New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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May 11, 1988 Cabildo fire

On May 11, 1988 a fire destroyed the third floor of the Cabildo, one of the principal buildings of the Louisiana State Museum. In the following years, the architects of the New Orleans firm Koch and Wilson, along with construction crews, labored over this national historic landmark's restoration. Although the Cabildo fire was tragic, it did present opportunities for an archaeological dig in the courtyard directly behind the historic landmark.


The archaeologist encountered a complex historical site which had, since 1723, been a the location of a police station, prison, Spanish Council House, firehouse, and arsenal. After the Cabildo's completion in 1799, repairs, additions, and renovations altered the structure. Some parts were demolished, while others were replaced.


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The archaeological team excavated six units in the rear courtyard of the Cabildo, uncovering deposits dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Coins, which probably fell unnoticed from people's pockets, aided in dating the surrounding deposits. Over a period of about two months, the archaeologists dug up over 4000 artifacts, greatly expanding our knowledge of the Cabildo complex and its inhabitants. To the untrained eye, bits and pieces of clothing, crockery, bones, and other cast-off items may seem like worthless bits of trash destined for the landfill, where we banish our own unwanted possessions. Luckily for us, enough of the 'trash' of another era has survived to become the treasure for those seeking to uncover history. For buttons, bottle sherds, and pipe stems not only tell us about the objects of which they were once part; they also provide clues about the daily lives of people who used those artifacts.



  • 1723-1725 First corps de garde (police station) constructed.
  • 1729-1730 Civil prison with enclosed yard built.
  • 1751First corps de garde demolished and replaced with a larger one at the same location. Officials renovated the civil prison, adding an arcaded front to the lower story of the rear structure. A two-story military prison and criminal chamber were also built and the jailer's quarters were expanded.
  • 1769 Spanish officials demolished the front civil prison and in its place constructed the first Cabildo (Casa Capitular, or Council House). A building inventory the following year showed the military prison, Superior Council chamber, and jailer's quarters located behind the corps de garde and civil prison.
  • 1788 First major New Orleans fire damaged area structures, including the corps de garde, civil prison and Cabildo. The corps de garde and civil prison were repaired and returned to use.
  • 1793 Firehouse built on the site of the first Cabildo.
  • 1794 Second fire destroyed the firehouse and badly damaged the corps de garde and civil prison.
  • 1795-1799 Workers constructed a new, larger Cabildo, designed by Gilberto Guillemard. This second Cabildo, which survives today, incorporated the thick walls of the corps de garde.
  • 1795-1801 The civil prison was repaired, renovated, and expanded.
  • 1837-l839 After the construction of a parish prison, the civil prison was torn down.
  • 1839 The Arsenal was built on the former site of the civil prison, on St. Peter Street, behind the Cabildo.
  • l841 A prison was constructed along Pirates' Alley.
  • 1842 Construction of the Creole House on part of the site of the old civil prison, on Pirates' Alley, behind the Cabildo.
  • 1848 Third story, with a mansard roof and a cupola, added to the Cabildo.
  • 1850 Construction of the prison adjacent to the Arsenal, according to the design of city engineer Joseph Pilie.


    The Cabildo courtyard formed part of a prison complex for nearly two hundred years, spanning French, Spanish, and American rule. By 1725 the first corps de garde, or police station, stood on the grounds. Four years later, between the corp.s de garde and the church, authorities added the civil prison, consisting of a pair of two-story brick buildings at opposite ends of a yard enclosed by brick walls. The front structure contained a courtroom and the gatekeeper's apartment. The rear building housed the prisoners in nine cells. A combination of deterioration and the need for increased space led to the demolition of the original corps de garde in 1751. The new police headquarters, built alongside the jail, was fashioned from brick masonry. At this time officials also elected to renovate the prison, rebuilding one of the rear structure's walls as well as the prison yard wall. The courtroom became the jailer's quarters. Spanish officials instituted further changes at this site shortly after they took over the colony. Governor Alejandro O'Reilly reorganized the government, establishing the Cabildo, or town council. In 1769 he razed the front portion of the complex, where the jailer and the guard had resided, and in its place erected the first Casa Capitular, the Cabildo's meeting house.

