Buildings For Sale: Unexpected Beauty From A City Archive

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People who have never been to New Orleans usually can name several things that it’s famous for (Mardi Gras, jazz, A Streetcar Named Desire , the Superdome, jambalaya, red beans and rice), but they are apt to have only a hazy notion of what the city looks like. Iron-lace balconies may come to mind, but little else. And yet, for many years—particularly during the ante-bellum era—New Orleans produced some of the most charming, distinctive, and varied architecture in the nation.

 

The watercolor drawings which are reproduced on the following pages testify to this remarkable heritage. They are part of the public records at the New Orleans Notarial Archives, where they are rather casually kept, folded, in bulky, hard-to-handle volumes. Other cities have archives containing architects’ renderings, elevations, and blueprints; but, as far as we have been able to determine, only New Orleans has an architectural documentation that resembles a collection of folk art.

Between 1802 and 1918, every time a private house or a commercial building was to be sold at public auction in order to pay debts or delinquent taxes, the sheriff’s office ordered a watercolor drawing to be made of it for exhibit to prospective buyers. After the auction, each picture was filed away in the Notarial Archives, along with such vital statistics as the property’s exact location, the square footage, the date, owner’s name, and sale price.

Sometimes the artists were architects or builders, but they were as likely to be sign painters or portraitists. Anyone who could prepare a carefully colored drawing, more or less in perspective, was paid twenty dollars for it. Floor plans were made, too, and lot plans, showing stables, slave quarters, cisterns, and separate kitchens. Some artists were unable to resist adding touches that were beyond the call of duty: birdhouses, rose arbors, and passers-by in the street.

These delightful pictures—there are more than two thousand of them—reflect the architectural styles of a city that flourished under three very dissimilar nations. Founded by the French in 1718, New Orleans was handed over to the Spanish in the 1760’s, in accordance with the secret Family Compact signed by the royal Bourbon cousins who ruled France and Spain (Louis XV and Charles III). The little colonial town had two disastrous fires toward the end of the eighteenth century, wiping out nearly all French buildings and many of the Spanish ones; however, a few survived to have their likenesses recorded for the Notarial Archives. Spanish buildings were distinguished by their delicate wrought-iron balconies, arched windows, and tile roofs. In the French tradition were hip roofs, jalousies, and foundations raised a few feet above the street in the hope of keeping out the Mississippi floodwaters that so often bedeviled this low-lying city. There were never any basements, because for many years the water table in most parts of town was only a foot or two below the surface.

In 1803, Spain relinquished New Orleans to Napoleon, who, a few months later, sold it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. At that time the city had not expanded much beyond the original grid-patterned blocks that still survive today as the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré . Americans swarmed in, and the old Creole plantations on the outskirts were quickly broken up into building lots. As the city grew and prospered, the American suburbs developed upriver and those of the Creoles downriver—for there was little love lost between these two groups. Before the Civil War, thousands of immigrants arrived and the city expanded into its swampy hinterland toward Lake Pontchartrain.

There was a great deal of money in ante-bellum New Orleans, and those who could afford it prided themselves on large, fine residences and imposing offices, stores, and factories. The Americans began by building row houses made of bricks imported from the North. Later, home owners favored detached, suburban houses in the Greek Revival style with their splendid columns and imposing doorways; in the late 1840’s came Italianate villas; and after the Civil War, Second Empire and various eclectic styles. But American builders also borrowed from the Creoles the idea of wide, two-story “galleries” and raised foundations, both of which suited the climate; meanwhile, many Creoles began building houses that looked very American. Beginning in the 1850’s, cast-iron railings, fences, gates, and garden furniture became popular all over town. By the mid-1860’s, there was really only one “look” to the city: a New Orleans look.

Toward the turn of the century, some busybody must have told the sheriff’s office about cameras, and the job of recording the to-be-auctioned buildings gradually was given over to photographers. Since 1918 no more of these delightful watercolors have been added to the Notarial Archives.