On early maps of New Orleans are delineated the boundaries of the Place d'Armes. It was used for the evolution of troops; it served also as a resort for citizens to while away their leisure.
Thrice within its limits has been enacted a significant formality, making known to the people a change of domination.
At the arrival of O'Reilly in the summer of 1769, the flag of France was lowered and that of Spain was raised; on November 30th, 1803, the fluttering symbol of French sovereignty took the place of the Spanish standard; in the following month the tri-color of France gave way to the starry emblem of the United States.
About the end of 1848 or the beginning of 1849 there returned to Louisiana, from over the sea, a lady of great wealth and high degree. She had lived for a long period in France.a In consequence of the revolution which ushered in the Second French Republic, she withdrew from Paris to England there to await the restoration of tranquillity in France. She sojourned for a time in London. Wearied by disappointing delay, she availed of the opportunity afforded by her self-imposed exile to visit New Orleans, where she had property to which she wished to give personal attention. Arrived in Louisiana she dwelt sometimes at New Orleans, her native city; at other times in its vicinity.
She previously had interrupted her residence in France to view again the scenes familiar to her girlhood, but the visit now being discussed was rendered memorable by the construction of buildings with which she graced the city.
This lady was Micaela Leonarda Antonia Almonester, Baroness de Pontalba, only daughter of Andres Almonesterb y Roxas from his marriage with Louise de Laronde of this city.
Andres Almonester was a native of Andalusia, Spain. He came to New Orleans where success rewarded his enterprise. He accumulated riches. From his abundant estate he gave bountifully for charitable and religious purposes; he held authority civil and military. His benefactions received royal recognition. He was created a Knight of the order of Charles III. The ceremony of his reception as such took place in this city on the evening of September 8, 1796.
p39 Baron Joseph Xavier Delfau de Pontalba was present at the ceremony. Describing the celebration, he says, that the reception was in accordance with custom. Almonester was enveloped in the order's great robe, whose train was carried by three servitors clad in red. An immense crowd followed him, as in this style he passed from the church to his dwelling. Thus enrobed he placed himself at the door of the drawing-room where he affectionately kissed on both cheeks all those who approached and greeted him, they being in number more than three hundred. About 8 o'clock in the evening he caused to be sent up from the Place a balloon accompanied by a small display of fire-works. After a collation, consisting entirely of sweetmeats, the guests prolonged the gaiety until 10 o'clock at night.
The Baron adds that a person who was present throughout the festivity told him its details, as he did not himself enter the house of the newly received Knight, there being between them unsettled business affairs; and that as long as these were unadjusted, he wished to see Almonester only from a distance.
Years afterwards the Baron's son married Almonester's daughter.
Almonester died in New Orleans in April, 1798, at the age of seventy-three years. He was buried on the 26th day of the same month in the cemetery of the parish of St. Louis in this city.
On November 11th, 1799, his body was disinterred and ensepulchred in the Cathedral which, by his munificence, arose in the place of the church which had been destroyed in the conflagration of 1788.
The registry of the transfer of his remains is to be found in the archives of the Cathedral and is attested by Fr. Antonio de Sedella. The entry is headed by the letters
R. Y. P.
presumably representing the words Requiescat in Pace. (The I and Y with the Spaniards formerly being, to some extent, interchangeable.)
The remainder of the record is in Spanish, of which the following, with the abbreviations filled out, is a translation:
"By order of His Catholic Majesty, el Señor Don Carlos IV (whom may God preserve) and at the solicitation of the Most Illustrious Señor Diocesan Don Luis Peñalver y Cardenas, most worthy first bishop of this province of Louisiana and the Floridas, there was disinterred from the common cemetery of the Faithful, the body of the distinguished benefactor of this Holy Cathedral Church of New Orleans, Don Andres Almonester y Roxas, founder of the three p40churches in said city; whose very pious works are not only useful to religion but also to humanity.
"He was a native of Mayrena de Alcor, province of Andalusia in Spain, in the Archbishopric of Seville; he died on the twenty-fifth of April of last year, ninety-eight, and today, the eleventh of November, ninety-nine, in the presence of the aforesaid Most Illustrious Prelate, and all his clergy, there was given honorable sepulture with all possible funeral pomp to the revered remains of the aforementioned deceased; which are buried at the foot of the marble step of the altar of the Most Blessed Virgin of the Rosary of this Holy Cathedral Church."
There is a discrepancy between the foregoing record and the inscription on the slab set in the floor of the Cathedral, as to the day on which Almonester died, the date of his death as graven on the stone being April 26, 1798.
