To the stranger for the first time threading his way through its narrow streets, the old French quarter of New Orleans seems like a city of iron lace, so lavishly did the old Creole builders make use of the wrought metal.
From street to street the web of iron-work runs: from house to house, from balcony to balcony. It wreathes the slender pillars, and sheathes the upper windows, and crests the high brick garden-walls. Little iron-railed balconies, of just a window's breadth, so frail, so frost-fine, one feels a breath would shatter them, break the sheer height of the walls, while from upper stories, broad verandas, supported by slender shafts, or bands of openwork, stretch over the banquette.1
Story above story the balconies climb upward, till the house-front is veiled in iron lace; while at the banquette edge, stair-flights are guarded by wrought-iron gates, and high in the steep gable ends long fan windows look out from behind iron guards. In the older homes the family initial is wrought into this balcony-grille.
In the simpler life of the Colonial period, lawyer, doctor, commission-merchant, all had their offices on the ground floor of their dwellings, while the family rooms, as in old Continental castles, were above. Even the banker lived above the bank, and civil authorities had their offices in their own homes. This lower floor had no communication with the dwelling above; but beyond the line of heavily-shuttered doors, with their clumsy iron hooks, stands a massive double door, with knocker and name-plate; and through this porte-cochère one enters a long paved passage that leads to the inner court, and thus to the home. This complete separation of the lower story from the life of the home explains the strange contrast between the ground floor, with its grim, arched, iron-barred transoms and cumbrous shutters, and the upper stories, with their long rows of windows and balconies of fairy lightness.
The fine instinct for privacy found perfect expression in these old homes; and there lingers about them yet an air of serious dignity, a quiet veiling of the inner life from the gaze of the world, that reveals p174 the nature of those who built them long ago. Straight up from the banquette rise the stucco walls, grave and silent, and though from above, behind light balconies one may catch the flutter of a curtain, or the gleam of a potted plant, that is all the passer‑by may see. Yet, once within the heavy entrance door, once across the dark, damp corridor, with its wrought-iron lamp swinging in the arch at the inner end, we come upon the cool, green court, with its fountain, and its birds and blue sky.
Here the noise of the street dies to a whisper, and its dust and heat are forgotten. Everywhere is a wealth of green; in pots, in boxes, in old Spanish water-jugs grow palms and great, wide-spreading ferns. Here one sees the pale green of the banana, the dark, jagged spears of Spanish bayonet, and the fleshy, spiny lobes of cacti. On brackets, on benches, on little stands, from the railing of the gallery above, from hanging-baskets swinging between its pillars, green streamers float, while the neighbor's house-wall is veiled in close-clinging vines.
On the ground floor of the ell that frames the court are the kitchen and laundry rooms; while opening upon the paved corridor just as it enters the court-yard is the little room in which the spiral stairway begins its upward flight. In some homes, this stair entrance is walled with glass; in others, it is guarded by great, heavy, wrought-iron gates; and it was from this threshold that the dainty dames of old entered the big family-carriage and were driven out through the porte cochère into the sunlit street.
Mounting the stairs with their massive wooden balustrade, we reach the real dwelling-house — great, broad corridors upon which the drawing-rooms open and the cool, shaded chambers. So broad are these rooms, so lofty, and over them broods such a spirit of peace, that we seem to breathe the atmosphere of another day — of the time when the men and women, whose portraits look down upon us from the cool, white walls, lived, and found life sweet with a rich and quiet sweetness. They, who reared these dwellings in the long ago, were not rich as wealth is counted to‑day, but in their fair homes they enjoyed each hour's beauty as it unfolded, and the fragrance of the fine culture which came to blossom in that quietness lingers yet, as an indefinable grace and charm, about the homes they builded.
p177 On Chartres Street there stands to‑day a rather unusual type of a Creole gentleman's house of a hundred years ago, for it lacks the reticence of the prevailing style. The carriage-way lies at one side of the house instead of through a corridor, and the central hall runs from the porch to a long, beautiful room, whose entire outer wall was originally of glass, looking out upon a garden.
