Wrought iron balconies lining the narrow streets of New Orleans historic Vieux Carré are one of the French Quarter’s most prominent and memorable features. Visitors photograph them, artists paint them and hotels and bars promote the French Quarter Decorative Balconies as an ideal perch to view the passing parade.
Bourbon Street balconies are particularly popular to both view the throngs of revelers on the street and as a stage on which to flash feminine charms in response to the chants and bribes of strings of colorful Mardi Gras beads from below. A French Quarter balcony often serves as a means of expression for the buildings inhabitants. Sometimes a balcony will resemble a tropical garden teaming with ivy, bromeliads, begonias and ferns. Others use their elevated display cases to exhibit personal treasures — everything from art and antiques to suits of armor.
The French Quarter gained its Spanish architectural flavor when over 850 buildings, almost the entire French Quarter, burned down in 1788. The Baroness Micaela Almonaster de Pontalba added cast iron balconies to the fashionable row houses she built around Jackson Square after the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 starting a trend that spread throughout the French Quarter with balconies added to many existing buildings.
The adjective most often used to describe New Orleans French Quarter balconies is lacy. Lacy wrought iron strikes me personally as an oxymoron, but the unique characteristics of wrought iron, especially its strength, resistance to rust and malleability do make wrought iron the ideal material for balconies and other ornamental ironwork.
Prior to the industrial age, blacksmiths worked with wrought iron, made and refined in charcoal fires. Charcoal iron can withstand corrosion for hundreds of years as evidenced by many a two hundred year old French Quarter balcony. Traditional decorative ironwork is not easy to maintain. Repousse—shaped or decorated with patterns in relief formed by hammering and pressing on the reverse side—is often difficult to paint.
Once mild steel was introduced with its ability to be mass produced, wrought iron, and the craft skills associated with it, gradually disappeared. Most of the ironwork in the French Quarter is actually cast iron and dates to the 1850’s when this type of adornment became wildly popular.