Peering out with blank eyes from a bed of bronze sculpted to look like soft, flowing satin, the face of Napoleon Bonaparte has stared out of its glass case in the Cabildo at generations of New Orleans-area schoolchildren. For many, the sight of Napoleon’s death mask formed the most lasting impression they associate with the ancient building.
A historical constant, the land the Cabildo is built on has been set aside for government use since the first plan of New Orleans was laid out in 1721. Also designated at that time were plots for the church (St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbytere, or priests’ home) and the public plaza, now Jackson Square.
Built during the time of Spanish rule over Louisiana, The Cabildo, completed in 1799, was properly known as the Casa Capitular, or Capital House. The new home of “The Most Illustrious Cabildo” (the city council) was commonly called “the Cabildo building,” or, as we now know it, “the Cabildo.” Like the cathedral and Presbytere, it was financed by Don Andrés Almonester de Roxas, a member of the Illustrious Cabildo. While the religious buildings were gifts to the church, the city agreed to reimburse Almonester—in the end, his widow, as he died in 1798—for the Cabildo’s construction.
The later years of Spanish rule were followed by a brief period when Louisiana was returned to France, which famously sold the colony to the fledgling United States in 1803. That led to the most historic event in the history of the building—and, perhaps, of the country—the ceremony transferring ownership of Louisiana from France to the United States. Taking place on December 20, 1803, in the room on the second floor where the Cabildo had met (the Sala Capitular), this ceremony was the final act in a process which nearly doubled the size of the United States.
What’s remarkable is that we can stand today in that same room, under the gaze of a wall-size painting commemorating the transfer. After that historic day, the Sala Capitular was home to the New Orleans City Council and, from 1868 to 1910, the Louisiana Supreme Court. Several historic cases were heard there, including Plessy v. Ferguson and the Slaughterhouse Cases, which went on to become landmark constitutional law cases ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court.
The Cabildo Today
The Cabildo, along with the Presbytere, the 1850 House in the Lower Pontalba building, Madame John’s Legacy on Dumaine Street and the U.S. Mint, are all historical properties owned by the Louisiana State Museum. The LSM is part of the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism under the ultimate direction of the Lt. Governor’s office—as is the committee planning the state’s bicentennial celebrations in 2012.
Luckily for Louisianians, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne happens to be a big history buff who has traveled the state giving presentations on our unique history. When asked about the Cabildo’s place in the LSM system, which includes properties in Baton Rouge, Patterson and Thibodaux in addition to the New Orleans properties, Dardenne said, “It’s the bell cow. It is absolutely the real treasure. All these great buildings in New Orleans, but certainly the Cabildo and the Presbytere, flanking the St. Louis Cathedral, are part of the iconic landscape of New Orleans and therefore of Louisiana.”
Standing in the gallery on the Cabildo’s second floor overlooking Jackson Square, Dardenne observed, “You look out of these windows and you see the first plat of land in New Orleans—Jackson Square, the place New Orleans was born. The Cabildo not only overlooks the magnificent river and the first settlement in New Orleans, it is also the repository for so many great Louisiana treasures that are representative of our colorful, unique and rich history and culture. This is the place where you find it all.”
Dardenne was speaking within a few feet of where, at least for me, one of the building’s most significant and tragic events took place. On July 18, 1826, a drunken wretch named Zephir Canonge staggered up the stairs to the building’s second floor. As he encountered Judge Gallien Preval, a Creole lawyer and veteran of the Battle of New Orleans—and my great-great-great-great-grandfather—Canonge chose to insult Preval verbally. Exactly what he said isn’t known; the insult rolled off Preval like the proverbial water on the duck’s back. Preval’s 19-year-old son, Theodore, however, took great offense at the slur and, on the Cabildo’s grand, curving staircase, challenged Canonge to a duel. It didn’t end well for the young Preval, as one of the local newspapers described:
“The friends of the family of Mr. Preval—the friends of virtue and justice—are informed that Mr. Theodore Preval, aged nineteen years, terminated his career yesterday afternoon at 4 o’clock by a frightful fatality. His corpse will be exposed at Mr. B. Marigny’s, Faubourg Marigny, from whence the convoy will start for the church.”
This tale was not far from my mind as I toured the Cabildo with the LSM’s historian, Dr. Charles Chamberlain. Chamberlain notes that the building now houses an exhibit of artifacts spanning the state’s history, from prehistoric times up until the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
The first-floor exhibit starts, interestingly enough, at the beginning. A history of the Cabildo including drawings and plans of the various buildings that stood on the site can be seen as the visitor walks in the entrance, as well as plans and photos of the present building as seen through the years.
Chamberlain points out that the Cabildo’s appearence, except for the 1840s addition of the third floor, remains basically unchanged from the day it was transferred to the United States. One change occurred almost immediately, however. The Americans didn’t appreciate anything to do with royalty, it seems. “They blasted the Spanish colonial symbol off of the pediment. It was blank for about 20 years, and they hired Pietro Cardelli, an Italian sculptor, to create the very patriotic scene we have now of an eagle, the flag, the cannons and cannonballs,” says Chamberlain.
One royal reminder that—maybe by design, possibly by ignorance—escaped the Americans’ ire was the iron balustrade surrounding the building’s second floor. “We know Marcellino Hernandez was the Isleño artisan who oversaw the balcony work, and he used a crown and a rosary design. That reflects the key Spanish institutions of the crown and the church. The funny thing is, I don’t think the American officials ever really got that. I think that if they tore down the Spanish seal, why would they also support the idea of a monarchy and the Catholic Church? Americans were greatly opposed to those ideas. Had they really known what those symbols were, they probably would have taken them away. I think it’s funny.” (Chamberlain also notes that local jewelry designer Mignon Faget has a collection incorporating some of Hernandez’s design elements called, of course, the Marcellino collection.)
