French Quarter History
La Nouvelle Orléans was founded in 1718 by Jean Baptiste La Moyne, Sieur de Bienville and established New Orleans as the capital of Louisiana and a fortress to control the wealth of the North American interior for the French.
Reclaimed from a swamp and centered around the Palace d’ Armes — now Jackson Square — New Orleans was originaly confined to what is now called the French Quarter or Vieux Carré (Old Square). The unique geography of the Mississippi River delta and its strategic importance to control of the interior of North American made it both a desirable and challenging location for a city.
Possession of Louisiana — named by Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle in honor of Louis XIV and his bride Maria-Théraèsa of Spain, the niece of Queen Anne of Austria who was also Louis’ mother — changed from French to Spanish then back to French control before being sold to the United States. Although Spanish rule was relatively short — 1762 to 1800 — it was during this period when two fires virtually destroyed the French Quarter. The first in 1788 burned over 850 structures and then another 200 were lost in 1794. Rebuilding was done in the Spanish style with wrought iron balconies and central courtyards.
Unlike New Orleans Square at Disneyland, New Orleans French Quarter is authentic, not a reproduction of history. Many buildings date back to the rebuilding efforts of the 1700’s which is why the dominant architectural style is Spanish not French. Visitors might want to keep in mind that, also unlike Disneyland, the French Quarter is a neighborhood with private homes and other residences and the grocery stores, restaurants, banks, police station and other services that support communities.
Some residents of the French Quarter are the fifth generation of their families to live in the Vieux Carré. This community just happens to be one of the most visually interesting in America and of significant historic importance. Many of the over 35,000 buildings in New Orleans listed on the National Register of Historic Places are in the French Quarter. Although the French Quarter escaped major damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 most of New Orleans was not so fortunate. Story and pictures.
A good way to begin a historic French Quarter walking tour is to stroll down Royal Street. One block riverside of Bourbon Street, Royal Street is known for jewelry and antique stores but it also has quite a few historically significant buildings.
Our French Quarter map (opens in a new window) can assist in orienting yourself.
Banking and finance has always been an important activity in New Orleans. The intersection of Royal Street and Conti Street was the city’s financial hub. Built in 1800, The Old Bank of the United States, at 343 Royal Street is the oldest building used as a bank in New Orleans. The buildings balcony railing is a good example of wrought (hand forged) iron. The majority of French Quarter balcony railings are actually made of cast iron not wrought iron.
Across the street at 334 Royal Street the Old Bank Of Louisiana — currently the French Quarter 8th District Police Station — was built in 1826. A third structure — this one at 403 Royal Street — opened for business as the Louisiana State Bank in 1821. The large marble building that takes up the riverside 400 block of Royal Street was completed in 1909. The Louisiana Wild Life Museum and the United States Circuit Court of Appeals were here.
An entire block of old Creole homes and businesses was razed to make room for this large structure. Among the buildings destroyed was a house built in 1816 by Henry S. Latrobe, several buildings built by De Pouilly and the former site of Antoine’s Restaurant.
A historic marker at 417 Royal Street states, “Banque de la Louisiane, built in 1795 by Vincent Rillieux (great Grandfather of the artist Edgar Degas) who purchased the site a month after the great fire of Dec. 8, 1794 had destroyed earlier buildings here and more than 200 houses and stores. It was bought in 1805 to house the Banque de la Louisiane, the first bank established after the Louisiana Purchase. Residence of the Alonzo Morphy family from 1841 to 1891. A son, Paul Morphy, (born 1837) who became the world’s chess champion died here on July 10, 1884. Building given to Tulane University in 1920 by William Ratcliff Irby. Brennan’s restaurant since 1955.”
The building at 520 Royal Street was built in 1816 by Francois Seignouret a French Wine Merchant and furniture maker.
One of the few buildings to escape the devastating fires of 1788 and 1794, the Merieult House at 533 Royal Street was built in 1792 by Jean Francois Merieult. It now houses the Kemper and Leila Williams Historic New Orleans Collection.
The house at 534 Royal Street is an excellent example of 1815-1820 period, with large arched openings on the ground floor and delicate wrought iron balcony, Ionic pilasters and plaster cornice on the second floor facade.