El Sr. Dn. Andres de Almonaster y Roxas
Micaela Almonester was born November 6, 1795. She was confided to the care of the Ursuline Nuns for her education. When not quite sixteen years of age she was married to Joseph Xavier Celestin Delfau de Pontalba. The contracting parties were cousins, although not of near kinship. The groom was a few years the senior of the bride he having been born July 6, 1791. Their marriage was solemnized October 23, 1811, by Fr. Antonio de Sedella. The record thereof is elaborate and interesting, setting forth the among other things that the sponsor or protector of the marriage was the renowned French Marshal, Michel Ney, Duke of Elchingen, who, by procuration, was represented by Bernard de Marigny y Mandeville.
In the year of their wedding the youthful couple embarked for France. There they established their residence. Many years elapsed. The marriage was an unhappy one, and the discord between the spouses resulted in a separation from bed and board.
Having returned to New Orleans Mme. de Pontalba proceeded with her purpose of improving her property. This property, facing the Place d'Armes, had been owned by her father, who had bought the ground from the city, the city having acquired it by grant in 1770 from O'Reilly, acting in the name of the King of Spain. Upon this p41ground Almonester had put up buildings of which the lower portion was used for shops and the upper portion was used for residences.
By Act of March 8, 1836, the legislature had divided the city into three municipalities, in the first of which lay this property of Mme. de Pontalba.
In a communication from her by her agents, which on August 26, 1846, had been brought before the council of Municipality No. One, it is set forth that Madame de Pontalba desiring to aid in the embellishment of her native city proposes to cause to be torn down the two rows of buildings fronting the Place d'Armes, from Chartres and Conde Streets to the levee and to replace these buildings by edifices according to the plan submitted to the Council, but that she will consent to carry out this project only if seconded by the Council.
Reference is then made to certain arcades already proposed on St. Peter and St. Anne streets, opposite the Place d'Armes. The communication further sets forth that Mme. de Pontalba's intention being to cause to be constructed edifices much more important than those proposed at that date, the following requests are made:
First, that the authorization for the construction of the arcades be enlarged with regard to the position of the columns supporting the arcades.
In the second place that the new edifices be exempt from city taxation for twenty years from the date of their completion.
The Council among other resolutions bearing upon this proposal adopted one which declared that from the completion of the edifices which Mme. de Pontalba proposes to erect opposite the Place d'Armes according to the plans annexed to her petition, these structures shall be free from the payment of city taxes for this the period of twenty years; provided that the entire front of said structures in St. Peter and St. Anne streets shall be finished in all particulars according to the plans furnished.
On August 6, 1849, there was brought before the Council a letter from Mme. de Pontalba stating that, relying upon the resolution in her behalf, she had contracted with Stewart & Co. for the demolition and reconstruction of that part of the Place d'Armes forming on one side the corner of Chartres and St. Peter and on the other, the corner of St. Peter and Levee.
At the same session of the Council claiming that she had not complied with her contract, and that they were without authority to grant such privileges, declined to recognize the exemption.
Notwithstanding the refusal of the exemption, Mme. de Pontalba persisted in her purpose and enriched the city with architectural p42adornment. As appears from the chronicles of the Council her plan as time sped by underwent alteration and grew gradually in grandeur producing in final development the stately rows of buildings flanking the northerly and southerly sides of the Place d'Armes.
By the end of 1850, the structures known as the Pontalba buildings were finished. An item in the Delta of January 3, 1851, refers to their recent completion. They aroused the admiration of the citizens. Even in their tarnished beauty they are fair to look upon and please the sight by their noble proportions; their spacious verandas; and the elegance of the tendril-like iron work which, enclosing the balconies and protecting the little windows aligned below the cornice, displays with frequent repetition the interlaced initials of the families of Almonester and Pontalba.c
About the date of Mme. de Pontalba's visit, the Place d'Armes was a portion of enclosed ground, provided with benches, and divided by pathways into patches overgrown with common grass. Along the inner side of the iron railing which surrounded it, extended aº broad and shell-paved avenue over which swayed and rustled the ample leafage of a double row of sycamores.
At the centre of the Place there was a cannon, the "evening gun," whose report was the signal for the slaves to retire from the streets. With the progress of the night, the watchman at the Cabildo announced the flight of time, and, as he proclaimed the passing of the hours, added the assurance that all was well.
