One of the the largest green spaces in the New Orleans French Quarter is Jackson Square, making it a great place to walk in and around and take advantage of the shade from its trees, which is especially great for keeping cool in the summer. It is a beacon of culture and history in New Orleans and a living monument to those who have built and frequented it in ages past.
One of the people we have to thank for this large outdoor garden in front of St. Louis Cathedral, as well as the two apartment buildings on either side of the square, is Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester, Baroness Pontalba. The only child of Don Andres Almonaster y Rojas, a leader of one of the oldest Creole families in New Orleans, Micaela was born in 1795. Don Andres died in 1798, leaving the baby Micaela sole heiress to his fortune. Her family arranged a marriage to her cousin, Xavier Celestin Delfau de Pontalba. Xavier was the oldest son of the baron, Joseph Delfau de Pontalba. The couple moved to France, where the elder Pontalba was constantly scheming to acquire Micaela’s fortune, eventually shooting her with a dueling pistol in 1834. Micaela survived, but the baron committed suicide with the same set of pistols.
Micaela was granted a legal separation from her husband, now the Baron Pontalba, and she returned to New Orleans. A judge validated her claim to the Almonaster fortune in the United States, and she set about becoming an accomplished businesswoman. She invested in real estate, purchasing the land on the upriver and downriver sides of the Place d’Armes, the main public square in front of St. Louis Cathedral. The sale was not without controversy, as there were accusations of bribes offered and records which vanished from the city’s files. Nonetheless, the baroness acquired the land and constructed the two Parisian-style row house buildings in the 1840s, at a cost of over $300,000. The lead architect was James Gallier, Sr., the designer of New Orleans’ long-time city hall building on St. Charles Avenue.
The buildings became known as the Pontalba Apartments. The one fronting Rue St. Peter, upriver from the Place d’Armes, is the Upper Pontalba, and the building on the other side, fronting Rue St. Ann, the Lower Pontalba. The buildings were designed to have shops and retails space on the ground floor, with the upper floors as apartment units.
In order to increase the rental value of her apartments, Micaela was one of the leaders in the effort to rename the Place d’Armes after the hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, General (later President) Andrew Jackson. The square’s name was changed, and city leaders purchased an equestrian statue of Jackson from the sculptor Clark Mills in 1856. The square was converted from a military parade ground and execution site (runaway slaves and others committing crimes were often hanged in the Place d’Armes) into the peaceful park we know today.
Jackson Square resumed a military role during the Civil War, as an arsenal and parade ground for Union troops, and was the site of Reconstruction-era violence. By the 1880s, however, it reverted to its status as a public park and the “main square” of the French Quarter. Horse-drawn wagon traffic turned into automobile traffic in the Twentieth Century, but the St. Peter, St. Ann, and Chartres streets surrounding the square were closed to vehicular traffic in the 1980s. With the conversion of these streets into a pedestrian mall, the artists who regularly worked inside the square moved to spots along the park’s perimeter fence. Tarot readers and street musicians ply their trade, around the square as well.
The Pontalba family retained ownership of the apartment buildings until the 1920s. Micaela died in France in 1874, and her heirs did not take an interest in the townhouses, so the buildings fell into disrepair. The Pontalba heirs sold the lower building to local philanthropist William Ratcliffe Irby, who in turn bequeathed the property to the Louisiana State Museum. Local civic leaders Alfred Danzinger, Jules D. Dreyfous, and William Runkel acquired the upper building which they sold to a foundation in 1930, the Pontalba Building Museum Association. The Association turned the upper building over to the City of New Orleans, which has owned it since.
The original 16 townhouses in the upper building have been converted into 50 apartments. One is retained for use by the Mayor, and the others are rented. A similar configuration is used for the lower building. The ground floor of both buildings house shops and restaurants, such as Chef Scott Boswell’s restaurant, Stanley!, located in the lower building, on the corner of Rue St. Ann and Rue Chartres. Additionally, the Louisiana State Museum has converted one of the apartments into a museum property. The 1850 Houseapartment is a fine example of life in Antebellum New Orleans.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, and Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, both books in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is a partner in Yatmedia LLC, and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.