Sculpture of a Saint inside the San Xavier del Bac Mission; The historic San Bernardino Ranch complex.
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Vieux Carré Historic District

New Orleans, Louisiana


St. Louis Cathedral with the Cabildo on the left and the Presbytere on the right.

St. Louis Cathedral with the Cabildo on the left
and the Presbytere on the right.
Flickr's Creative Commons, by Chriag D. Shah

The Vieux Carré Historic District is the historic center of New Orleans and an authentic showcase of the city’s rich cultural diversity and past. Established in 1718 by French colonist Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, New Orleans became a part of the Spanish Empire in 1763 and returned to French control in 1801 before the United States bought it as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. While today the district is known as the French Quarter because of its origins, nearly 40 years of Spanish rule left a strong imprint on the city and the Vieux Carré (“Old Square” in French).

After the British victory in what North Americans call the French and Indian War, the English and Spanish divided French Louisiana in 1763, and New Orleans became the capital of Spanish Louisiana. With its location 100 miles above the mouth of the Mississippi River, the port of New Orleans was important for the trade that supported Spain’s expansion efforts. Spaniard Antonio de Ulloa became the new commissioner of New Orleans, angering the French and other colonists already there, which led them to seize the city from the Spanish in 1768. After 10 months of rebel control, Count Alejandro O’Reilly, with 24 ships and 2,000 men, recaptured the city for the Spanish without resistance, in August of 1769.

The port of New Orleans played an important role in smuggling military equipment and supplies up the Mississippi River to the rebels during the American Revolutionary War. Spanish military leader and the colonial governor of Louisiana and later Viceroy of New Spain, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid (Viscount of Galveston and Count of Gálvez), aided the 13 colonies in their fight for independence and successfully launched the southern campaign against the British from New Orleans in 1779.

Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid

Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid
Public Domain

On October 1, 1800, the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso transferred ownership of Louisiana from Spain back to France. Article 4 of this treaty stipulated that “The French Republic may, according to its convenience postpone the taking of possession…” The delayed possession was important for Napoleon who wanted to build up his forces to protect the French colonies in the West. His plan was to expand the French Empire by taking Florida once he had firm control of existing colonies. France did not take formal possession of Louisiana until November 30, 1803. French ownership was short lived, however, as the United States took control of the colony on December 20, 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.

As evidence of the Spanish influence, most of the 18th century buildings that still stand in the Vieux Carré Historic District date from the time when the Spain controlled the city. Spanish philanthropist and nobleman Don Andres Almonaster y Rojas financed construction of three of the most significant buildings in the heart of the district—the St Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and the Presbytère, all located on Jackson Square, the Place d’Armes. After the fire of 1788, Don Gilberto Guillemard drew the plans for the Cathedral of St. Louis and the Presbytère, which stands on one side of the cathedral. After the fire destroyed the French built cathedral, the Spanish constructed a new one in its place finishing the St. Louis Cathedral in 1794, just in time for the next Great Fire – which it survived. Renovated several times, the Spanish version of St. Louis Cathedral is one of the historic district’s most beloved landmarks. Originally called the Casa Curial (Ecclesiastical House), the Presbytère, was intended for but never became a residence for St. Louis Cathedral clergy. During the 1800s, the Presbytère served commercial purposes and then became a courthouse, before becoming a part of the Louisiana State Museum. Today it showcases Mardi Gras artifacts.

On the other side of the cathedral, the Cabildo is another notable Spanish landmark, which originally housed the administrative and legislative council that ruled Spanish Louisiana. The building takes its name from the Spanish governing body that met there, the “Illustrious Cabildo” or city council. After the second great fire destroyed the earlier building on the site, Don Gilberto Guillemard designed the new meeting place for the city council that dates from 1799. The Cabildo is most famous for being the site of the Louisiana Purchase transfer in 1803. In 1911, the Cabildo became part of the Louisiana State Museum, where visitors can see collections and exhibits focusing on Louisiana’s early history.

The Presbytere, southeast façade, April 1934

The Presbytère, southeast façade, April 1934
Courtesy of the Historic American Buildings Survey, by Richard Koch

In the 1840’s, the daughter of Don Andres Almonaster y Rojas, the Baroness de Pontalba, Micaela Almonester Pontalba, was responsible for the design and construction of the beautiful four story red brick townhouses that line two sides of Jackson Square. Their deep cast iron galleries that provide shade and a place to sit helped spark a trend that is reflected in the galleries and ornate ironwork that graces other buildings in the Vieux Carré.

The Spanish were also responsible for other famous New Orleans landmarks, including Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Built between 1722 and 1732, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is touted as the oldest structure in the United States to be used as a bar. There is much history embedded in this building, which survived both of the great fires. Legend identifies it as a smuggling outpost and hideaway for pirates such as Jean Lafitte, who was a spy for the Spanish.

The Vieux Carré Historic District that generally coincides with the original 1721 layout of the city contains a variety of buildings that reflect its multinational cultural heritage. Visitors can still find significant reminders of the importance of the Spanish not only in the architecture of the district but also by looking for plaques in the district identifying the old Spanish street names that honor the historical figures from the Spanish era such as Galvez and Ulloa.

Plan your visit

Vieux Carré Historic District is a National Historic Landmark located in New Orleans, LA in the area generally bounded by Esplanade Ave. to the north, the Mississippi River to the east, Canal St., Decatur St., and Iberville St. to the south, and Basin S., St. Louis St., and North Rampart St. to the west. Click here for the Vieux Carré Historic District National Historic Landmark file: text and photos.

St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square is open to the public and mass is celebrated daily. For more information, visit the St. Louis Cathedral website or call 504-525-9585. The Cabildo at 701 Chartres St. and the Presbytère at 751 Chartres St. are open from 10:00am to 4:30pm Tuesday-Sunday, closed on Mondays and State holidays. For more information visit the Cabildo and the Presbytère websites or call 504-568-6968. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop at 941 Bourbon St. is a bar open to the public. For more information, visit the Lafittes Blacksmith Shop website.

Many of the buildings above have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. The Vieux Carré is also the subject of an online lesson plan, The Vieux Carré: A Creole Neighborhood in New Orleans. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.

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