But the Place d'Armes was to be given a different aspect. Its trees were to be cut down and in their stead, were to be plants and flowering shrubs. Against the sacrifice of the trees broke forth public protest. In despite of expostulation the work of destruction went on. On the 29th of November, 1850 the last of the sycamores was felled.
The Place d'Armes lost the sylvan beauty of its trees, but it became a "veritable garden of delight."
At its session of January 25, 1851, the Council of Municipality No. One adopted a resolution which provided that thereafter the Place d'Armes was to be known as Jackson Square and that the Place du Cirque or Congo Square should be designated by the name of Place d'Armes.
There had been in New Orleans a Jackson Square but the area thus distinguished had been ceded to the Federal Government and had been built upon for the purposes of the United States Branch Mint.
Mme. de Pontalba left New Orleans in April, 1851. She went northward by the Mississippi river, the steamer Belle Key carrying p43her away from her childhood's loved home, which was further endeared to her by grateful remembrance of affection shown her by relatives from whom she was departing.
By the ensuing August she was again in France. Thereafter she made no visit to New Orleans. She died in Paris, April 20, 1874. Her husband's death occurred in 1878.
Towards the end of Mme. de Pontalba's stay in New Orleans, there was renewal of interest in the project of erecting a monument commemorative of the battle of New Orleans. For such a memorial the site had years before been selected and the corner stone been set.
In January, 1840, Andrew Jackson was in New Orleans. On the 13th of that month the corner stone of the memorial of the great victory was laid.
A procession, civic and military, set forth from the State House and, with Jackson in a barouche drawn by four horses, passed along Canal, Royal, Esplanade and Conde streets to the Place d'Armes, a band which formed part of the parade making the air gay with music. In the ceremonies which took place in the ancient Place, the Catholic Bishop and the clergy of the Cathedral participated. As the stone was placed in position Jackson performed the function pertinent to the occasion. Addresses were also among the features of the day.
The exercises having been concluded, Jackson, escorted by citizens and troops, went directly from the Place d'Armes to the steamer Vicksburg, which at its river landing was awaiting him. As soon as the illustrious passenger was received on board the vessel began its voyage.d
Early in 1851 meetings of citizens were held with a view to the completion of a memorial which had been proposed many years before.
Mme. de Pontalba was a great admirer of Andrew Jackson. She is said to have contributed liberally for the construction of the monument.
It was upon the plantation of her uncle Ignace Delino de Chalmette that the battle of January 8, 1815 was fought.
Act 88 of 1852 after a preamble reciting that a large number of citizens of the State have united themselves into an association with a view of erecting a suitable monument to General Andrew Jackson and have by voluntary subscription, raised a considerable sum of money for that purpose, and that the municipal authorities of New Orleans have granted an appropriate site for said monument in the centre of Jackson Square, and that it is eminently just and proper that Louisiana should as a State, and in testimony of her gratitude, contribute to a work destined to commemorate the achievements p44of the hero, to whose military genius and patriotic devotion she owes the triumph which rescued her chief city from capture by an invading foe, and which illustrates the brightest page of her history, appropriated $10,000.00 as the contribution of the State of Louisiana towards the expense of erecting a suitable monument to General Andrew Jackson, to be erected in Jackson Square in the city of New Orleans.
The Act also carried an appropriation of $5,000.00 "to designate the site of the memorable battle of 1815, near the City of New Orleans."
In 1853 the design for the memorial was adopted; it was to be a bronze equestrian statue of General Jackson.
The contract for the making of the statue was given to Clark Mills.
The statue was completed by December 1st, 1855. It is a replica of the statue at Washington, D. C.
It was intended to unveil the monument on January 8, 1856, but the schooner Southerner on which the statue was forwarded from Baltimore being delayed on the voyage did not reach New Orleans until January 7, 1856. This retarded arrival necessitated a postponement and February 9, 1856, was therefore selected as the day for the unveiling.
In the Daily Picayune of October 31, 1855, is an article entitled "Removing a Corner Stone."
After allusion to the Corner Stone laid January 13, 1840, and the box contained in the stone the article says:
"This stone was removed yesterday in the presence of the members of the Association, and placed in the centre of the pedestal now being erected in the centre of the Square. This removal was rendered necessary from the fact that the stone was originally deposited a little to the left of the exact centre of the Square. The workmen commenced a little after daybreak yesterday morning, and did not reach the box until eleven o'clock, so firmly had it been set originally.
