A History of the French Quarter
The French Quarter is the only intact French Colonial and Spanish settlement remaining in the United States. It has been a continuous residential neighborhood since 1718, withstanding hurricanes, floods, fires, yellow fever epidemics, war, neglect, industrialization and commercialization. Its population has varied from 470 people to as many as 11,000. As a registered “National Historic Landmark” the French Quarter has secured an important role in our nation’s history.
To trace the key developments in the French Quarter over the last nearly 300 years, here are some of the more significant dates/decades in its history:
1718 – For at least 10,000 years up until 1718, the New Orleans area had been inhabited solely by Native Americans, primarily Choctaw. Since the land lies between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, both of which are connected to the Gulf of Mexico, the Native Americans realized that an overland connection between the river and the lake would be important for travel and trade. Therefore, they built a portage from the river (at what is now Conti Street) to Bayou St. John, a stream leading out to the lake. The very first explorer in the area, LaSalle, came down the Mississippi River from Illinois in 1682; however, he cruised right by the New Orleans area without stopping. Later, when he tried to find the river from the Gulf, he ended up in Texas. So in 1699 two French brothers, Iberville and Bienville, decided to try their luck and they succeeded: in 1704 Iberville built a fort at Lake Pontchartrain (now called the “Old Spanish Fort”) and wanted to establish a town on Bayou St. John near the portage. However, Bienville preferred the Mississippi River end of the portage, so in 1718 he started building a town at what is now Conti Street.
He and his crew of 80 cleared enough cane growth and dense cypress forest to build one large warehouse and about 100 crude log huts haphazardly scattered along three streets near the riverfront. A major problem during the first few years was flooding.
1721-22 – Bienville teamed up with two French engineers to design a French military-style city street plan, making New Orleans one of the first planned cities in America. This plan, which has remained to this day, featured a central square (now called Jackson Square) surrounded by a grid of 6 x 9 city blocks. Any existing huts not conforming to the grid were ordered torn down. Nature had already made that easy: a 1721 hurricane had leveled nearly the whole town. The forest was cleared just enough to accommodate the plan, leaving alligator and snake-laden swamps surrounding them on three sides. A levee was built along the Mississippi to protect them from flooding. At the square a church, a rectory and a prison were constructed (right where the present day St. Louis Cathedral, Presbytere and Cabildo stand). Along the rest of the streets (Bienville to Ursulines, the river to Dauphine) residences were built in primarily the French Colonial style: the living quarters raised 8′ off the ground, galleries on all four sides, the floodable ground floor used only for storage. The houses were spread out, with fruit and vegetable gardens between them, not close together like today. The only building left from this era is the Ursuline Convent finished in 1745. The house at 632 Dumaine Street known as Madame John’s Legacy, though built in 1788, represents this French style. The population grew from 470 in 1721 to a stabilized 5000-6000 in the 1760-70s, with the boundaries of the city still the same as the original Vieux Carré grid.
1788 – FIRE! Almost the whole French Quarter burned down, over 850 structures, including the St. Louis Church, the rectory, the prison and other government buildings. In the rebuilding process Spanish and Caribbean architecture was introduced, in particular the Creole cottage and Creole townhouse styles. These new residences were built close together with only narrow passageways or carriageways between them. Creole houses did not have interior hallways, so these passageways were the main entrance to the property, leading to secluded courtyards behind the houses where other smaller buildings usually stood, such as kitchens, stables and quarters for teenage boys and domestic help. The courtyards themselves were convenient private spaces for everyday living, for cooking, washing, keeping chickens and the like. This Creole style remained popular through the 1830s. Other Spanish building and rebuilding efforts included a number of stately mansions, a new St. Louis Church, the Presbytere and Cabildo (both still intact), and a palisade with moat and five forts surrounding the Vieux Carré, which only lasted about ten years. Also in 1788, the City of New Orleans officially expanded beyond the French Quarter for the first time: Faubourg St. Mary (now the CBD) was established and the old cemetery at Burgundy and St. Peter was moved across Basin Street (now known as St. Louis Cemetery No. 1).
1794 – Another FIRE! It wiped out the area from Canal Street to Orleans and from the river to Bourbon Street. The Spanish then introduced building codes requiring the use of brick, tile and slate.
1803 – The United States purchased Louisiana and overnight Americans began flooding the city. The overall city population soared from 7000 in 1803 to 24,000 in 1810, to 46,000 in 1830, to over 116,000 in 1850. The French/Creole residents of the Vieux Carré resisted these “foreigners” who spoke a different language (English). The Americans ended up settling across Canal Street in Faubourg St. Mary and the Lower Garden District, which became known as the “American Sector” or “American Quarter.” A competition between the two groups began on many levels.
1830s – This decade brought the French Quarter to its peak of prosperity. Thanks to cotton and sugar, New Orleans became one of the richest, fastest-growing cities in the U.S. Although the “American Sector” was developing rapidly, the French Quarter was still the center of retail trade (along Chartres) and banking (along Royal). Large houses were still being built, such as the Beauregard House in 1826 and the Hermann-Grima House in 1831. Bourbon Street was lined with several elegant mansions and was considered one of the most fashionable residential streets in the city.
1840s – The Americans began to win in their rivalry with the French/Creoles, and with that the decline of the French Quarter began. Large stores moved to Canal Street, banks moved out of the quarter to Camp Street, and the Garden District became more fashionable than Bourbon Street. A new house style was introduced: the American townhouse, featuring interior hallways and stairways. Greek Revival and Italianate architectural details were becoming popular across America and were often applied to the facades of these townhouses. This decline continued for the rest of the 1800s and into the 1900s. New Orleans as a whole also began to decline, partly due to the ravages of yellow fever epidemics in the 1850s and the Civil War in the 1860s. In the late 1800s industrialization came to New Orleans, and in the French Quarter structures close to the river turned into warehouses, sugar refineries, rice mills, breweries and saw mills. Many beautiful large residences turned into laundries, small factories and rooming houses for the workers. Even the lovely historic Beauregard House had become a wine warehouse by the early 1900s. A smaller house style was used in the 1870-90s: the shotgun, which was one-room wide and three to six rooms deep, usually constructed of wood, a departure from the brick and masonry of earlier styles.
1950‘s – After World War II the French Quarter began to change rapidly. It soon became a battleground between developers and preservationists, which has continued to this day. On one side, developers have come in, attempting to demolish old structures in the name of “progress,” e.g. the plan to build an expressway along the riverfront. Although that plan was defeated after a ten-year battle, many old buildings have unfortunately been torn down elsewhere in the quarter. On the other side, preservationists have succeeded in obtaining “National Historic Landmark” status for the Vieux Carré, which has created a means of helping to preserve it. Lovely old residences, which had become rooming houses and warehouses, have been restored to their original charm and single-family status.
Today – Restoring the beauty of the quarter, making it safe and fun for visitors, has created a great interest in tourism. However, recently the commercial development has gone too far in that direction. Now many large residences and mansions are being sub-divided yet again, this time into condos primarily for out-of-town vacationers. Hotel expansion, though helpful for the tourists, has diminished some of the original character. The residential population has dropped from 11,000 in 1940 to 4000 in 2000.<
The chance for visitors to get to see this living treasure is wonderful. However, there must be a way to accommodate both the tourist AND the attraction. By now most of the original French families, the Italian and Sicilian families, the artists and writers have left, largely due to rising rent and real estate costs. That leaves the preservationists and those admirers who appreciate the historical quality of the Quarter to take charge of its future.