Cradled in a curve of the Mississippi River and contained on the north by Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans has fluid boundaries; like an island, the city can be approached only over water. Its elevation is ten feet above sea level next to the river and well below sea level in many places. With its saucerlike shape and with an average yearly rainfall in excess of sixty inches, New Orleans must depend for its survival on an extensive and sophisticated system of pumps, floodwalls, and levees. The city’s physical growth paralleled the natural levee formed by the Mississippi’s deposits, spreading into the swampy center and toward Lake Pontchartrain only when these low-lying areas were drained beginning in the early twentieth century. This growth pattern can be tracked in the types and styles of the city’s residential architecture: from neighborhoods of Creole cottages to urban town houses, shotgun houses, bungalows, and the low-ceilinged, ranch-style houses built after air-conditioning became standard. Although New Orleans neighborhoods contain some of the oldest buildings in the nation, much of the city’s fabric dates from the twentieth century.
Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, selected the site for New Orleans in 1718, naming it for the French regent, Philippe, duc d’Orléans. Bienville learned from the native peoples that this location, which he intended as a trading post for the Company of the West (and had been similarly earmarked for the Company of the Indies), offered a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico via Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain than that provided by the Mississippi River, and it was this route into the Vieux Carré that much of the new community’s commerce flowed.
The core of New Orleans is the Vieux Carré, laid out in 1721 on a grid plan by engineer Louis-Pierre Leblond de La Tour (c. 1670–1723), and his assistant, Adrien de Pauger (d. 1726). This basic plan of New Orleans remained unchanged throughout the eighteenth century, although ownership of the colony (and surrounding territory) changed over time. France ceded the colony to Spain in 1762, then it passed back to France in 1800 and was sold to the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The territory became the State of Louisina in 1812.
The surrounding cypress forests provided building materials for the new city, but disastrous fires in 1788 and 1794 led the Spanish governor to issue regulations that buildings of more than one story must be constructed of brick and, if the bricks were set between wood posts in the type of construction known as briquette-entre-poteaux, that they be covered with stucco or lime to help fireproof them.
By the end of the eighteenth century, new suburbs were laid out downriver and upriver from the Vieux Carré, and New Orleans grew rapidly in the first half of the nineteenth century, especially after the Louisiana Purchase (1803). This growth accelerated after the first steamboat navigated the Mississippi to New Orleans in 1812, for cargo could then be transported upriver as easily as down. By 1840, only New York had more business than the port of New Orleans, and with a population of approximately 102,000, the city was the nation’s third largest, just behind Baltimore and just ahead of Philadelphia.
The city was captured by Union forces early (April 28, 1862) in the Civil War and was occupied for the remainder of the war. Economic recovery began in the 1870s but was relatively slow until the end of the century. Residents weathered devastating outbreaks of cholera (1832 and 1849) and yellow fever (1853 and 1905), as well as the effects of storms from the hurricane of 1915 to Hurricane Betsy in 1965. A construction boom in what is now known as the Central Business District (CBD), lasting from the 1890s to the Great Depression of the 1930s, was accompanied by residential development. Shotgun houses predominated in the newly drained sections and, ornamented with varied and fancy overhangs, brackets, and cornices, they offered individuality within uniformity. In New Orleans today, the less affluent nudge the wealthy in a multiplicity of small and distinct neighborhoods, often separated by no more than a street.
Although the railroads ended New Orleans’s monopoly of the Mississippi River valley trade, the port nonetheless remained a significant one, and the city’s riverfront was occupied by wharves for maritime use. Completion of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (familiarly known as the Industrial Canal; OR56) in 1923 linked the river with Lake Pontchartrain and, later, the Gulf via the Intracoastal Waterway. Following World War II, the city benefited from revenue generated by oil and gas industries. Between 1959 and 1970, the built-up area of New Orleans approximately doubled in size; suburban expansion in the 1970s, east across the Industrial Canal and west into neighboring Jefferson Parish, left much of the inner city to decay. The late 1970s began to see a reversal of this trend, but the economic recession of the 1980s proved challenging to neighborhoods and the downtown economy.
