Micaela and the Cabildo

The Gulf coast was drowning in late spring storms in May, so we expected our visit to be a weather wash-out. But who cares — we’re in New Orleans!

Patricia was attending a museum conference and the perks included behind-the-scenes tours of various museums. On our first full day in New Orleans, we were scheduled for a conference-sponsored visit to the Houmas House and Gardens, an 1840s Greek Revival mansion on the Mississippi.  But it was canceled at the last minute because (our guess – we were not given a reason) the storms would have made the garden tour impossible.

So we opted instead to visit the Louisiana State Museum, which is actually a collection of museums scattered throughout the state.  The ones in New Orleans are bunched (mostly) around Jackson Square, so running between them would give us minimal exposure to the rain.

Our hotel was in the Warehouse District, near the Convention Center where Patricia’s conference was being held. It’s an up-and-coming area with trendy restaurants and upscale residences in converted industrial spaces. And it was a less-than 15 minute walk to Jackson Square. I’d recommend it highly for anyone looking for a well-placed hotel, but who doesn’t want to pay French Quarter prices.

The rain held off long enough for us to walk from our hotel to the edge of the French Quarter. Then the deluge started. We had umbrellas and a raincoat, so while we still got soaked, it allowed us to continue moving forward.

Our first stop was the Cabildo, bordering Jackson Square to the north. The Cabildo was built by the Spanish between 1795 and 1799 and was originally their version of a city hall. Louisiana was officially transferred from Spain to France, then France to the US, at the Cabildo, after the Louisiana Purchase. In 1853, the Cabildo became headquarters for the Louisiana Supreme Court and was where Plessy v. Ferguson was tried. It became part of the Louisiana State Museums in 1908 and has been featuring New Orleans history ever since.

A late 19th century evening dress.  The bodice looks Elizabethan, doesn’t it?

The 16 slices above represent the depth and shape of the Mississippi River channel going through metro New Orleans.

The exhibits had changed since my last visit. The creepy one about death, mourning and the yellow fever epidemic of 1853 has been replaced by an exhibit called “The Baroness de Pontalba and the Rise of Jackson Square.” The Baroness Pontalba was Micaela Leonarda Antonia de Almonester Rojas y de la Ronde, a New Orleans-born Spanish aristocrat who financed the building of some famous townhouses around Jackson Square.

Micaela had an amazing life and I have to tell you about at least part of it.  She was born in New Orleans and became very wealthy at age 2, when her father died and she inherited his estate. She married a French cousin at 15 and moved to France, where she lead a rather unhappy life.  Her father-in-law was constantly trying to gain control of her money and when he was unsuccessful, he shot her point-blank, several times, in the chest. No wimp she, she grabbed at the gun and lost two fingers.  But she survived and he committed suicide.

Fun fact: Her Paris house, the grand Hotel de Pontalba, is now the US ambassador’s residence.

Eventually separated from her husband, she moved back to New Orleans in 1848. The following year, she commissioned the construction of the red brick buildings bordering the east and west sides of Jackson Square, now known as the Pontalba Buildings.  Half a century before, Micaela’s father had commissioned the buildings on the north side of Jackson Square: the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral next door to the Cabildo, and the Presbytere, on the other side of St. Louis.

It was still raining heavily when we got out of the Cabildo but all we had to do was make a quick dash past St. Louis to the Presbytere, the next Louisiana State Museum museum on our list.


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