Early New Orleans: A Tale of Two Squares

Jackson Square, in the heart of the French Quarter, is one of New Orleans’ iconic sites. Lafayette Square is in the city’s present business district, out of view of many tourists who do not venture from the French Quarter. Together they tell much of the city’s early days.


Jackson Square. The city, founded in the Spring of 1718 by the French, grew up around this space, originally called the Place d’Armes. The first St. Louis Church was built at its edge, finished in 1727. In its early days, though, the Place d’Armes was not a place of pleasure; it was where militia mustered and trained and where criminals were executed and enslaved people who sought their freedom were murdered. Spain gained ownership of Louisiana in 1762. On Good Friday, 1788, a fire broke out in the home of the Spanish Army’s treasurer, Don Vincente Nunez, at 619 Chartres Street, yards from St. Louis. As it was Good Friday, the priests would not allow the church bell to be rung so no alarm went up. The fire spread. The church and almost all of the rest of the town burned. An Andalusian who had settled in New Orleans, Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, paid for the church to be rebuilt on the same spot. It was finished in 1793 and dedicated as a cathedral on Christmas Eve the next year.


Almonester also paid for the rebuilding of the Cabildo, the town hall, next to St. Louis. A third building, the Presbytère, intended as St. Louis’ rectory was laid out on the other side of the church. All three were designed by a French architect, Gilberto Guillemard. The Cabildo was finished by 1799, but the Presbytère was left uncompleted until 1813. (It was never used as a rectory. Instead it served as a court building and became a museum in 1911.) About 1819 Benjamin Latrobe came to town after working on the U.S. Capitol. He saw potential in the square, but his plans for upgrading it were rejected. Instead, the city surveyor, Joseph Pilié, put up a fence around it. Pilié later came up with his own plan to improve the square, that also was not followed-through.


In the late 1840s, after spending many years in France, the daughter of Almonester, Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester y Rojas, Baroness de Pontalba, returned to New Orleans.


She built the beautiful red-brick Pontalba buildings on either side of Place d’Armes that are still in use. She also had a plan for the square—and she had the prestige, money, and charisma to see it through. This included in 1851 renaming the space Jackson Square, in honor of the hero of the Battle of Chalmette. About this time the present iron fence was installed. It was designed by Louis H. Pilié, Joseph’s son.


In 1856 Clark Mills’ statue of General Jackson was unveiled.


Jackson Square remains much the same today.

The same year that Jackson’s statue was unveiled, a statue of his archenemy, Henry Clay, was erected on Canal Street, where St. Charles Avenue and Royal Street merge. The timing could not have been a coincidence. Clay’s statue was moved in 1900 a few blocks upriver to the second public space in this story: Lafayette Square.

Lafayette Square. Days after the catastrophic 1788 fire, a landowner named Bertrand Gravier subdivided his estate. Don Charles Laveau Trudeau designed a park there called Place Publique. In 1803 Louisiana became part of the United States and plucky Americans arrived in New Orleans to seek their fortunes. Many of them settled on Gravier’s old land, now called Faubourg (suburb) Ste. Marie. At some point the square was named after the American Revolutionary leader Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Things grew ugly between the English-speaking residents and the French- and Spanish-speaking Creoles.

So ugly, in fact, that the city was divided into three autonomous “municipalities” with its own council, police, schools. Though nominally there was one overall mayor and a general council. Municipality 1, from Canal Street to Esplanade, was French-speaking. So was the poor district downriver from Esplanade called Municipality 3. Upriver from Canal was English-speaking Municipality 2, centered around Lafayette Square. Canal Street was called the “neutral ground” between the rival groups—this term is still used for roadway medians in New Orleans.


While the Creoles continued to run things from the Cabildo, the Yankees needed their own municipal building. They hired architect James Gallier to build them one. James was born in Ireland with the name Gallagher, which he changed when he moved to New Orleans in 1834. He did a lot to shape his adopted town. He completed the municipal building in 1851—it became the town hall of a re-unified city in 1853 and stayed so until the early 1950s. Today Gallier Hall is a reception hall. It is still the spot where Mardi Gras royalty view parades along St. Charles Avenue. The building was renamed to honor its designer when the city government moved out. Gallier, by the way, also worked on Baroness Pontalba’s Pontalba Apartments.


Today, oddly, there are no images of Lafayette in his square. There are statues of Benjamin Franklin and John McDonogh, a slaveholder and infamous miser who nevertheless left a large legacy to the city’s public schools.


And of, course, Clay stands in the center.

He has a familial connection of sorts to the place, probably a coincidence. Don Charles, who designed the square, was brother to Zénon Trudeau, the lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana. One of Zénon’s daughters, Eulalie, married Dr. John Watkins, who served as mayor of New Orleans (1804-1807) and was a cousin of Clay’s. (Incidentally, Zénon was an ancestor of Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame. The two Trudeau prime ministers of Canada were/are distant cousins. And one more connection: Zénon offered land in Missouri, then part of Upper Louisiana, for Daniel Boone to settle. Daniel Boone’s earlier explorations in Kentucky had been partially financed by Clay’s father-in-law, Col. Thomas Hart.)

I first saw Lafayette Square during the late 1980s. It was a bit ragtag then. On a recent visit (2017) I found it restored to fine shape. It was a December evening. A large murder of crows swooped and cawed over the square and Grallier Hall and a bit north. A stealthy cooper’s hawk quietly landed on a lamp post—tgj hen swiftly chased after some pigeons amid the Square’s brushes and trees.

Note: This post draws upon some primary sources and several secondary sources. The information in the secondary sources often was contradictory. Would you please let me know if you spot any errors?



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