The Vieux Carré’s Louisiana Supreme Court Building is a massive white marble and terra-cotta Beaux Arts structure that fills the square bounded by Chartres, St. Louis, Royal, and Conti streets. Completed in 1910, it was long considered an ungainly intrusion in the heart of New Orleans’ original Creole city, both for its inappropriate scale and its gleaming neoclassical exterior, which was inspired by the Chicago Exposition of 1893 and the subsequent City Beautiful movement. The building was deemed a “white elephant” just two decades after it was built and, in 1934, architect Charles Harris Whitaker deemed it “one of the worst examples of a public building to be found in all America.”¹
Prior to the construction of the new courthouse, the supreme court had operated from the Cabildo on Jackson Square since the 1860s.² When it was decided that a more spacious and modern headquarters was required for the courts system and a Courthouse Commission was formed to oversee the project, the initial plan was to construct the new facilities on the sites of the Cabildo and Presbytère, which were to be demolished. This idea led to such a public outcry that it was soon abandoned and the Commission began searching for new sites.³ After years of weighing its options, which included a retrofit of the Vieux Carré’s then-vacant St. Louis Exchange Hotel, the Commission settled on a square just upriver from the hotel that was densely developed with early-nineteenth-century residences and shops.⁴ Exchange Alley, a pedestrian path that at one time buzzed with legal and political offices, bisected the block. In 1903, when the Commission began purchasing or expropriating the properties, the buildings were dark, deteriorated, and tenement-like, and some saw the clearing of this land and the erection of a grand edifice as a means of “redeeming a neighborhood.”⁵ Many others in the community, however, keenly felt the loss. In its April 1906 issue, Architectural Art and Its Allies wrote that “we feel assured that the artistic loss…in the invasion of the quaint old French quarter by a brand new building where it will stand alone…will be fully realized only when the remedy will be forever impossible.”⁶ In June 1903, when the demolitions were taking place, the Daily Picayune published an editorial that mourned the square as “one of the most historic sites in New Orleans. It is the very heart of the vieux carré…and while still palpitant with memories of pioneer bravery and colonial splendor, it must be torn to pieces that progress may continue its onward march.”⁷
The destruction for the Louisiana Supreme Court Building serves as an object lesson in the value of legal bodies and organizations like the Vieux Carré Commission (VCC) and the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates, Inc. (VCPORA), which were established in the decades after the building’s construction to prevent this type of loss. Indeed, with a hint of irony, it was the Louisiana Supreme Court who ruled in 1941 that the VCC had jurisdiction not only over the Vieux Carré’s individual historic structures but over its tout ensemble, or the overall character of the district, as well.⁸ Yet in 1903, with no legislative protection or dedicated organizations fighting to save the buildings, which were valuable yet lacked the beloved status of individual landmarks like the Cabildo and Presbytère, the demise of an entire square of history was all but inevitable.
The Supreme Court moved to new quarters in 1958, and the Royal Street building suffered decades of neglect. In the 1990s, however, the court decided to return to the Vieux Carré, and the building underwent an extensive renovation.⁹ With the passage of time, the building has come to be regarded in a more positive light as a fine example of Beaux Arts architecture.
1. Bernard Lemann, The Vieux Carré: A General Statement (New Orleans: Tulane University School of Architecture, 1966), 23-24.
2. Louisiana Supreme Court, “A Brief History of the Supreme Court”; and Hilary Irvin, “The Cabildo,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published October 1, 2012.
3. Samuel Wilson Jr. and Leonard V. Huber, The Cabildo on Jackson Square (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1973), 92.
4. “The Hotel Royal and the Courts,” The Daily Picayune, April 16, 1899; and “Nearer to Courthouse Site, if Downtown Will Get It,” The Daily Picayune, February 13, 1903.
5. “And This Brings Us to Another Matter,” Architectural Art and Its Allies 1 no. 10 (April 1906): 10.
7. “New Courthouse Site Part of the Oldest City.” The Daily Picayune, June 7, 1903.
8. Lynda C. Friedmann, “The Vieux Carré: The Administration of Municipal Laws,” Pace Law Review 1 no. 3 (1981): 585-86.
9. “Royal Street Renovation Update,” Court Column: A Newsletter of the Judiciary of the State of Louisiana 4 no. 3 (Summer 2001): 1.