April 8, 2002
-- Americans who have never set foot in the French Quarter of New Orleans would recognize it in a photograph: narrow streets lined with candy-colored houses, French doors and shuttered windows opening onto balconies that drip with lacy iron grillwork.
"Their chief beauty is the deep, warm, varicolored stain with which time and the weather have enriched the plaster," Mark Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi
But, as Renée Montagne
reports for Morning Edition
, the French Quarter that Twain saw -- and that survives today -- is really more Spanish and American than it is French.
The city of New Orleans, established in 1718, was laid out as a grid with a central square in the style of a French fort -- in the middle of a swamp. "It's not a place we would build today," says Robert Cangelosi, an architectural historian and French Quarter native.
He says the watery location caused a multitude of problems: bodies that had been buried "used to come out of the ground," a levee had to be built to keep the Mississippi River from flooding the city, and mosquitoes from the swamp spread yellow fever. As the city developed into a port, ships brought in rats -- and more diseases. "We had the bubonic plague, we had cholera. Almost annually, the city of New Orleans was visited by one plague or another, and a lot of it had to do with all the water around us. Then you had the hurricanes... "
The troubles didn't stop there. By the late 1700s, when the Spanish took over the Louisiana colony, fire and rain had destroyed nearly all of what was French about the French Quarter, Montagne reports.
"The buildings today in the French Quarter are very close together, but during the French period, most of the buildings were still detached. They sat in their own yards, and you had a lot of open spaces," says John Magill, curator of the Historic New Orleans Collection.
After a fire consumed the French Quarter in 1794, the Spanish instituted strict building codes mandating all structures be side by side and pushed to the curb to create a firewall.
The French peaked roofs gave way to flat roofs covered in tiles. Wood siding was banned and replaced with fire-resistant stucco painted in the pastel hues fashionable at the time. By the time the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803, the French Quarter was halfway to creation. The Americans finished the job. What had been a touch of Spanish wrought iron -- adding elegance here and there -- suddenly bloomed all over the Quarter, much like the vinyl siding seen around the country today.
As the 20th century began, the Quarter developed a reputation as an immigrant-filled slum. The poverty is one reason that the famous lacy ironwork still abounds in the Quarter. It was being pulled off buildings in other parts of the city, but landlords in the Quarter weren't willing or able to follow the trend. "So it was preservation by neglect," Magill says.
Some of the Quarter's most treasured buildings slid into disrepair. Among the buildings torn down was Gen. Andrew Jackson's headquarters during the Battle of New Orleans. There was a plan to raze the Cabildo, the building where the Louisiana Purchase transfer took place. All of which brought the citizens of New Orleans to their senses.
And the French Quarter suddenly became interesting: William Faulkner came to live there, followed by Tennessee Williams. Art galleries, theaters and clubs opened. In 1925, New Orleans passed the country's first preservation law aimed at saving the French Quarter. It went into effect a decade later -- after a series of court challenges and squabbling over the Quarter's boundaries.
And today, the sounds of repair -- and preservation -- can still be heard in the streets of the old Quarter.
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