A Victorian home at 915 Royal Street is known as the Cornstalk Fence Hotel. Its cast iron fence looks like cornstalks and is even painted appropriate colors. The cornstalk fence is similar to a fence at Colonel Short’s Villa in New Orleans Garden District and was cast at the Philadelphia foundry of Wood & Perot. The Victorian — which is on the National Register of Historic Places — was the home of Judge Francois Xavier-Martin, first Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court and author of the first history of Louisiana. Harriet Beecher Stowe stayed here and was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin after seeing the nearby slave markets. The 1800’s era Victorian is a popular place to stay for visitors to New Orleans with its central location and quiet atmosphere even though tourists constantly stop to photograph the unique fence.
There are many interesting and historic buildings throughout the French Quarter.
Preservation Hall — known to many as “the house that jazz built” — is at 726 St. Peter Street. While not much to look at during the day you don’t want to miss hearing the Preservation Hall Jazz Band any evening of the year. Built in 1750 as a private residence and serving as a tavern during the War of 1812, Preservation Hall was purchased by Allan and Sandra Jaffe in 1961.
718 St. Peter Street is thought to have been built just after the 1794 fire for a well-known planter, Etienne Marie de Flechier. One of the oldest bars in New Orleans, Pat O’Briens occupies the building and rear courtyard.
Pirates Alley off St. Peters Street between Chartres and Royal has a building at 624 Pirates Alley known as Faulkner House which was built in 1840. William Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers Pay, here in 1925. Pirates Alley dates to 1831 and its official name is Ruelle d’Orleans, Sud — Orleans Walkway, South
Another historic house associated with a well known author is the Beauregard Keyes House — a raised cottage at 1113 Chartres Street — built for New Orleans auctioneer Joseph Le Carpentier in 1862. Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard lived here from 1865 to 1867. Novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes made her home here from 1944 1970. Keyes’ (pronounced Cause) best known novel is probably Dinner at Antoine’s although she wrote several others about the New Orleans area including Madame Castel’s Lodger concerning General Beauregard’s stay in this house, Crescent Carnival, Steamboat Gothic, Once on Esplanade and River Road.
The Old Ursuline Convent at 112 Chartres Street in the French Quarter, built in 1745, is believed to be the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. In 1727 twelve women — Ursuline Nuns from France — established the first school for girls, ran the first free school and the first orphanage and held the first classes for African slave and Native American girls in what is now the United States. Following the Natchez massacre, the Convent took in the orphaned children of the French colonists killed at Fort Rosalie.
St. Mary’s Church, next to the Old Ursuline Convent, was built in 1845. It has served successively as a church for the French, Spanish, Creole, Irish, German, Slavonian, and Italian congregations, as well as for Native American Indians and the black Sisters of the Holy Family.
The Old U.S. Mint 400 Esplanade Ave at North Peters Street is now part of the Louisiana State Museum complex. Built in 1835 it has been both a U.S. and Confederate Mint in addition to being used as a Federal prison. Architect William Strickland designed the building in the Greek Revival style without visiting the site prior to construction necessitating massive repairs in the 1850’s because of a foundation ill-suited to the soil.
Two historic buildings in New Orleans that are now part of the Louisiana State Museum complex are the Cabildo and the Presbytere on Jackson Square flanking St. Louis Cathedral.
Construction of both buildings was financed by philanthropist Don Andres Almonester y Roxas. The Cabildo, built in 1799, at 701 Chartres Street on the upriver side (left facing) of St. Louis Cathedral is sometimes called the second most important American building, just after Independence Hall — it’s where the Louisiana Purchase signing took place in 1803.
Construction of the Presbytere at 751 Chartres Street — designed to match the Cabildo — was started 1797. The mansard roof was added in 1847. Originally called the Casa Curial (Ecclesiastical House) and built as a residence for Capuchin monks the Presbytere also served as a courthouse from 1847-1911.
The Upper and Lower Pontalba buildings were built in 1848 by the Baroness Micaela Almonaster de Pontalba, daughter of Don Andres Almonester y Roxas. In 1921, the Pontalba family sold the Lower Pontalba building and it was given to the state museum in 1927.