Moving on into the exhibit, early artifacts include Native American baskets, one of which, Chamberlain says, is a Chitimacha basket considered one of the finest examples of Native American basketry in the country.
Nearby is one of the most important artifacts that mark the beginning of European influence in Louisiana—a marble stone recovered from Fort Maurepas, the first French outpost, founded in 1699 at present-day Biloxi. More artifacts from colonial days include an armoire dating to the 1790s made by Celestin Glapion. “It’s one of the finest artifacts we have,” notes Chamberlain. “It’s an example of Creole-style furniture. The French influence, the cabriole legs, the scalloping of the bottom is Rococo, and the crown molding at the top is Second Empire style. It’s kind of a mixture. The Glapions are buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1; his brother married Marie Laveau, so it’s a very interesting story.”
These exhibits are housed in a part of the Cabildo that incorporates the arched walls and brick floor of the Corps de Garde, built in 1751. The structure survived the great fires of 1788 and 1794 that destroyed much of the city and were the impetus for Almonester’s building spree.
Portraits hanging in the first-floor foyer include one from 1822 of Father Anthony Sedella, “Pere Antoine,” who was pastor of St. Louis Cathedral for many years, and Phillipe de Marigny, father of Bernard Marigny, founder of the town of Mandeville.
The Sala Capitular is located on the second floor, along with its display commemorating the Louisiana Purchase and the Louisiana Supreme Court; this is also where Napoleon’s death mask resides. Next to it is an exhibit featuring the Battle of New Orleans. An enormous painting depicting the battle overlooks a display of artifacts. Chamberlain explains that unlike other exhibits featuring items that had been dug up after years underground on the field in Chalmette, “This is really the best Battle of New Orleans exhibit because it has large objects that were kept in the families and then handed down to us. So we have a rifle and bayonet registered to the Tower of London that someone recovered right after the battle, and an English drum major’s baton. We also have reproductions of uniforms that were handed down to us but are too fragile for display. We have a drum that belonged to Jordan Noble. In 1815, he was a 13-year-old slave who then went on to serve in three other wars. He won his freedom in the 1830s and was a military hero throughout the 1800s.”
The third floor houses a sprawling exhibit that illustrates various aspects of the commercial activity that drove Louisiana’s economy through the years. It’s a large, striking and open space. The Cabildo’s roof and the third floor were heavily damaged by a fire in 1988. It was rebuilt using the original mansard construction of heavy wooden beams and trusses and trademark dormer windows. The beams are left exposed so the public can see how this great space would have been achieved using building techniques that pre-date power tools and particleboard.
The story of commerce and agriculture in Louisiana can’t be told without reminders of less savory times. A wooden block that was once used in slave auctions dominates this floor’s entrance. “New Orleans was the center of the domestic slave trade in the pre-Civil War years,” Chamberlain notes. Other artifacts, such as elegant furniture, clothes and bedding, are displayed among the more crude items. “Slavery produced the wealth and allowed planters to have china, silver, glassware and silk clothing. We also have the artifacts of slavery itself—the slave collar always elicits a reaction in people.”
A notable item is a life-size carving of an Indian maiden. “This would be put outside a tobacco shop to let people know what they sold,” says Chamberlain. “It is probably the most beautiful tobacco shop sign I’ve ever seen. Most people are familiar with crudely carved, male Great Plains Indians. This reflects a Southeastern Indian, and it’s female, in the most intricate and elegant presentation.”
Nearby is an interesting and odd piece of wood, rounded and with a hole in the middle. “This is an actual pipe from the Latrobe water works,” explains Chamberlain. “They basically used cypress logs, hollowed them out, made male and female ones and then joined them together. Benjamin Latrobe was the architect of the U.S. Capitol. He came here in 1819 to build a waterworks—a private, subscribed waterworks. It was located where Latrobe Park is now, by the French Market.” During his stay in New Orleans, Latrobe also designed the Louisiana State Bank building, now a reception hall called Latrobe’s on Royal, just a few blocks from the Cabildo.
Rounding out the third floor and ending the Cabildo’s collection spanning 200 years of Louisiana history are items from the Civil War and Reconstruction, including a lottery wheel from the great Louisiana Lottery scandal of the late 1800s and a display explaining one of the last struggles of Reconstruction in New Orleans, the Battle of Liberty Place. Chamberlain notes, “Honestly, it’s kind of awkward to end the exhibit of the history of Louisiana in 1877 because it’s an awkward time, the end of Reconstruction.” However, he explains that most of the museum’s artifacts are from the 1700s and 1800s and the exhibits are kept within that time period.
An area not included in the Cabildo’s exhibit reflects its use over the years as a police precinct and prison. At one time, the city’s prison extended back behind the Cabildo along St. Peter Street to the corner at Royal. Over the years, it was demolished, remodeled and diminished, with only a few holding cells remaining in the courtyard once the large parish prison was built at the site where the Municipal Auditorium is presently located.
Known as the “Calaboose,” its most famous occupant was perhaps the pirate Pierre Lafitte, brother of Jean Lafitte. He escaped on September 5, 1814, and a $1,000 reward was offered for his return. At the same time, Jean Lafitte was in negotiations with the governor, offering his assistance in repelling the coming British invasion that culminated in the Battle of New Orleans the following January. Pierre was never returned to the Calaboose, and the pirates won pardons for their actions in defense of the city.
To learn more about the Cabildo, see The Cabildo on Jackson Square by Samuel Wilson and Leonard Huber. The Cabildo is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visit louisianabicentennial2012.com for upcoming Louisiana Bicentennial events.Filed under: Arts, History, March-April 2012, Travel