Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans

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“Ornaments to the City” Late Victorian Architecture in New Orleans BY RICHARD CAMPANELLA, TULANE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE “VICTORIAN,” in the strictest sense, refers to the years of Queen Victoria’s lengthy reign over the United Kingdom, 1837 to 1901. By extension, it implies the society as well as mores and tastes of that period. In New Orleans and else- where, however, the adjective usually describes architecture, particularly the styles of the late 1800s. Their appearance, and eventual decline, may be under- stood in the context of the evolving philosophies and counter-reactions regard- ing the relationship between people and buildings; New Orleans over the course of its three centuries offers a good case study.   Throughout the 1700s, structures in New Orleans were generally vernacu- lar, created by local architect-builders (“housewrights”) who adapted traditions from France and French Canada, the Caribbean, West Africa and Spain to the deltaic conditions of subtropical Louisiana and urban conditions of La Nouvelle Orléans and Nueva Orleans. The architecture was known broadly as Creole, and it was fundamentally functional.   During the early 1800s, New Orleans politically Americanized, its population diversified and its building arts reflected the new order. Professional architects from out-of-town pushed aside old Creole customs in favor of new forms reflecting Enlightenment philosophies inspired by classical antiquity. The dignified architec- ture that resulted came to be known as Classical or Neoclassical, most prominently Greek Revival, and it heralded rationalism, order and a genteel aristocracy.   Too much order and aristocracy stirred a counter-reaction, one that valued emotionality, beauty and the spirit of the individual. That movement, called Ro- manticism, was paralleled in the United States by the budding frontier ethos of individualism and self-sufficiency, and the economic rise and political empow- erment of the “common man.” By the 1840s and 1850s, majestic Greek temples and townhouses started to look dour and passé. Architects rediscovered more recent Medieval and Renaissance influences and breathed new Romanticist life into them — and found plenty of nouveau-riche clients eager to display their wealth through houses so designed.   What resulted in the early Victorian years were more luxurious aesthetics pri- marily of the Italianate order. The exuberance flourished later in the Victorian period, and it’s probably the sundry panaches from those years, 1870s-1900s, that most New Orleanians picture when they think of Victorian architecture. Among those styles were Stick, with its emphasis on wooden detailing (“stick work”) and its variants, Queen Anne, distinctive for its towers and turrets, and Eastlake, with its panoply of brackets, quoins, railings, spindles and skin-like shingling. There was also stony Romanesque with its stout rounded archways; francophile Second Empire and its mansard roofs; imposing Gothic with its pointed arches; Tudor with its nostalgic rusticity; and a flamboyant expression of classical and Renaissance motifs known as Beaux-Arts.   Architecture blossomed in this era, almost literally, with florid embellish- ments and cornucopias of fruit bandied all over exteriors and interiors. It was not a time for understatement.   The trend did have some democratizing aspects. Mass production had made woodworking cheap, which enabled builders and owners of otherwise humble houses to spruce them up into charming mini-manses: thus our thousands of gingerbread-encrusted Victorian Italianate shotgun houses. Similarly, homes with modest adornment were featured in pattern books (“catalog houses”) and mass- constructed for middle class families, creating appealing neighborhoods such as today’s Bayou St. John and Mid-City. Algiers Point particularly abounds in late- Victorian homes because a terrible fire laid waste to its 10 core blocks at precisely the time — 1895 — when these styles peaked in popularity for new construction.   It was the housing stock built for the upper class which would become the iconic specimens of late-Victorian residential architecture: huge, vertically massed frame houses with busy roofs, deep-set wrap-around porches and de- tailing galore. Architects peddling such blueprints found the perfect clientele in uptown neighborhoods, which boomed in the years following the 1885 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial in present-day Audubon Park. “The present season in New Orleans has been one of exceeding activity in…building and im- provements,” reported the Daily Picayune in an 1888 real estate article subtitled “The Sound of the Saw and Hammer is Heard in the Land.” “The architecture,” noted the journalist, “is much more elaborate and original than formerly, the LEFT: The New Orleans Cotton Exchange was built in 1871 in Victorian styles including Second Empire and Italian Renaissance. The building was razed in 1920. Photo courtesy Library of Congress MIDDLE: Canal Street's late Victorian architecture, seen here aroung 1890. Photo by William Henry Jackson and courtesy Library of Congress RIGHT: The Mercier Building, built 1887 and home to original Maison Blanche, on Canal and Dauphine Streets, was razed in 1907. Photo courtesy Corbis 20  PRESERVATION IN PRINT • MARCH 2018