On this same old thoroughfare there yet stands an old Spanish mansion. A massive double door of iron opening upon the street guards the broad corridor, with its pavement of mosaic, and the niches for statues cut in the walls. In the open court, facing the entrance, is a splendid old stairway twisting in a double spiral to the living-rooms above. Iron-railed balconies surround the court on three sides; while on the fourth, the wall is niched to hold statues, between which a fountain once played. The lower story of both ells once formed the sleeping-apartments for house-servants and hostlers. In this home, as in many others, the windows are doubly guarded by blinds without, and, as in so many Colonial houses all over the land, by delicately fitted shutters within, that fold back into a niche in the deep casing. Eighty rooms there are in all in this old family mansion; broad chambers and high, with long airy corridors, and deep, sheltered verandas.
"a splendid old stairway twisting in a double spiral to the rooms above"
Though the ground floor of so many Creole homes was used for offices, yet sometimes in the busiest sections of these once so busy streets, we find mansions that were homes from basement to attic. The walls usually rise flush with the banquette, but the entrance-door is recessed, so that the lowest of the flight of steps does not extend beyond the wall, and the stairs are guarded by folding gates of wrought iron. Or a portion of the veranda may be cut away and the curving flight of steps set back within this space.
The entrance-door is usually of oak or mahogany, paneled in strong, simple lines and crowned by fan-lights, and the long rows of windows, often slightly arched, are set deep within the thick walls. Usually the original batten shutters have been pierced by diamond or heart-shaped apertures, or have been replaced by the lighter Venetian blinds; but the old window-spacings, with their quiet dignity, and the old window-guards of heavy wooden or wrought-iron balustrades remain; and sometimes the window-course all across the wall is marked by a plaster frieze or simple brick relief. The design of these old p178 doorways and the proportions of the transoms above the lintel are often exquisitely planned; revealing, in their fine reserve, the same spirit that wrought the old iron grilles.
Such are the old homes that remain in the hands of those who love them, and still have the means of carrying on the ideal of their dead builders. But many of these old dwellings have been swept away by the tide of American enterprise, and many more are wearing out their old age in poverty and degradation. Glancing into these courts as we pass — the door is open, there is now no sensitive soul within to shrink from the stranger's gaze — we see no cool paradise of green, but a noisome camping-ground for the riff-raff of a seaport city. Here is a group of "Dago" children romping over the crumbling stairs; here a Chinaman dozing over his opium-pipe; and there a donkey tangled in a clothes-line. Everywhere filth, disorder, evil smells — the old aristocrats are now squalid tenements; and from the rotting balconies, with their precious old iron railings, long clothes-lines stretch.b
The earliest homes of the colonists, however, were not these large family mansions, but the little dwarfed cottages, of two rooms or four, that here and there may still be seen squatting beside the banquette — dwellings so low-browed that the shadow of the projecting roof falls close to the lowly lintel. As the years have passed, many have so sunk that their floor is below the street level, and the line of the roof-cone is bowed like the back of an over-weary man; but they are constructed with a beautiful honesty that time only emphasizes.
The skeleton of the wall is of massive, rough-hewn timber, the irregular spaces between being filled with brick — as it were, paneled with brick — over which, within and without, stucco has been plastered on. The batten blinds guarding both the glass door and the deep-set windows, with their small panes, are built sturdily of two thicknesses of tongue-and‑groove timber, and hung on heavy, hand-wrought hinges, a foot in length, while long iron hooks fasten the shutters from within. Originally these humble homes were roofed with split cypress, and the more pretentious ones with red tiles.
As the stucco peels away, the irregular panels of brick and the heavy timber of the framework are laid bare, revealing the beautiful honesty of the old craftsmen; a sincerity of workmanship that only emphasizes the cheap flimsiness of the small modern cottages that are being built beside the old; whose scroll-saw ornaments, and painted-marble p179 fronts, and painted-granite steps, and useless fastenings, are revealed in all their sordidness, by contrast with these sturdy old burghers.
