“Jean Claude, I am fed up! Our families have been in La Nouvelle-Orléans for generations.
We’ve survived floods, fire, and years of merciless diseases. And just when things are improving, les Americains, think they can waltz into the Vieux Carré and take our homes and businesses. I, for one, will not allow it. I will do everything in my power to keep them out!”
And in an expensive hotel dining room a few blocks away, a recently arrived American businessman from Massachusetts tells his wife,
“I don’t understand these snobbish Creoles. Who do they think they are? We’ve done nothing to them, and yet, they’re dead set on preventing us from living in the French Quarter. Well honestly, that’s fine with me. I heard that not too far upriver, a large plantation is being subdivided into building lots. If we bought one of these sites, we could build a large comfortable home with a lovely garden for you and the children.”
It’s not a battle that dominates history books, but in the early 1800’s, tensions between resident Creoles and johnny-come-lately Americans had far-reaching effects on the development of New Orleans.
President Thomas Jefferson and the United States had just scored big at the Napoleonic fire sale and had sewn up the Louisiana Purchase. And thanks to its position on the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was booming. From all across the country, Americans were flocking to the river city for their piece of the economic pie, and the Creole residents deeply resented these latecomers to the party. As retribution, they wouldn’t allow Americans to live in the French Quarter. Out of this conflict, the Garden District was born.
The Garden District
From an architectural standpoint, the two areas look like totally different cities, and in fact, they were. The Garden District was part of the city of Lafayette, until it was incorporated into New Orleans in 1852.
For the incoming Americans, the Garden District was essentially a clean slate. It enabled them to import popular new architectural styles, and to build the type of homes they preferred. Greek Revival was trendy …
… and in a nod to the climate, the raised cottage was also in vogue. Grand entrances were all the rage.
Attractive, meticulously maintained English-style gardens surrounded by intricate, wrought iron fences and gates were de rigueur.
The French Quarter
The Vieux Carré, on the other hand, had generations of influence from French and Spanish Colonial architects, who cut their teeth in the hot, steamy tropics.
Houses were built next to the banquette (sidewalk). The wealthy preferred thick-walled villas surrounding small, private Mediterranean-style courtyards with a cooling fountain.
Creoles from the Caribbean Islands, built raised cottages, while Africans influenced the design of the shotgun houses. The builders of each architectural style knew heat and humidity, and how best to address it.
The disparate experiences and preferences of these two groups produced radically different architecture. And the clash between these two cultures survives today, in the elegant townhouses in the French Quarter, and the lovely Victorian mansions in the Garden District.
James & Terri