    In 1788 a great fire destroyed the Casa Capitulur, the corps de garde, and the prison, leaving behind only the brick walls. More than a year later the renovated prison resumed its functions. Another large fire, in 1794, severely damaged the prison again, despite the prisoners' success in finally extinguishing the flames. Like the earlier fire, this one leveled a number of buildings in the area, including the recently built firehouse. Once more, authorities renovated the prison first, according to architect Gilberto Guillemard's plans. Architect and engineer Barthelemy Lafon won the contract, and his workers completed the job in about three months. Over the next several years, the Cabildo authorized a series of repairs and new construction, including new cells and a kitchen behind the jailer's quarters. A two-story extension of the prison along St. Peter Street contained seven cells. The entire complex of buildings occupied the present-day sites of the Arsenal, the Jackson House, the Creole House, Cabildo Alley, and the buildings at 823-825 St. Peter.

    In 1839 a new parish prison on Orleans Street (behind today's Municipal Auditorium) took over the functions of the old jail. At that time, the old civil prison was torn down, but some cells adjoining the Cabildo remained and became part of a jail for the police station housed there. In 1841 a three story prison structure was built along Priates' Alley, and in 1850 a similar structure containing six cells was erected perpendicular to it. These additions still exist today in the Cabildo's courtyard. The Third Precinct Station remained there until 1914, when the space was turned over to the Louisiana State Museum.


    We have some information about the prison building during the French colonial era, but much less about the experience of its inhabitants. Sources from the Spanish period later in the century point to miserable conditions. The jail restored after the 1788 fire was poorly ventilated and subject to flooding. Prisoners slept on the floor in dark cells. Their efforts during the 1794 fire, however, won them some improvement in their living space. Repairs and renovations executed from 1796 to 1800, including separate cells for women and additional cells for men, alleviated crowding. Officials also made changes to thwart all too frequent prison escapes. One measure involved dismantling a shed that prisoners used to scale the exterior wall.

    Prison conditions remained poor after Louisiana became a part of the United States; after all, prisons in other American cities were similarly wretched. In 1813 the grand jury for the first district of Louisiana inspected the crowded jail and found a series of very low, humid and infectious vaults, which are of course very unfit to lodge men, of whatever crimes they may be guilty' (Louisiana Courier, 2 July 1813). Debtors, vagrants, and the insane occupied the prison, often sharing cells with persons more typically classified as criminals today. Slaves were also imprisoned. Some of these were debtors, while others were charged with running away or pretending to be free.' Among the 185 prisoners in the jail in 1820, vagrants numbered 23, and there were 45 federal prisoners. Twenty-three others remained untried, and 20 had committed 'slight offenses.' Three insane persons, 4 runaway slaves, 18 debtors, including 1 slave, and 3 slaves 'pretending to be free' rounded out the rest of the count. Sentences ranged from two months of hard labor to life, with one prisoner scheduled for execution.

    In 1823 about 50 of the 160 prisoners attempted to escape from the courtyard, where they took their daily exercise. In their nearly successful effort, they overpowered one of the keepers, but before they could make it to the exterior door that led to the street, the young slave turnkey secured the exit and threw the key into the street. Evading the frustrated escapees, the turnkey managed to hide in a chimney. Before the prisoners could pry open the outer door, the city guard arrived and turned back the prisoners. The prisoners then managed to gain access to the roof; but by then soldiers and concerned citizens had surrounded the prison. They shot one prisoner dead, rounded up the others, and returned them to their cells.

    Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French commentator on American life, visited the prison in 1832 and reported, 'We would be unable to paint the dolorous impression that we received when...we saw there men thrown pell-mell with swine, in the midst of excrement and filth.' 'The place containing condemned criminals,' asserted Tocqueville, 'could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a prison: it's a frightful cesspool into which they are dumped and which is suitable only for those unclean animals one finds there with them. It is noteworthy that all those detained there are not slaves: it's the prison of free men.'


    Waste deposits unearthed during the dig substantiate Tocqueville's dim assessment. Bones deposited between 1800 and 1830 include a high percentage of rodent remains, indicating that prisoners shared their cramped quarters with rats. Faunal, or animal, remains also show that the incarcerated ate poor-quality meat. Large numbers of bones from less desirable parts of cows and pigs probably mean that prisoners lived on a diet of cheap cuts of meat. In fact, contemporary reports inform us that the jailer raised pigs and chickens in the courtyard.

