opelousas regions. By 1861, that figure reached 230,000 tons, a hundred-fold increase in two generations, which brought $25 million (well over half a billion today) into the pockets a few thousand planter families and industry handlers. More than half the yield passed through New Orleans, specifically the upper French Quarter, where a vast workforce stewarded the transshipment. It was the professional end of that workforce that would bring about the Sug- ar and Rice Exchange as a node for financial transactions. In the early years, such transactions took place on the plantations themselves, but in the inter- est of finding more merchants and higher bids, planters increasingly took their business to New Orleans. There, they consigned their yield to commission mer- chants who would interact with wholesalers and buyers at the city’s various “ex- changes,” usually coffee house (saloons) associated with hotels. The New Orleans end of the Louisiana sugar industry got a new geography start- ing in 1830, when the batture along the upper French Quarter riverfront, between present-day North Peters and the Mississippi, got upgraded with planked wharves, protruding docks and new warehouses. “From this time on,” wrote J. Carlyle Sitter- son in his book Sugar Country: The Cane Sugar Industry in the South, 1753-1950, “a regular sugar market with daily transactions operated on the levee.” Convenient to docking steamboats as well as downtown banks and offices, the refurbished riverfront would develop into the nation’s premier sugar-trad- ing space. The workflow started as planters consigned their sugar and molasses to city factors and shipped their hogsheads bound for the sugar landing. There, clerks boarded the steamboats to identify which cargo were consigned to which brokers, who in turn met with prospective buyers to sample the product and agree on a price. Weighers hauled bulky scales to the scene of deals, while dray- men towed hogsheads to waiting vessels or to warehouses. The pace bustled, due to the nature of the business as well as a local ordinance stipulating that produce had to be sold within 36 hours or removed to storage, to keep the levee clear. Services were costly from the planter’s perspective: the factor received a 2.5 per- cent commission, and insurance for shipping cost another 1 percent. There were also charges for transportation, cooperage, weighing, tarpaulin, and drayage, plus a monthly charge of 30 to 50 cents per hogshead for warehousing. In all, about 10 percent of gross revenue stayed with Crescent City sugar men, and most of that went to those at the apex of the profession. Splendid mansions standing today throughout historic New Orleans testify to this concentration of wealth. Louisiana sugar suffered a severe blow during the Civil War. Statewide produc- tion dropped 98 percent between 1861 and 1864, and financial losses ran as high as 99 percent by war’s end. Planters saw “their” workforce disappear with eman- cipation, and scrambled to replace the workers with contract or immigrant labor. With a new tariff against foreign sugar, production slowly climbed to 9000 tons in 1865, 20,000 the next year, and 75,000 in 1870, still well below antebellum levels. There were other transformation: because sugar processing had become increas- ingly industrialized, plantation-based sugar mills gave way to centralized modern refineries — a trend furthered by the postbellum growth of railroads, which befit- ted concentration, and by a shift in taste from raw to refined sugar, which required more specialized processing. It was in this era, 1870s-1890s, that New Orleans’ sugar landing developed into a bona fide Sugar District, with steel-frame refineries, hun- dred-foot smokestacks, and distinctive steel sheds amid steam trains, steamboats and teams of dockworkers. Key to the functionality of the Sugar District was its sheds, because sugar had to be stored and kept dry until the best prices could be attained. The warehouses were owned by the New Orleans Sugar Shed Company, a firm reputed to be a cor- rupt monopoly prone to overcharging and mishandling. Frustration and litigation against the company led members of the Louisiana Sugar Planters’ Association LEFT: The Sugar and Rice Exchange building circa 1900. Note St Louis Cathedral in the upper left portion of the photo and the Mississippi River at right. Photo courtesy Richard Campanella RIGHT: The Louisiana Sugar Exchange as photographed in August 1963. Photo by Dan Leyrer, courtesy HABS, Library of Congress 20 PRESERVATION IN PRINT • www.prcno.org FEBRUARY 2018