"They first came to a square block of granite on which was engraved "8th January, 1815," and beneath this was another granite block, hollow in the centre, which contained the copper box above mentioned. This was embedded in a mass of bricks and cement which had become as hard as the granite itself. After getting this out of the ground the lower block was carefully removed with its contents and reverently deposited in the centre of the pedestal, and the covering block placed upon it. to show the character of the p45present foundation for the monument, it will be sufficient to say that it took a man more than three hours to break a hole in the mass of bricks and cement for the reception of this block.
"The Association had a box made and soldered, which they placed alongside of the one just mentioned, containing a copy of the Civil Code, the daily papers, copies of all that principal records of the Association from its commencement to the present time, a brief history of the life of Jackson, the names of the Federal, State and City officers, and the coins of 1855, particularly those pieces which were not in existence in 1840, such as the $3 and $1 gold pieces and the three cent piece. The latter were all new and obtained from the Mint for the purpose.
"It was not deemed necessary to have any parade on the occasion as the corner stone had already been laid with so much ceremony and solemnity in 1840, and so none but the members of the Association were notified to attend. Several citizens, however, got wind of the affair, and about a hundred were grouped around, who manifested much interest in the proceedings, and some of them appeared to be particularly anxious to have the box deposited by General Jackson opened to see what it contained. Of course this was not done, however, nothing but the stone being removed. The box and its contents remain undisturbed in their new resting place."
At length came on the time appointed for the unveiling. The day was bright with sunshine. The city took on an air of festival. An imposing parade gave pomp to the occasion. The thronged verandas of the Pontalba buildings were as hanging gardens, beautiful to behold. A great concourse stirred in the Square below. The streets leading thereto were affluents flooded with human life. To neighboring housetops, to cupola of Cabildo, to steeple of Cathedral, venturous persons had ascended that they might witness the grandiose and inspiriting spectacle.
Shortly after the hour of noon, L. J. Sigur, the orator of the day, was introduced to the assembly. At the conclusion of his address the canvas which was spread over the monument was withdrawn and the statue was disclosed to the public view. Then the roar of cannon, the outbursts of music, the cheers of the enthusiastic multitude blended in a mighty volume of sound. The patriotic tumult having subsided Clark Mills, the artist, explained to the people the idea which guided him in fashioning the statue.
I quote his language as it appears in the press report of that day:
Ladies and Gentlemen: The statue before you represents one who, with a handful of men, proved himself the saviour of your beautiful p46city. General Jackson is there represented as he appeared on the morning of the 8th of January, forty-one years ago. He had advanced to the centre of the line in the act of review; the lines have come to present arms as a salute to their commander, who is acknowledging it by raising his chapeau, according to the military etiquette of that day. His restive horse, anticipating the next move, attemptsº to dash down the line; the bridle hand of the dauntless hero being turned under, shows that he is restraining the horse, whose open mouth and curved neck is feeling the bit. I have thought this explanation necessary as there are many critics who profess not to understand the conception of the artist."
Shortly after Mr. Mills had finished his remarks, the ceremony of the day came to an end.
It may be that the title of this paper suggests a more comprehensive treatment than I have given. The subject is an extensive one. I have purposed to present only fragments of the story of a small section of the city — a section which retains the lure of beauty and is weighted with wealth of history.
a The house she had built in Paris, the Hôtel Pontalba, is now the official residence of the American ambassador.
b With the flexibility typical of the time, the name is variously spelled Almonester and Almonaster, the latter being favored in New Orleans today. On his tomb it is Almonaster, but this is inconclusive since, as our article mentions, it gets the date of his death wrong; those of you curious enough to read the inscription in the 1796 portrait above, painted during the lifetime of the subject, will have read a third spelling, Almenester. Also inconclusive is the spelling Almonaster in the detailed webpage on him on the official site of his birthplace, since there are — Feb 14 — two big mistakes on that page (the present cathedral is not the one he built, and the buildings on the former Place d'Armes were not built by him, but by his daughter).
c Chapter 8 of Grace King's New Orleans, The Place and the People gives us a more interesting, even sensational, account of the Baroness's life (pp132‑135) including two clear engravings of this ironwork and its interlaced initials (pp128, p154). In addition to Jackson Square, the subject of our article, Micaela de Pontalba left her stamp on the Cabildo as well (King, p280).
d A full, detailed account of Jackson's visit, including the dedication of his monument in the Place d'Armes and the (sort‑of-)dedication of the monument at the actual battlefield site in Chalmette, may be found in Kendall's History of New Orleans, pp148‑150.
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