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Favorite Building Friday – New Orleans Cotton Exchange

Happy Favorite Building Friday! This week we head back downtown to the Central Business District to learn about the New Orleans Cotton Exchange. In the past I have come across pictures of the original building and wondered about it – it is really an amazing work of art, but where is it? What happened to it?

Today I bring you all of my findings.

In 1871, in order to compete with the newly formed New York Cotton Exchange, the New Orleans Cotton Exchange was created in an office at the corner of Carondelet and Gravier Streets in the Central Business District.

First Cotton Exchange
First Cotton Exchange

The first New Orleans Cotton Exchange Building was built at 231 Carondelet in 1883, and is described by newspaper articles as being in the Renaissance Style. It would appear that this style has been greatly influenced by the Second Empire Style, due to the presence of a mansard roof which has four sloping sides at a very steep pitch. On this building, the roof contained dormers and a cast iron rail at the top.  It had many classical decorations such as Corinthian styled pilasters, corbels, and delicate plaster palmettes. Incredible statuary included caryatides which supported the entablature over the door, and allegorical renderings of Agriculture, Commerce, and Industry.

The architect was Henry Wolters of Louisville. He had been born in Germany and was trained in the field at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where Second Empire Style celebrated the literal second empire – the era of Napoleon III. Mr. Wolters designed many similarly styled buildings during this period such as the Courthouse of Evansville Indiana. James Freret, trained at the same school in France was named as the supervising architect. This structure was completed at a price of $275,000, which according to an internet inflation calculator is $7,053,256.77. That still doesn’t seem to be too much considering just how ostentatious it is.

This magnificent structure was the talk of the town.  Contemporary admirers suggested that this building was bringing about the new age of architecture in New Orleans. Mark Twain wrote,

Massive, substantial, full of architectural graces; no shams or false pretenses or ugliness about it anywhere. To the city it will be worth many times the cost, for it will breed its species. What has been lacking hitherto was a model to build toward, something to educate the eye and taste; a suggester, so to speak.

The Times Picayune agreed with this idea:

If New Orleans has presented itself to the eye of the stranger in a somewhat unfavorable guise in the past because of an apparent neglect of outward show in the way of architecture, this reproach bids fair to be rapidly removed, for in the past three years more solid and substantial structures have been put up than in a decade previously while the movement in the direction of architectural beauty has been most marked. The crowning glory, however of this architectural revival is to be found in the new building just completed for the Cotton Exchange and that is a work that would take a high place for beauty of design and (Illegible) of purpose in any city or country.

As grand as this building was it would not stick around for too long. It was only four stories, but the limestone, granite, and all the fabulous decorations were just too heavy, and the technology of the late 1800s was not up to snuff in regards to carrying such a hefty load.  According to a Times Picayune article written in 1937, “Unfortunately, this palatial home was constructed before the day of pile foundations and this fact coupled with its enormous weight and the establishment of underground drainage of the city, caused the walls to crack and render the structure unsafe.” Demolition was the only answer, and the building came down in 1921. The collection of statues was destroyed, except for the caryatides which were placed around the door of Weiblen Marble and Granite Works located at 116 City Park Avenue. Apparently, they are still there.  (I see a field trip in my future!)

Second Cotton Exchange, designed by Favrot and Livaudais.
Second Cotton Exchange, designed by Favrot and Livaudais.

Upon the demolition of the first building, the Secretary of the Exchange, Col. Hester, suggested the new building would be exactly the same as the first, as it “was a local classic and cannot be allowed to disappear.” Anyone who visits 231 Carondelet, knows that this is sadly untrue. A much simpler building was designed by the firm of Favrot and Livaudais, who would later go on to design the Hibernia Bank Building just across the street. There are mere touches or hints of older styles present on this building. It is clear that in about 40 years the pendulum had shifted from wildly ornate architecture decorated with neoclassical elements and sculpture to a more streamlined, less fuss style referred to as Commercial or Chicago Style.

The exchange closed in 1964, and the building now houses a hotel and a bank. It was placed in the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1977.

Sources Consulted:

  • “A Palace Of Commerce. Completion of the New Cotton Exchange. Description of the Fine Structure.” Daily Picayune (New Orleans), May 9, 1883. Accessed October 13, 2016.
  • “Brick and Mortar. The Spring Work of Architects and Builders.” Daily Picayune (New Orleans), May 28, 1882. Accessed October 13, 2016.
  • Cable, Mary. Lost New Orleans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
  • “Cotton Exchange Created in 1871 to Regulate Trade: Intitution Aids Growers, Brings Business to City.” Times Picayune (New Orleans), January 25, 1937. Accessed October 14, 2016.
  • “Cotton Exchange Decides to Build.” Times Picayune (New Orleans), April 04, 1920. Accessed October 13, 2016.
  • “It Will Be A Gem. Says Col. Hester Of New Exchange Skyscrapers Cannot Obscure Building.” Times Picayune (New Orleans), January 12, 1919. Accessed October 14, 2016.
  • Rylance, Keli. “Lost Marbles.” Southeastern Architecture Research Blog. June 19, 2013. Accessed October 14, 2016.
  • “The New Cotton Exchange.” Daily Picayune (New Orleans), March 23, 1881. Accessed October 13, 2016.