This story first appeared in the November issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door each month? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
New Orleans Truths vs. Tales
The French Quarter has a lot of French and Spanish Colonial architecture.
The Quarter has very little colonial architecture. There is but one French Colonial building, the Old Ursuline Convent, and less than 40 Spanish Colonial buildings.
Often owners claim their buildings are colonial because they trace the property titles to the colonial period. Titles run with the land not the improvements. All titles, in theory, can be run back to the first French settlers. Many colonial claims date back to the early 20th century when they erroneously cited Vieux Carré architecture as Spanish, to make it fashionable as the Spanish Eclectic and Mission styles swept the country.
It’s important to remember that much of the French Quarter was destroyed by major fires in 1788 and 1794. Also, early construction techniques tended to fail in the local climate. The greatest percentage of the Vieux Carré’s surviving buildings date to the 1830s, when a third of the structures were constructed. From 1820 to 1860, 58 of the surviving buildings were built. Colonial buildings represent about one percent of the surviving buildings, and most of those date to after the fire of 1794.
In 1819, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe noted how quickly New Orleans was Americanizing, writing, “I have no doubt but that the American style will ultimately be that of the whole city… It would be worthwhile,” he added, “to make a series of drawings representing the city as it is now, for it would be a safe wager that in 100 years not a vestige will remain of the buildings as they now stand.”
Unfortunately, he never did.
New Orleans Truths vs. Tales is presented by the Friends of the Cabildo. Robert J. Cangelosi, Jr., AIA, NCARB, is president of Koch and Wilson Architects and a prominent architectural historian. His architectural practice is focused on the preservation, restoration, renovation and adaptive reuse of historic structures. Cangelosi was the co-editor of the last two volumes of the Friends of the Cabildo’s “New Orleans Architecture” series of books and has served as a past editor of Preservation in Print.