New Orleans' Vieux Carré ("old squares") is the original site of the French colonial settlement la Nouvelle Orleans, dating from 1718. Historically defined by the boundaries of the Mississippi River, Canal and Rampart Streets and Esplanade Avenue, the Vieux Carré was designated as a city-managed historic district in 1936 by the Louisiana legislature. Many of the 2000 or so buildings in the district have major architectural and historical significance. This old colonial site functions today not only as a major mecca for tourists, but also as a city within a city and as an adjunct to New Orleans' Central Business District.


The Vieux Carré's development has evolved under French, Spanish and American rule. Due to several devastating fires in the late 18th century which nearly resulted in an architectural tabula rasa, only a handful of French colonial buildings still exist. In spite of later American influences, the French influence in the Vieux Carré continues to give the area its special, continental European flavor. It is popularly dubbed the "French Quarter" for this reason.

French colonial New Orleans was one of America's first planned cities. Military engineers used a baroque form of city planning, visible in the Quarter's simple gridiron pattern of public squares separated by narrow, axially arranged streets. The early architecture closely followed the guidelines of official French forms. However, the colonial builders eventually adjusted the traditional designs and construction methods to better serve the environmental demands of the hot, swampy riverbank. In time, a recognizable French colonial style evolved in New Orleans, similar to that found in Canada and the West Indies.


After France ceded New Orleans to Spain in 1762-63, Gallic influences persisted in the Louisiana colony. In 1803, Spanish rule ended abruptly and left a city which remained essentially French — in population, language, culture, religion and customs. This began the gradual transition to an American city, but the Vieux Carré remained an intimate French village amidst the growth and expansion. The Creole population held fast to their traditions in the original city while the Americans settled in newer sections of town. Post-colonial construction in the Vieux Carré remained essentially French in both plan and style.

Expansion in the 1830s eventually found its way into the Vieux Carré. Rows of red brick townhouses appeared, and the details of American style were applied to buildings that still used traditional French interior design. The most spectacular antebellum changes occurred in and around the provincial Place d'Armes. A number of improvements transformed this highly visible, symbolic public area into an integrated, sophisticated hub of urban activity.

The civil war hurt the New Orleans economy, and hit the French Quarter especially hard. Industrialization and commercialization in the late 1800s further changed the character of the district, and as Italian immigrants crowded into the quarter, the Creole's self-sustained city disintegrated. By 1900, a pervasive sense of apathy was felt toward the Vieux Carré.

However, signs of renewed interest in the area began to appear following World War I. Writers, artists and other intellectuals settled in the quarter's neighborhoods during the 1920s and focused attention on the area. Legal protection for the Vieux Carré began out of a mixture of Bohemianism and fashion sense that evolved during that time. As national interest in preservation emerged during the early years of the depression, local battles to preserve the quarter gained momentum. Finally, in 1936 the efforts of Louisiana's early preservationists succeeded with the creation of the Vieux Carré Commission.

Source: condensed and edited from the writings of Hilary S. Irvin,
Senior Architectural Historian of the Vieux Carré Commission

As a religion--an imported faith--Voudooism in Louisiana is really dead; the rites of its serpent worship are forgotten; the meaning of its strange and frenzied chants, whereof some fragments linger as refrains in negro song, is not now known even to those who remember the words; and the story of its former existence is only revealed to the folklorists by the multitudinous débris of African superstition which it has left behind it. -–Lafcadio Hearn, Harper’s Weekly, 1885
New Orleans, I love you.
I walk through your streets in the early morning hours
When the last of your revelers stagger home or to hotels,
And the sun catches on the tawdry splendor
Of broken strands of beads in the gutter.
Somewhere on Dumaine a trumpet plays.
The call of music, the call to prayer
Brought us here from over the sea,
Over the deep and petulant ocean
In the creaking darkness
To be born.

New Orleans, we live on.
I still stand at the crossroads and close the gates
And open the gates to ordinary miracles.
And sometimes the gods still descend.
Three girls carrying Pat O'Brien novelty glasses
Were ridden by Guédé and danced lewdly in the dusk.
I saw Erzulie weeping on Bourbon and St. Ann,
Mascara running down the magnificent rouged cheeks
Of the drag queen she wore like a robe.
And mystery still continues its slow creep into
The tacky souvernir stores and the tourist traps
Like an inevitable fog.

Even though they have pronounced us dead
Even though they have pronounced you dead.
The heartbeat of Congo Square still thunders
And sometimes the lady is seen in St. Louis #1 with a smile and a tignon,
Tipping a plastic cup full of rum to admirers carrying flowers.

New Orleans, your children
Bastard brown, high yellow and redbone
New gods, and old gods and stuck-up plaster saints
Abide with you, remain with you
Until you fall swooning into the arms of the implacable ocean
Like a lover.

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