Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
American Latino Heritage
New Orleans, Louisiana
The Cabildo, a National Historic Landmark on Jackson Square in New Orleans, Louisiana, originally housed the administrative and legislative council that ruled Spanish Louisiana. The building took its name from the Spanish governing body that met there, the “Illustrious Cabildo” or city council. The Cabildo was also the site of the Louisiana Purchase Transfer ceremonies and the home of the Louisiana Supreme Court, which handed down the controversial and highly significant “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The Cabildo itself is a reflection of the strong influence of Spanish architecture in the Louisiana Territory and one of the most important buildings remaining from the period when Spain held the Louisiana Territory. The Cabildo is now the home of the Louisiana State Museum, providing visitors to New Orleans with a tangible reminder of the city’s Spanish heritage.
Beginning in 1721, the site where the Cabildo now sits was set aside for government use. French engineer Adrien de Pauger laid out the plan for the newly established town of New Orleans, singling out specific lots for use by the French colonial government. In 1769, Don Alejandro O’Reilly took formal possession of the Louisiana Territory for Spain and quickly established a Spanish Cabildo (a municipal governing body) to replace the Superior Council that had governed Louisiana during the French regime.
Soon after taking possession of Louisiana for the Spanish, O’Reilly ordered the construction of a new town hall on the site of the prison of the corps de garde (police station). The new town hall, or Cabildo, was built on the foundations of the old prison (parts of these walls are incorporated in the present Cabildo). After the destruction of this building by a fire in 1788, the Spanish constructed new government buildings over the next few years, only to lose them to another fire that tore through New Orleans in 1794.
As he did with the Presbytere, Guillemard made as much use as possible of the old brickwork that remained on the Cabildo site after the fires of 1788 and 1794, and incorporated the remains of the brick walls of the old French corps de garde of the 1750s and of the old town hall building into the new Cabildo building. Once completed, the new Cabildo building would have nearly the same frontage to the public square as the new Presbytere.
The original Cabildo building had two stories and was made of stuccoed brick. The new Cabildo had two stories with open arcades. On both of these stories, elliptical arches sprang from square piers. A pediment crowned the three central bays on the second story of the building and once held the arms of the Spanish Crown. After the Louisiana Purchase, the arms of the Spanish crown were removed. By 1822, the pediment contained an eagle amidst trophies, arms, and flags, which Pietro Cardelli, who had worked on the United States Capitol, designed.
The Cabildo’s original flat tiled roof, which proved to be problematic and always in need of repair, was replaced in 1847 with a steep mansard roof in the French style with scrolled dormers. A third floor and cupola were also added to the building. About the same time, Baroness Pontalba, a strong willed designer and businesswoman in New Orleans, planned French inspired renovations to her own private buildings in the Jackson Square area. Because of Baroness Pontalba’s proposed renovations and influence throughout New Orleans, the city council decided to make similar improvements to its buildings on Jackson Square, and thus added the French style mansard roof to the Cabildo and to the Presbytere.
Guillemard designed the second story specifically to house the new council chamber or Sala Capitular. The Spanish utilized the Sala Capitular as a courtroom from 1799 tol 1803, until they formally ceded the Louisiana Territory to France in the November of 1803. Spain had already secretly agreed to transfer power of Louisiana back to France in 1800, through the Treaty of San Ildefonso, however, Napolean had delayed taking possession for he wanted more time to build up a military to protect the territory. France controlled the territory for only about three weeks, from November 30 to December 20, 1803, during which time they called the Cabildo, Maison de Ville, or Town Hall. On December 20, 1803, in the Sala Capitular of the Cabildo, France signed the transfer documents formally transferring the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The ratification of the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States and opened up the continent to the continued westward expansion of the nation.
After the Louisiana Purchase, the Cabildo continued to be used for government purposes and public offices. From 1803 until 1812, the Louisiana territorial superior court sat there, and after the Civil War, from 1868 until 1910, the Louisiana Supreme Court. Since 1803, the mayor, the city council, the superior court and its clerk, the county judge, and the city notary have used the Cabildo. The Cabildo has also served as an emergency hospital, a banquet hall, and as a home for various libraries, including the New Orleans Library Association in 1819 and the Law Association Library from 1847 until 1910. In 1911, the Louisiana State Museum moved in and remains there today.
The Louisiana State Museum’s exhibits in the Cabildo emphasize the diverse ethnic heritage of Louisiana. The museum operates four other properties in New Orleans’ historic French Quarter that reflect Louisiana’s historic events and cultural diversity including the Presbytere, the 1850 House, the Old U.S. Mint, and Madame John's Legacy.