Saturday, April 20, 2013

30 Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 20

Jackson Square, The Cabildo, The Cathedral, and the Presbytere

                A picture speaks a thousand words, as we all know. No picture of New Orleans
seems to speak quite as elegantly of the historical city as that of Jackson Square with the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral rising behind the famous statue of Andrew Jackson mounted on his rearing steed.
                As I write “why I love” today, I’m just back from NOLA. And I realized that it really is my home away from home and that I’m there so often, I didn’t actually start at a great place to begin—the heart of the French Quarter.
                Jackson Square.
                And it goes waaaay, way back.
In Colonial days, of course, you had to have a place for men to practice defense. So, two things were decided the minute the French first chose their “high” ground where New Orleans would come to be--there should be a churchset on the land and a place to practice arms.  Let's remember the whole Louisiana experience.  The New World was being
colonized. Europeans came to the Western hemisphere. In Louisiana, those who came first were French, we know. The stretch of land where the military men and/or home guard were to drill at arms was called the Place d’Armes and before any land was designated as anything, it was known there would immediately be a church and a plot of land, or common square, for the armed forces/home guard to drill. The church would be named for France’s canonized king, Saint Louis. (Naturally, the statue in now-Jackson Square-and-was-Place d’Armes would come later!)
St. Louis, as it stands now, has not been there for ever and ever. But the place where the church would be was determined immediately. People have worshiped on the site of the current St. Louis since the first church was dedicated in 1727. But, in 1788, a fire started in the area when draperies caught fire and the church and other buildings in the area were just about charred flat.
A new church was completed in 1794. Slowly, that church grew. A clock was brought from Paris along with a bell. Pieces were added. A major restoration began with the dearly rememberd Baroness Pontalba. In 1844, she set into motion the rebuilding of the structures left to her—the Pontalba buildings that flank the square. She also put forth plans to create buildings that would compliment the Cabildo, the Presbytere, and the Cathedral, and added plans to donate funds for desperately needed restructuring of the Cathedral.
It wasn’t to be easy. People were hired and fired; walls that should have stood collapsed. But,
finally, after years went by, the beautiful Cathedral became what it is today—the grand Dame of the Square, ever looking over the green with its three towering steeples and magnificent facade. I’ve really touched just briefly on the history. If you’re going, don’t miss the Cathedral. I love St. Louis. I grew up with the—as my family lovingly called itself—off-the-potato-boat Irish, so I grew up with Catholic inclinations and my faith continues to be what I consider practicing Catholic—yes, I’m practicing. Don’t have it all right, but . . . going to St. Louis is an awesome experience for me! But, you don’t have to be Catholic or of any faith to enjoy the architecture and the treasures within; just remember that it remains an active Cathedral with a large congregation. Walk the steps that Andrew Jackson walked, visiting twenty-five

years after his triumph over the British!
Facing the Cathedral, to your left, you’ll see the Cabildo. It was built in 1795. It served as the capital for the Spanish legislative assembly and then as City Hall. From 1853 until 1911, it housed the Louisiana Supreme Court. Now, it’s a museum, a flagship property of the Louisiana State Museum. It’s chock full of history which makes a lot of sense—it’s a very historic building.
Facing the Cathedral and to your right is the Presbytere—built between 1794 and 1814. A government building as well, it served as a courthouse until 1911.
And now, like the Cabildo, it’s part of the Louisiana State museum.
There are museums I really suggest to see—you’ll get an amazing sense of why New Orleans (and Louisiana) is different. Their laws remain “Napoleonic,” and their way of life was influence by many flags—French, Spanish, French, American, Confederate, and American again. Get a sense of the lifestyle of the people there. See what the people went through from
finding high ground in the great Crescent City and founding a colony, to wars and reconstruction, and into the present; they do have changing exhibits and have presented the “Summer of Storms” with heartbreaking clarity, honesty, and human interest.
We’ll go back to Baroness Pontalba. She remains revered with good reason; she liked to use her money for the common good, to push forward through the red tape of her day, and create beautiful things. I’m sure it’s lovely to get to do this if you inherited your money, but, hey—she liked to put hers to good use and she did. Now, on the ground floors of these buildings, you’ll find a variety of shops and restaurants. The upper floor house apartments—as they were originally planned. The Pontalba Buildings, the Cabildo, the Cathedral, and the Presbytere all create the horse shoe around the Square.
The Square itself! Well, you have the statue of Andrew Jackson. And grass and paths and benches and it’s just lovely. You can lie in that grass and look up at the sky or pose—as a host before you!—with Andy at his statue. In front of the Square, you’ll find artists hanging their work “on the

fence.” And there, in front, on Decatur Street, you’ll find the mule-drawn carriages waiting to take you around the French Quarter, with guides who love the history or the city and the ghosts of the city—and are happy to share one or the other of both. (Ghosts need good history, you know!)
Here, too, along the walks, between the Cathedral and the green, you’ll find all kinds of performers. Musicians, creatures, beings, human statues and more. No two days will ever be the same.
It’s the heart of the French Quarter. And you can feel its pulse!

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