    Animal bones from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Top row from left: cow's shoulder blade fragment with butcher's hack marks: cow s tooth; bone fragment from cow's leg with butcher s saw cuts; cow s rib fragment . Scarring at the end of the the rib suggests that fats nawed it Bottom from left: sheep's or goat's shoulder bone with buthcer's hack marks; pig's tusk.

    A few chickens, along with other birds, seem to have graced the prison table, as wel1 as a limited number of fish, including freshwater bullhead catfish, sheepshead, garfish, and sea trout. Turtle shells and bones suggest that the occasional terrapin appeared at the prison mess. Wild game, much more commonly eaten in the 1800s than today, also spiced up the monotonous diet of the prisoners, as did sheep and goat meat.

    The bones also provide evidence of nineteenth-century butchering techniques and practices. Some show hack marks from cleaver-like butchering instruments, while most were cut with saws.

    Prisoners and jailers ate and drank from a polyglot mixture of plates,bowls, cups, and saucers. Tableware fragments found on the Cabildo site confirm importation of a wide variety of British ceramics to Louisiana during the late Spanish colonial and later periods, especially large quantities of inexpensive shell-edged pearlware. This British ware was widely popular throughout the United States.

  • British ceramics from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Top row, from left: soup plate fragment, blue transfer-printed whiteware; plate fragment, black transfer-printed whiteware: soup plate lip in two pieces. blue shell-edged pearlware; bowl fragment. mulberry transfer-printed whiteware. Bottom from left: bowl fragment. blue hand-painted pearlware. bowl fragment, annular pearlware; cup fragment, blue hand-painted pearlware; bowl fragment, creamware.

    The team found few French artifacts from the earliest period of European settlement, primarily because the prison structure was excavated to the base of its foundations following either the 1788 or 1794 fire. This was undoubtedly to inspect the integrity of the foundations, and it obliterated most of the evidence of prior occupation at the site. French artifacts include faience, a tin-enameled earthenware.

    French-period ceramics, eighteenth century. Top row, from left: vessel fragment, Mottled-Brown Lead-Glazed Buffware; two vessel fragments, brown faience, French. Bottom: bowl fragment, Albisola Trailed, Italian.

    Before 1780 French faience was common in Louisiana, but after that date British ceramics predominated. Archaeologists also uncovered limited quantities of a green-glazed buff earthenware produced in Saintonge, the smallest of the French provinces. This coarse earthenware type was common in late eighteenth-century southeast Louisiana.

    Utensils, early nineteenth century. From left: bone knife handle with partial blade; utensil handle; cooking or eating utensil handle in the fiddle pattern; bone knife handle with partial blade.




Memories of the Cabildo fire


I was arrangements chair for the annual meeting and expo of a major aerospace
medical association in New Orleans that week in 1988. Our 1800+ delegates and
international guests were mostly packed into the Marriott as the headquarters
hotel for the meeting; and we were in session when the fire broke out nearby.

The sound of fire trucks and general alarm soon penetrated our parallel
sessions in the hotel, just up Chartres Street from the fire. We asked session
chairs and exhibit managers to keep order and continue the work of the meeting,
while heeding the advice of New Orleans' superbly swift and efficient Fire
Department -- mainly to minimize any problem with large numbers of our delegates
streaming out to join the crowd gawking at the fire and possibly getting in the
way of the firefighters.

Nevertheless, a number of our members, being
(mostly military) practising physicians and nurses, did quietly go forth to
offer their services on the spot if needed.

Later, I was one of the
locals who argued -- unsuccessfully -- against the sentiment-driven majority
opinion that the Cabildo should be restored exactly as it had been when the fire
broke out. Some us thought that it would be better to rebuild it in the austere
18th-century architectural style originally intended, without that later fussy
add-on of the additional ornate floor with the cupola.

I believe that
the Cabildo fire was probably much in the mind of Councilwoman Clarkson and
others in city government when controversy erupted in the past year or two over
the temporary removal of the benches in front of the Cathedral and the adjoining
historic buildings while they were scaffolded for refurbishing. There was a
justifiable fear that the fixed benches could have impeded
firefighters or
other emergency response vehicles in the event of another incident in that area.

Unfortunately, the benches controversy was intensified by bad PR and
unwise decisions to tell the public conflicting stories and half-truths about
the reasons for removing the benches and about whether and when (if ever) the
seats were to be restored.