Nevertheless, neighborhood groups, nonprofits, and commercial developers have initiated programs and developed projects to renovate and restore historic buildings. By the turn of the twenty-first century New Orleans was blossoming and new buildings, restaurants, and festivals attracted locals and increasing numbers of tourists alike. Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the levee system that resulted in devastating flooding and loss of life brought the city’s resurgence to a sudden halt. In the years since, New Orleans has made a remarkable recovery. Although its population is less than before the hurricane (decreasing from approximately 455,000 in 2005 to just under 390,000 in 2015) and some residents were never able to return to their devastated neighborhoods, other areas have experienced a rebirth with new and restored buildings. Tourists flock to the city and numerous former commercial highrise buildings and warehouses have been converted to hotels and apartments.
French, Spanish, Carribean, and African influences characterized New Orleans architecture until 1803, when Anglo-Americans who flocked to the city began to introduce Eastern Seaboard fashions. Architects were attracted by the opportunities this booming city offered. Among those who settled here in the nineteenth century were some of the nation’s premier architects: James H. Dakin (1806–1852), James Gallier Sr. (1798–1866), James Gallier Jr. (1827–1868), and Henry Howard (1818–1884), and, from France, Jacques Nicholas Bussière de Pouilly (1804–1875). They crafted a unique architecture from the city’s diverse heritage, one that was also sympathetic to the difficult climate and site. In the twentieth century, architects and firms have made major contributions to the city’s extraordinary built landscape: Emile Weil (1878–1945); Charles A. Favrot (1866–1939) and Louis A. Livaudais (1871–1932), who formed Favrot and Livaudais in 1895; Moise Goldstein (1882–1972); Leon C. Weiss (1882–1953) and F. Julius Dreyfous, who established a firm in 1919, expanded as Weiss, Dreyfous and Seiferth when Solis Seiferth (1895–1984) was made partner in 1927; and Nathaniel C. Curtis Jr. (1917–1997) and Arthur Q. Davis (1920–2011), who formed Curtis and Davis. Koch and Wilson, Architects, the partnership of Richard Koch (1889–1971) and Samuel Wilson Jr. (1911–1993), did its most important work in historic preservation in southern Louisiana. Koch, working with Wilson, spearheaded the State’s federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) efforts to document Louisiana’s historic architecture for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Today, architects working here and architecture are in the mainstream of American design, with several local firms receiving national recognition, and prominent national firms designing buildings here. Many local architects have had ties to the Tulane University School of Architecure, which has been training professionals and promoting architectural culture in the city since 1894.
New Orleans has an unmatched culture of public display compared to other American cities. In the days before air-conditioning, the heat dictated outdoor living on galleries, porches, or stoops. In modest neighborhoods, this tradition lingers. Streets are also the setting for Mardi Gras and other ritual activities and parades, many generated by religious festivals. The city’s high water table has affected death as well as life: the deceased are often placed in elaborate above-ground tombs, giving local cemeteries both the appearance and the appellation of “cities of the dead.”
Most of the buildings in New Orleans are constructed of wood, and because of the high annual rainfall, heat, humidity, and termites, they need constant repair. Without human or natural intervention (drought, flood, freeze), vegetation grows out of control. Depending on one’s point of view, the city can be characterized as looking either dilapidated or picturesquely decayed and antique. In many older sections, overhead electricity and telephone wires tangle with the branches of oak, magnolia, and crepe myrtle trees to form a sheltering canopy that contributes to New Orleanians’ often parochial inclinations.
Since New Orleans lies within a crescent bend of the Mississippi River—thus its nickname, the Crescent City—the street grid merges roughly in the center, which often makes finding one’s way a challenge. For New Orleanians, locations and directions are identified not by compass points but rather on the basis of their relationship to the Vieux Carré—that is, upriver or downriver—and to Lake Pontchartrain (lakeside) and the Mississippi River (riverside).
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