The oldest still-active cathedral in the United States, New Orleans's St. Louis Basilica is a marvelous example of mankind's drive to capture his devotion to God through means of architectural virtuosity. Or, depending upon your point of view, a convenient way to navigate the French Quarter when you're otherwise lost. Relativism is indeed a beautiful thing.
The site was first built upon back in 1721, as a newly-arrived Frenchman, Adrien De Pauger, drew up the blueprints for the design of a Catholic church to be fabricated for the fledgling French colony of Nouvelle Orleans, which had just been granted its own parish the previous year. Under the supervision of engineering-in-chief LeBlond de La Tour, the building was one of the first in the city fabricated in the newly emergent "briquete entre poteaux" style, which continued to be used into well into the nineteenth century. De Pauger passed away, however, a year before its completion, and asked in his will for his body to be interred within his unfinished project. It is not verified, however, if this request was actually granted.
Nonetheless, the church was finally completed in 1726, and christened after Louis IX, the sainted king of France. The chapel prospered along with the colony for six decades, changing ownership to Spain along with the city in until growth was greatly curtailed by the great fire of 1788. Set off by a carelessly-placed candle in the home of Vincente Jose Nunez, the military treasurer of the colony, the humble church was burned to the ground along with the Casa Principal, the building which housed the Cabildo. It took six years before the construction of a new church in its place was constructed, and named after its forebear. The new St. Louis was dedicated as a cathedral and opened on 24 December, 1794.
The church exterior in modern times is best described as...hmm...shall we say, quaint, but imposing. It is a rather small, three-spired building designed in a French-Provencal style, crammed into an already compact plot between Jackson Square and Chartres Street. The cathedral is heavy in old-world charm and style yet given its small size and lack of pretention, always makes me think of it as it was originally intended to be, a house of worship for a handful of Catholic creole settlers in a small city of no more than a couple of thousand people.
Even though I have never attended mass here or even been inside, I still attribute a great deal of importance to this place. Some of the most vivid memories of my residence in New Orleans (even moreso when I spent a brief period living in the French Quarter) were of gazing up at the basilica late at night, in the middle of a deserted city, when the spotlight illumination from below brings out every bit of its glamour. Romantic...yet eerie. A wonderfully accurate way to describe the city around it, and the kind of person I was so desperately trying to be at that stage of my life.