NOLA History: Royal Street in the French Quarter

by Edward Branley on December 10, 2012

in Arts & Culture, History

Hanging out in the French Quarter can mean Bourbon or Decatur Street at night, but by day, the place to be is one block closer to the river – Rue Royale, or Royal Street. Say “French Quarter” to visitors to New Orleans, and the first image is invariably either Jackson Square or Bourbon Street. The former is the “postcard image” of St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and the Presbytere, with General Jackson in the little park just in front. The latter evokes the “sinful” side of New Orleans, with food, drink, and music pouring out of the doors of the buildings and houses as one walks from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue. In between the two is New Orleans’ first “business” street.

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Street tiles on Rue Royale (courtesy Carlos “Froggy” May)

In 1720, Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, sieur d’Bienville, convinced his brother, Pierre (sieur d’Iberville) that a crescent-shaped location along the Mississippi River would make a better capital for the French colony of Louisiana. Bienville appointed an engineer, Adrien de Pauger, to design a street plan for the city of Nouvelle Orleans. de Pauger laid out a simple grid system, starting at the river, and going back to a fortified rampart several blocks back. He named the first street along the river Rue Victorie, then Rue Chartres, Rue Royale, followed by Rue Bourbon and Rue Dauphine. Rue Victorie (later re-named by the Americans to honor Admiral Stephen Decatur) was the hub for waterfront commerce, and businesses related to shipping and the port sprang up there. Because it passed in front of St. Louis Cathedral and the main government building of the colonial period, the Cabildo, Rue Chartres is where many of the more influential and wealthy residents built homes. In the block behind the cathedral and government buildings, many businesses that didn’t need direct access to the waterfront set up operations, and the families who ran those businesses built their homes.

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1728 map of New Orleans, showing de Pauger’s original grid plan. (courtesy US Census Bureau)

The fires of 1788 and 1794 devastated the Vieux Carre (“old square”). Since the Spanish were in control of the city at the time, the city was built in a Spanish style and following their building codes, which called for brick construction rather than wood. Many of those old homes were built around a central courtyard, with one or two rooms open to the street, then a passage which led to the courtyard and upstairs rooms. Since nobody wanted to live directly on the street, those front rooms were perfect for business offices and small shops.

Traffic flow along Rue Royale and Rue Bourbon played an important role in giving one street a daytime focus and the other ruling the night. Street railways began to link Canal Street with the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, and Faubourg St. John, in the 1860s. Since the streets of the Quarter were too narrow for two-track operation, the streetcars traveled inbound (toward Canal Street) on Rue Royale, and returned outbound (towards Esplanade Avenue) on Rue Bourbon. Royal Street became all about getting to work in the business district on the other side of Canal Street. Bourbon Street was the path back home, so it was the perfect place for restaurants and nightclubs to open up, enticing workers to hop off the streetcars for dinner (and perhaps more) in the Vieux Carre.

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Courtyard on Royal Street, 1906 (courtesy Library of Congress)

Even though city government moved to the American Sector (Faubourg Ste. Marie) in the 1840s and 1850s, the judiciary, most notably the Louisiana State Supreme Court, remained at the Cabildo for decades. When the courts outgrew the venerable Spanish colonial building, a new courthouse was constructed on Rue Royal, across the street from the house owned the Morphy family, one of whom, Paul Morphy, was a world-famous chess champion. In the 1940s, tavern and restaurant owner Owen Brennan acquired the Morphy home and moved his restaurant from around the corner on Bourbon Street. The luxurious courtyard, along with Brennan’s quality food, led to the tradition of “Breakfast at Brennan’s,” on Royal Street.

Royal Street Today

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Looking down Royal Street. Brennan’s Restaurant is the pink building, with an antique shop next door, left. (courtesy Carlos “Froggy” May)

Mardi Gras in the French Quarter is a wonderful mix of bedlam, excitement, and partying. Crowds constantly ebb and flow through the streets. While the scene on Royal isn’t usually as raucous as on Bourbon, residents of Rue Royale take to their balconies, admiring the crowd below, and tossing beads and trinkets to the revelers.

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Mardi Gras on Rue Royale (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The city experimented off-and-on with blocking off vehicular traffic during the day on Royal Street and in the evenings on Bourbon Street. This evolved into today’s pedestrian malls, which divert vehicles away from several blocks of Royal in the middle of the day, and Bourbon at night. Once the morning commute is over on Rue Royale, barricades go up at 10 a.m. Visitors and locals alike can explore coffee shops, historic courtyards and museums, as well as stop for lunch. Shoppers have a wide array of places to explore, ranging from antique stores to clothing boutiques to bookstores, to art galleries (such as “Blue Dog” creator George Rodrigue’s gallery, behind St. Louis Cathedral). Shopping is a great way to take refuge from the heat of a summer’s day in New Orleans, moving from store to courtyard to gallery, until the strains of jazz tunes reach out in the twilight. Some stay on Rue Royale, enjoying the cuisine of restaurants such as Mr. B’s Bistro, possibly turning into Exchange Alley for dinner, or maybe walking over to Rue Chartres, for Stella or K-Paul’s. When the sensory overload that is Rue Bourbon is too much at night walk back a block and window-shop on Rue Royal, as the street’s charms draw you in. Wind up your evening at the historic Monteleone Hotel on Royal near Canal–imagine yourself having a nightcap with Tennessee Williams!

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Royal Street in its pedestrian mall configuration (courtesy Carlos “Froggy” May)

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is sche. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

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