New Orleans Architecture Tours

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The French Opera House Fire (1919)

On this day in 1919, the French Opera House burned down. This theater had been located at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets, in the French Quarter.

The French Opera House - storyvilledistrictnola.com
The French Opera House – storyvilledistrictnola.com

New Orleans was the first city in the United States with its own opera company, which having no formal place to hold shows, would perform in people’s homes, event halls and even tents. In 1792, the Le Theatre St. Pierre was developed at 716 St. Peter Street and only stayed open for 8 years when it was closed for good after breaks in production due to issues of building safety concerns and issues with neighborhood brawls.

The next great theater to include opera was Théâtre d’Orléans, located on Orleans Street between Royal and Bourbon. Built in 1815 by John Davis, a Saint-Domingue refugee, the Théâtre d’Orléans showcased great French operatic performers and is credited with the spread of popularity of Opera with the rest of the United States, as these productions toured the nation in the summer months to get away from the heat of the city.

In 1859, a new owner and a change of lease agreement forced Charles Boudousquié, director of the opera company to remove the opera company from the Theatre d’Orleans. The French Opera Association was developed to raise money for a new theater, and James Gallier Jr. was selected to design the building. Ground was broken on the site on April 9, 1859. A month into the construction process, the New Orleans Delta reported:

          The building of the opera house at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse streets is going ahead briskly. The foundations have been laid, and the front walls have almost reached a height of one story. The great area of the theater attracts the attention of everybody; and as all our opera-going population feel more or less interest in it, we think some account of the shape, plan, and style of the building, will be acceptable.

It will be a handsome structure of the Italian order of architecture, with a front of one hundred and sixty-six feet on Bourbon street, one hundred and eighty-seven on Toulouse street, and a height of about eighty feet in its highest part. The edifice will rise like a colossus over everything in that vicinity.

The building was finished in a little over 7 months, on November 28, 1859. Crews worked night and day to get this feat accomplished, using light from bonfires to see their progress as electricity was not available yet. Two days later the theater opened with their production of “Guillaume Tell.”

(Original) French Opera House - commons.wikimedia.org
(Original) French Opera House – commons.wikimedia.org

The French Opera House had elements of Greek Revival and Italianate Revival design. The front gallery extended over the sidewalk to protect crowds of attendees from the rain as they waited to be allowed inside and was decorated with Ionic pilasters. Simpler pilasters adorned the space around the square windows. The building’s boxy appearance was softened by curved outer corners. The balustrade at the top of the building that concealed the roofline suggested the emerging Italianate influence that was about to become more popular than Greek Revival design in the city.

While the French Creole society would flock to this building for many stage productions, Carnival Balls and private events, there were critics who thought that the quick construction was responsible for shoddy work. Thomas K. Wharton remarked in his diary that this building showed, “the usual effect of hasty building – evidence of unequal subsidence – bad brickwork – immense mortar joints – cracks everywhere.” He also had issues with the general design of the building stating, “The construction though bad, was no worse than the design and details of the exterior, which are abominable”.

Still, these deficiencies were not noticed by the patrons who regularly filled the building which held 2600 people for different events. The mostly wooden interior included four levels of seating, built on a curve to maximize capacity. Wealthier patrons could purchase private boxes on the lower levels and special considerations were made to conceal pregnant women in special latticed boxes so that they might come enjoy the show without being seen by other guests. While today opera is thought of a wealthy person’s hobby, many poorer people were able to see performances as there were bargain seats located on the upper levels. Theater seats became segregated and non-whites were only permitted in the highest level of the theater. Early on, seasonal subscriptions ranged from $384-$64 and then jumped to $1500 -$110.

The French Opera House fire of 1919
The French Opera House fire of 1919

On the morning of December 4th, 1919, the French Opera House burned to the ground. The insurance policy was not enough to cover rebuilding the structure so the corner sat vacant for about 40 years as people waited in hopes that an opera house could be resurrected on this site. In the 1960s a hotel was built on this site and today this hotel is known as the Four Points Sheraton.

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