Open to the public since April 1956, the 1850 House is a historic house museum that occupies one of the townhouses in the Lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square. In 1849-51, Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba constructed the brick masonry Lower Pontalba and its sister building, the Upper Pontalba, which is located across the square on St. Peter Street, and in doing so helped to transform the Vieux Carré’s historic public center into a sophisticated urban space.¹ The two buildings each comprise sixteen elegant townhouses featuring granite-fronted commercial ground floors, two-story residences upstairs with cast-iron verandahs, and rear service wings in the courtyards. Like Julia Row in the American Sector, they attracted a number of affluent tenants when they were completed, including the baroness herself.²
Following the Civil War and Baroness Pontalba’s death in 1874, the buildings fell into a long period of decline.³ Finally, in 1921, wealthy businessman and philanthropist William Ratcliffe Irby bought the Lower Pontalba Building for $68,000 to save it from potential demolition.⁴ In 1926, Irby’s estate bequeathed it to the Louisiana State Museum, recommending that “the property be managed, maintained, and preserved as a public landmark and memorial of the early days of New Orleans without changing its architectural integrity.”⁵ In 1956, the museum established and opened the 1850 House, which portrays how a wealthy Creole family would have lived when the Pontalba buildings were newly constructed.⁶ Today, the house is managed by the non-profit Friends of the Cabildo, which runs a museum gift shop in the ground-floor commercial space and offers regular guided tours of the residence upstairs. Virtual tours of the house are available on the museum’s website.
1. Hilary Irvin, “Pontalba Buildings,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010-). Article published February 2, 2011.
2. Irvin, “Pontalba Buildings”; and Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation, “Pontalba Buildings,” National Register of Historic Places, May 30, 1974.
3. Irvin, “Pontalba Buildings.”
4. Ned Hemard, “William Ratcliffe Irby,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published November 8, 2013.
5. “Irby Estate Goes Chiefly to Tulane,” The Times-Picayune, November 24, 1926.
6. Alberta Collier, “Museum Pushes 1850 House Project,” The Times-Picayune, March 18, 1956.