NPS Logo

Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading


Explorers and Settlers
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings


Location: Orleans Parish, the section of the city of New Orleans bounded by the Mississippi River, Rampart Street, Canal Street, and Esplanade Avenue.

Ownership and Administration. Various.

Significance. Covering some 85 blocks, the Vieux Carré is the nucleus of the original city of New Orleans and the scene of many historic events—from the initial French settlement through the French, Spanish, and early American eras. Many of its buildings represent a unique fusion of architectural styles, which reveal the growth of New Orleans in the late 18th and first part of the 19th centuries and the blending of diverse national influences into a cosmopolitan metropolis.

The Frenchman Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded New Orleans in 1718, and 3 years later military engineers platted the town into 80 rectilinear blocks. In 1722, it became the capital of French Louisiana and, because of its location 100 miles above the mouth of the Mississippi, thrived as a trade center. By the mid-18th century, it had gained a reputation for glamorous living and was the cultural center of Louisiana. In 1762, when western Louisiana passed from France to Spain, it became the capital of Spanish Louisiana and grew rapidly. Although fires in 1788 and 1794 nearly destroyed it, its residents erected substantial buildings to replace the old ones.

In 1803, New Orleans officially passed from Spain back to France, and 20 days later from France to the United States. During the War of 1812, the British failed to capture the city. After the war, it continued to prosper, particularly because it became the major port for the newly developing steamboat traffic on the Mississippi and its tributaries. The influx of U.S. settlers and traders, Latin American political refugees, and European immigrants made ante bellum New Orleans one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the United States. By mid-century, it had become the commercial and financial emporium of the entire Mississippi Valley, the fourth largest city in the United States, and the second most active port. Today it is a thriving port city and center of culture.

Present Appearance. Most of the buildings in the Vieux Carré date from between 1794, when the second of two disastrous fires swept the town, and 1850. They are a mixture of various European styles of architecture, primarily French and Spanish. To some extent, however, they also reflect the Greek Revival style, which swept the country in the 19th century. Sites and buildings in the Historic District dating from the French and Spanish periods that are eligible for the Registry of National Historic Landmarks and are described elsewhere in this volume with the other Landmarks include: The Cabildo, Jackson Square, and the Ursuline Convent. St. Louis Cathedral, also located in the Historic District, is described in the "Other Sites Considered" section.

Listed below are some other buildings that date back to the French and Spanish periods:

(1) The Presbytère, 713 Chartres Street. Built between 1795 and 1813, the Presbytère was intended to be the rectory for St. Louis Cathedral, but shortly after its completion the Catholic Church rented it to the city for a courthouse. In 1853, the city purchased it. It is now a part of the Louisiana State Museum.

(2) Madame John's Legacy, 632 Dumaine Street. Rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original house in 1788, this house is one of the oldest in New Orleans. Of "brick between posts" construction on a raised basement, it is typical of the French colonial period. It is owned by the Louisiana State Museum.

(3) Montegut House, 731 Royal Street. Built about 1795 and extensively remodeled about 1830, this house is a fine example of a Vieux Carré residence.

(4) Bosque House, 617 Chartres Street. Built in 1795, this residence is noted for its monogrammed balcony, one of the finest examples of Spanish colonial ironwork in the Vieux Carré.

(5) Le Petit Theatre, 616 St. Peter Street. A pink stuccoed building that is now a part of the Little Theatre, Le Petit Theatre was constructed between 1789 and 1796.

(6) Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, 941 Bourbon Street. This building is constructed of "brick between posts," a type of architecture introduced by French builders soon after the founding of the city. The shop is mentioned in city records as early as 1772.

(7) Bank of the United States, 339 Royal Street. Probably built in 1800, this building was subsequently occupied by the Planters' Bank, a branch of the United States Bank of Philadelphia, and the New Orleans Gas Light and Banking Company. It is now owned by another private company. Its wrought-iron balconies are among the finest in New Orleans.

(8) Maspero's Exchange, 440 Chartres Street. Built in 1788, this building, originally known as the Exchange Coffee House, was a meeting place for soldiers, planters, merchants, and buccaneers. Jean and Pierre Lafitte used the second floor for their headquarters.

Many other interesting sites and buildings that pertain to later periods of history are also included in the Historic District. [69]

NHL Designation: 12/21/65

Previous Next
Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005