Historic Structures

The Cabildo, New Orleans Louisiana

Date added: November 2, 2013 Categories: Louisiana Museum

The present name of this building is derived from the governmental body for which it was built, the Illustrious Cabildo. At the time of its construction, during the Spanish Rule of Louisiana, it was referred to as the Casa Capitular, to house the meetings of the local Spanish government. After the Louisiana Purchase, the building became the City Hall of New Orleans.

The Cabildo was constructed between the years 1795 and 1799. According to the minutes of the Cabildo meeting of January 16, 1795, an offer to rebuild a structure on the site of the original Casa Capitular and the separate Corps de Garde structure which were destroyed in the fire of 1788 was made by a wealthy philanthropist by the name of Don Andres Almonester y Rojas. The Cabildo realizing that it had no funds in its treasury to build such a structure, accepted his offer. The minutes of the Cabildo meeting of December 4, 1795, indicate that construction had begun by that date, and by May 10, 1799, the building had been sufficiently completed to allow the Cabildo to hold their meeting there, as indicated by a note in the minutes of that meeting.

The architect of the Cabildo building was a Frenchman by the name of Don Gilberto Cuillemard. As he was already engaged in the designs of the new Cathedral and Presbytere adjacent to it, both of which were replacing structures damaged in the fire of 1788, he was assigned the task of designing the new Cabildo building, which was to occupy the site to the left of the Cathedral. For the sake of symmetry, Guillemard designed the new Cabildo in the same style as the Presbytere. Guillemard is connected with the design of the Cabildo by a petition presented to the Cabildo in the last days of the Spanish rule, on May 14, 1802, requesting that he be given a certificate to show that he had been responsible for the design and supervision of the building's construction.

There are no extant drawings by Guillemard for the Cabildo. There are several depictions of the building as it appeared after its completion. These include a small sketch found on the map of the city drawn by the City Surveyor Jacques Tanrfesse in 1815, and two lithographs executed in 1845, one by Thomas Williams, and another by Jules Lion, a copy of which can be viewed in the Historic New Orleans Collection, located at 533 Royal Street, New Orleans. A fine architectural-type drawing of the front facade was executed by Benjamin Latrobe in 1819 during his visit to the city. This drawing provides one of the best views of the building prior to the addition of the mansard roof in 1847.

Numerous alterations have been executed on the Cabildo over the years. The most significant of these is the dormered mansard roof constructed in 1847 to replace the original flat roof, which leaked severely. Louis Surgi, the City Surveyor and designer of the mansard addition, was no doubt inspired by the plan of the Baroness Pontalba, the daughter of Don Andres Almonester y Rojas, to improve her property along both sides of the Place d'Armes which she had inherited from her father. The city was divided into three municipalities at this time, and the First Municipality Council, rivals of the Second Municipality which was erecting the Greek Revival hall designed by James Gallier, were pleased at the opportunity to improve their own part of the city. They were so enthusiastic about Surgi's design for the mansard roof that they urged the owners of the Cabildo's twin, the Presbytere, to erect an identical roof on that building, thus effecting a dramatic change on the impressive area surrounding the Place d'Armes without upsetting its attractive symmetry.

Within the next few years, several other changes were made to the Cabildo. A contract in the Acts of J. C. Cuvillier, on file in the Notarial Archives for Orleans Parish, Room B4 of the Civil Courts Building, dated June 2, 1851 specifies for the entrance hall to be paved with marble; Louis Surgi was to be responsible for this work. An entry in the Account Ledger for the Surveyor's Office for the years 1850-1852, dated March 26, 1851, refers to the "payment of $1760.00 for a "gateway of iron positioned at the entrance of the Municipal Hall, and for the painting of the same, and the repair of the plaster." These impressive gates, still in use today, were designed by Louis Pilie, Surveyor of the First Municipality, and were executed by the Pelanne Brothers. Records of the also indicate that the building was finished with a coat of brown stucco scored to resemble stone.

Minor interior alterations have also been executed. The Sala Capitular was to be enlarged, accotding to a resolution passed by the City Council on April 9, 1836. Several years earlier, the City Council approved numerous interior renovations in preparation for the visit of General Lafayette, at the cost of $15,000. Theses alterations were primarily of a cosmetic nature. It was at this time that the original- 18th century mantel was removed from the Sala Capitular, as it was considered to be too unattractive for so distinguished a guest. The present mantel in that room is a reproduction of an 18th century mantel, installed during the renovation which occured in the late 1960's.

This renovation was carried out between the years 1966 and 1969. Repairs to the building had been made in 1964, but were severely damaged by Hurricane Betsy in September of 1965. The new work was begun in 1966 by the firms of Maxwell and LeBreton and Koch and Wilson. A brief account of this renovation can be found in the book by Leonard Huber and Sam Wilson entitled The Cabildo on Jackson Square. This renovation included the restoration of the portion of the building occupying the old site of the Corps de Garde to resemble what the interior of this structure must have looked liked in the year 1751. This restoration was drawn from records and from remains of the building discovered in the walls of the Cabildo. In addition, the original floor of bricks laid on their sides was revealed, and the original plan of the fenestration along St. Peter Street was restored. Another restoration was carried out in what was known as the Lamplighter's Room, located on the ground floor at the corner of Chartres Street and Pirate Alley. A floor of eight inch square bricks was discovered, and this floor was simulated using ceramic tiles of the same size. Additional doorways were created in other portions of the ground floor to benefit movement. The gallery and other rooms on the second floor were also restored. In the Sala Capitular, a plaster ceiling was replaced by one with exposed beams to match the original one. In the Mayor's Office, a mantel was installed based on conjecture, to match what may have existed, and the mantels in the Mayor's Parlor and the small ante-chamber were taken from the Presbytere. Throughout the building, old floors of plank and peg construction were torn up and restored using conventional wood screws concealed by dowels to resemble the pegs used in the original.

On the third story, the lath and plaster was removed; it was replaced in two of the rooms, but in two other rooms the flatboat timbers used in the construction of the mansard were left revealed. The roof beams in the mansard were also left exposed to show the mortise and tenon construction used there.