William Spratling's architectural illustrations of the Vieux Carré’s deteriorating buildings invigorated the renaissance of the neighborhood in the 1920s.
While he is best known for his work with Mexican silver, William Spratling is also known locally for the bohemian lifestyle that he led for a time in the 1920s Vieux Carré. The New York–born Spratling moved to New Orleans as a young man in 1922 after he accepted a position as an instructor of architecture at Tulane University, where he developed a relationship with early preservationist and architect Nathaniel Cortlandt Curtis Sr.¹ He leased a second-floor apartment at 624 Orleans Alley (Pirate's Alley) from well-connected social columnist Natalie Scott and soon found himself among kindred spirits that included artists, musicians, and writers, including his roommate, author William Faulkner. The Vieux Carré was in a state of squalor at the time, but its picturesque charm proved to be an affordable and inspiring setting for him and his friends.² Using the neighborhood as his subject, Spratling taught a popular outdoor sketching class for the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, and in 1927, many of his own drawings of the Vieux Carré were published in Architectural Forum in an article entitled “The Architectural Heritage of New Orleans.”³ The national attention obtained from his illustrations coincided fortuitously with the local preservation movement that was gaining momentum in the Vieux Carré.
Spratling’s teaching schedule enabled him to travel throughout Europe in the summers, and his friendships with Tulane archaeologists such as Frans Blom inspired him to travel several times to Mexico, where Blom and others were excavating Maya ruins.4 Prior to Spratling’s permanent departure to Mexico in 1929, he and Faulkner composed a tongue-in-cheek tribute to their bohemian community. The illustrated book, Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles, provides a fascinating glimpse of life in the Vieux Carré during its cultural renaissance.
Spratling established a new life in Taxco, Mexico, with intentions of writing full time, but his artistic endeavors with sterling silver prevailed. The town, which was home to silver mines for centuries, would prove to be an ideal laboratory for the man who would become “The Father of Mexican Silver.”5 While his contributions to silver design remain his international legacy, he will always be a favorite son of New Orleans for his role in embracing the historic architecture of the Vieux Carré.
1. John W. Scott, “William Spratling and the New Orleans Renaissance,” Louisiana History 45 no. 3 (Summer 2004): 288-89.
2. Scott, “William Spratling and the New Orleans Renaissance,” 287-88.
3. Scott, 294; and Taylor Littleton, William Spratling: His Life and Art, Southern Biography Series(Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press 2000), 82-83.
4. Scott, 309-10.
5. Phyllis Goddard, “William Spratling Biography.”
Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research
Curtis, Nathaniel Cortlandt, and William Spratling. The Wrought Iron Work of Old New Orleans. New York: Press of the American Institute of Architects, n.d.
Dobie, Ann B. “William Spratling.” In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010-. Article published September 12, 2012.
Mark, Joan. The Silver Gringo: William Spratling and Taxco. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 2000.
Reed, John Shelton. Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012.
Spratling, William. Picturesque New Orleans: Ten Drawings of the French Quarter. New Orleans: Tulane University Press, 1923.