The Cabildo and Presbytere

In one of the city’s first preservation battles, citizens defeated a proposal to demolish two of New Orleans’ beloved historic landmarks.

The Cabildo on Jackson Square is a rare relic of the city’s Spanish Colonial regime. Built in 1795–99 after a 1794 fire destroyed earlier governmental structures on the site, it served as the backdrop for the 1803 Louisiana Transfer, a historic land transaction that more than doubled the size of the young United States.¹ Known as the “Casa Capitular,” the building housed the municipal governing body, which was called the Cabildo, and later was home to a number of governing entities, including New Orleans City Hall and various courts.² It is a National Historic Landmark as well as a defining feature of the Vieux Carré’s prominent public square, which was formally laid out at the city’s founding. Together, the Cabildo, the PresbytèreSt. Louis Cathedral, and the Pontalba Buildings complete one of the few remaining historic plazas in the country.³

The Presbytère had functioned as a civil courthouse since 1834, and in the 1860s the Louisiana Supreme Court moved into the Cabildo. Other courts were scattered across town in a series of buildings adapted for judicial use. Over time, the two buildings on Jackson Square deteriorated and, in 1892, Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Samuel D. McEnery condemned the Cabildo as a “half-ruined, ramshackle and inadequate old building” that was not only a fire hazard but an embarrassment to the city’s justice system. McEnery was not alone in his dissatisfaction. In an attempt to update and consolidate the courts, in 1895 the city council proposed a plan to raze the aging Cabildo and Presbytère and construct a new pair of more spacious court buildings in their place. This idea drew immediate and unequivocal protest from a number of different groups who agreed that the destruction of these historic landmarks would be a tragic blow to the city’s past as well as its future.

Among those who protested the plan were the local bar association, the Louisiana Historical Society, and the Artists’ Association. The city’s lawyers were against demolition primarily because they preferred to move the courts above Canal Street. The historic value of the buildings, while important, was a secondary concern. The latter two groups, however, were against demolition solely because the Cabildo was one of the few remaining structures of the Spanish Colonial era. Painter and Tulane Professor William Woodward led the artists, stating on their behalf that:

Whereas, it being a duty of this association to foster a love of the picturesque and artistic among our people, we feel it a duty to guard these precious monuments of a past which can be vividly and constantly recalled for the instruction of all, only by the preservation in their original appearance, in every possible particular…and calling attention to the fact that the recent organization of a school of architecture in New Orleans (the only one in the south), promises to point to a great revival of interest in such matters.

Woodward and the Louisiana Historical Society proposed that the Cabildo and Presbytère be converted into a museum complex devoted to the state’s history.¹ This alternative won out, and the Louisiana State Museum, which was established in 1906, opened in the Cabildo and Presbytère in 1911.¹¹ The new courthouse was erected nearby in the 400 block of Royal Street, a densely developed historic square that the City demolished without protest in 1903.¹² Although the individuals and groups who fought to save the Cabildo did not stand up for this group of buildings, their efforts nevertheless mark one of the earliest instances in New Orleans of citizen mobilization for the sake of historic preservation. 

 

1. Hilary Irvin, “The Cabildo,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published October 1, 2012. 

2. Samuel Wilson Jr. and Leonard V. Huber, The Cabildo on Jackson Square (Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 1973), 27-92. 

3. “Artists Protest,” The Daily Picayune, November 8, 1895. 

4. Louisiana State Museum, “The Presbytère,” Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism; and Louisiana Supreme Court, “A Brief History of the Supreme Court.”

5. “Court Buildings,” The Daily Picayune, April 19, 1891. 

6. "Senator McEnery's Suggestion as to the Supreme Court," The Daily Picayune, January 2, 1892.

7. “The Plans for the New Civil Courts,” The Daily Picayune, November 10, 1895. 

8. Ibid. 

9. “Artists Protest.” Woodward is referring to Tulane University’s School of Architecture, which he helped to establish. 

10. “The Plans for the New Civil Courts.”

11. Louisiana State Museum, “Welcome to the Louisiana State Museum!” Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism; Mrs. S. B. Elder, “The Cabildo Now the Louisiana State Museum,” The Daily Picayune, August 28, 1911; and Louisiana State Museum, “The Presbytère.” 

12. “Nearer to Courthouse Site, if Downtown Will Get It,” The Daily Picayune, February 13, 1903. 

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Suggestions for Additional Reading: 

Hinckley, Robert C., ed. William Woodward: American Impressionist. New Orleans: Robert C. Hinckley, 2009.

Lemann, Bernard, Malcolm Heard, and John P. Klingman, eds. Talk About Architecture: A Century of Architectural Education at Tulane. New Orleans: Tulane University School of Architecture, 1993. 

Poesch, Jessie, and Barbara SoRelle Bacot, eds. Louisiana Buildings, 1720-1940: The Historic American Buildings Survey. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997.

For Further Research: 

"The Transfer of Louisiana Enacted on the Same Spot Where Original Actors Stood, By The Descendants of the Men Who Made History..." The Times Picayune, 12-12-1903.

 

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