Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New Orleans: French Quarter and Algiers

I came to New Orleans with a lot of plans firmly set, but today I simply let circumstances dictate my itinerary. I had a full slate of plans for yesterday and have another set for tomorrow, and I felt the need for a little less structure today.

I started out at the Cabildo, which sits next to St. Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter. This late eighteenth-century building, which was originally the seat of the Spanish colonial government, later housed the Louisiana Supreme Court and other governmental bodies. It is now a Louisiana State Museum facility that interprets the history of New Orleans and its peoples -- Native American, French, Spanish, African, American, English, German, Italian, and Irish -- from the time of European exploration through Reconstruction. I had no idea that during the 19th century New Orleans was second only to New York as a port of entry for immigrants or that some of New Orleans' free people of color, intent upon preserving their social and economic status, actually fought for the Confederacy. The exhibits may be a bit text-heavy for younger visitors, but if you've got the time and the inclination to do a little reading, the Cabildo is worth a visit.

The Cabildo's Sala Capitular originally served as a city council meeting room and a courtroom, and continued to do so after the Louisiana Purchase. Moreover, officials twice convened in this room to transfer control of the colony: on 30 November 1803, the Spanish ceded control to the French, and on 20 December 1803 the French ceded it to the Americans.

After I left the Cabildo, I made my way through Jackson Square for café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde. The crush of people in and around the area kind of annoyed me -- I had forgotten just how touristy the Quarter is -- so I opted to go someplace quiet and contemplative: the Old Ursuline Convent.

In 1727, twelve Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans. They were the first nuns to come to what is now the United States, and they and their successors left an indelible mark on the city. They nursed the city's sick and educated its female children, and they fought tirelessly against what they saw as the city's woeful spiritual state: Sister Marie Madeleine Hachard concluded in 1728 that "the devil here has a very large empire, but this does not discourage us from the hope of destroying him." The Americans who assumed control of New Orleans in 1803 were a bit nonplussed by these educated, determined women, who owned a substantial amount of real property and did not shy away from defending their interests.

The Old Ursuline Convent, which was built in 1748-1752 in Louis XV style, is the only extant French colonial building in the French Quarter; fire and other disasters claimed the rest. Moreover, it is the oldest documented structure in the Mississippi Valley.

The graceful cypress staircase in the entry hall is even older than the rest of the convent: it was originally part of the first convent, which was built in 1734 but proved to be no match for New Orleans' subtropical climate.

Following a property dispute with the city government, the Ursuline sisters moved uptown in 1824. In the years that followed, the building has served as the residence of the Archbishop of New Orleans, an archdiocesan office,and even, for a short time, the meeting place of the Louisiana state legislature.

And just in case you were wondering whether there's an archival angle to any of this: the second floor of the Old Ursuline Convent now houses the archdiocesan archives, which are open to researchers who make advance arrangements. However, the original archives room, a simple, roughly 12' x 12' space, is located on the first floor and is thus open to visitors.

The convent is connected to the St. Mary's Church, which was built in 1845. For a long time, this church served the Italian immigrants who settled in the French Quarter.

One of the windows in the church commemorates the Battle of New Orleans, the final engagement of the War of 1812. The night before the battle began, the Ursuline sisters and relatives of the men fighting under Andrew Jackson prayed fervently for American victory. Even though the Americans were outnumbered and outgunned, they prevailed.

If you look closely at the bottom section of the window, you will see an American flag (center pane, second row). The city of New Orleans is depicted to the left of the flag, and the battle itself is depicted to the right of it.

After I left the convent, I headed further east across Esplanade Avenue and into the Faubourg Marigny, which was originally New Orleans' first suburb and is home to the bohemians who in decades past would have lived in the French Quarter. I stopped by Faubourg Marigny Art and Books, New Orleans's independent LGBT bookstore -- an endangered species these days -- and found an out-of-print book by Jane Rule.

I then walked down to the end of Esplanade Avenue and hopped the Riverfront streetcar to Canal Street, where on impulse I hopped the ferry to Algiers Point. Algiers, which was first settled in 1719 and annexed to the city in 1870, is located across the river from the rest of the city.

Algiers is home to a Bollinger Shipyards facility (seen here from the ferry as it sits at the Algiers dock) that repairs tugboats and other vessels. However, most of the area is residential. It's a quiet, charming-seeming place, and in many respects it feels more like a village than a city neighborhood. However, it's filled with fantastic, well-maintained examples of vernacular New Orleans architecture.

This simple shotgun home has been dressed up with Victorian trim, and many other houses in the area have Victorian decorative touches. Shotgun homes were popular not only because they promoted air circulation but because property taxes were at one point based on the width of one's lot; the depth of the lot was immaterial.

This slender shotgun home sits next to a two-story double, which was built to house two families. Two-story doubles exist throughout the city.

Algiers is also home to Craftsman homes, which can be found in many New Orleans neighborhoods.

This double gallery house has a hipped roof. Other double gallery houses in New Orleans have flat or side-gabled roofs.
This double shotgun home, which has been renovated extensively, has a partial second story. Such homes are commonly known as "camelback" or "humpback" homes. Camelback homes are also found throughout New Orleans, and the tax code may have facilitated their construction: for tax purposes, houses with partial second stories were classified as single-story homes.

I took the above picture while standing atop the earthen levee that stands between the Mississippi River and the Algiers neighborhood itself. Unlike the levees built adjacent to the 17th Street Canal, the London Canal, and the Industrial Canal, this levee held after Katrina hit. As a result, Algiers (which seems to have experienced its own post-Katrina problems) was one of the first New Orleans neighborhoods to reopen in the hurricane's wake.

A paved path runs atop the Algiers levee, which attracts people walking their dogs, running, riding their bikes, or simply seeking a quiet place to contemplate the river, the Central Business District, and the French Quarter. I spent a lot of time sitting on a bench, watching the ships, tugs and barges, and ferries ply the water -- New Orleans is one of the nation's busiest ports -- and enjoying the calm.

Tomorrow: City Park, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and a few other destinations.

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