The main plan of the Creole homes was brought from over the sea — the central court, the corridor, the pillar, the arch — but set in new conditions, reared amid unwonted limitations, this European plant developed strong local characteristics, becoming identified with the river soil to which it had been transplanted. From lack of stone in this alluvial section, the round pillar was constructed of brick and covered with plaster; from the neighboring swamp came the rough-split cypress for floors and roofing; and from the river side came the sand for the plaster — not fine and white, but giving a soft, gray-white tone to the stucco. The brick for the early home of the Ursuline nuns was imported; but for their simpler dwellings we find the colonists making their own bricks, and coating the soft, under-baked ware with plaster for protection against the weather. Thus these little stucco cottages came into existence. Again, dread of disease from the swamp led the colonists to close their windows at night with the close batten blinds; and from local necessity, once more, arose the most homely of our architectural features — the clumsy wooden cistern, like an over-grown water-cooler. Thrown thus upon their own resources, the colonists developed freedom of invention and a happy spontaneity in design, a charm that clings yet to the homes they builded.
Upon the inner walls that faced the court they spaced and clustered the windows irregularly, tucking sun-bursts beneath the gables, and breaking the sheer height of their walls by light hanging balconies. Even the dormer windows upon one steep roof differ from those upon its neighbor; and the iron balconies are set at irregular heights. This joyous freedom in design is seen in the grotesque old water-spouts, now so rare, and in the cornices; here a dado of iron wreaths set beneath projecting eaves, there a quaint brick pattern, and again a lace-like cornice of red tiles laid one above another. In the tracery of the transoms this spontaneity in design flowers forth again, and in the hinges of the doors; the evolution of this primitive, wrought-iron hinge, nailed across the door, in itself forming a fascinating study of design that has arisen from the simple form dictated by the first need.
in the old quarter there are projecting roofs of mossy red tiles.
p180 The love of the arch and the heavy pillar is everywhere marked. Where the home is too humble to express it otherwise one sometimes finds the heavy batten blinds slightly arched. And in the court-yards there are often arcades running beneath the upper balcony. Sometimes, as in the old Absynthe house, one finds a solitary pillar, the remnant of a long arcade, the rest of which has been swept away.
Perhaps, all in all, the charm of this French quarter lies in the wonderful color harmonies that flash upon one at each street crossing.
Shrimp-pink and salmon, and deep, dull red; blue, as silvery and soft as a dove's wing, and blue as deep as the water of Lake Pontchartrain; yellow, from palest tint, through cadmium, to orange; and again the purple of a rain-cloud; all these, and many more, are the colors ones sees upon the stucco walls; while often a wainscot band of darker color — red upon dull blue, blue upon gray, or maroon upon a yellow wall — borders the building. Faded by the sun, drenched by the rain, all tints are soon wrought into wonderful warm grays and such color symphonies as the individual inhabitant dreamt not of. For with the love of color that is inherent in Southern peoples, each shop-proprietor, when a pot of paint comes to his hand, splashes it over his share of house-front; and the weather, that greatest artist of all, straightway brushes it into harmony with its neighbors.
Here a little old cabin built long ago of flat-boat timber — dark, heavy, weather-stained — and there a narrow old brick building, mossy from dampness and decay, jostle their stucco neighbors. And over each, like the visor of a cap, droops the projecting roof of mossy plank or shingle; or of the now so rare red tiles, with their green weed-growth. In sharp contrast with the black mud and gray cobble-stones of the streets, the box-steps of these humbler Creole houses are daily scrubbed golden with powdered yellow ochre, or bright red with brick dust; the banquette and even the narrow paved alley-way (when the high green gate opens to give us a glimpse) also gleaming clean and red. Into this happy gamut of color the reserved tones of more pretentious dwellings bring their quiet browns and grays; and the bits of green growth that everywhere, in this warm, moist climate, edge in amid brick and plaster add their touch to make this old French quarter one of the most artistically picturesque spots in America.
1 Banquette — sidewalk.
a I transcribed the text from the original pages of the November, 1906 issue of Craftsman, bound in with other New Orleans material in a collection (TD 525.N4N5) at the University of Chicago's John Crerar Library. My transcription has been carefully proofread and is thus presumably errorfree; if, of course, you should find the inevitable error, please let me know.
b For a considerably more detailed (and sympathetic) view of the decay of these old houses, from a very different viewpoint, see Eleanor McMain's exactly contemporary report (1905), Behind the Yellow Fever in Little Palermo.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
History of New Orleans
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 12 Sep 05