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Happy Birthday James Gallier, Sr. (1798)

James Gallier Sr.
James Gallier Sr. –

James Gallagher was born in Ravensdale, Ireland on this day in 1798. His father, Thaddeus Gallagher, was a builder who trained his son in this trade. James went on to study in Dublin. In his early career he was given quite a few architectural projects in England varying from college buildings to prisons to factories. In 1832, he moved to New York, where he met the Dakin brothers and worked in their firm. It is unclear exactly when he changed his name to the more French sounding Gallier.

In 1834 James and Charles Dakin left New York, and headed to New Orleans, where they started an architecture firm. Almost immediately, they were hired to draw up plans for the St. Charles Hotel. As this was the height of the Greek Revival period in America, this was the style chosen for this monumental building. A portico of Corinthian columns were capped by a triangular pediment in keeping with the style.  At a height of 203 feet, this was the tallest building in New Orleans at the time, and the domed cupola could be seen for miles!  This magnificent structure was destroyed in a fire in 1851, and although it was rebuilt by Thomas Sully, the design was streamlined and did not include the soaring dome.

St. Charles Hotel –

The Gallier and Dakin partnership would only last a year as Charles Dakin’s brother James moved to New Orleans shortly after, dissolving the Gallier and Dakin firm and creating the Dakin and Dakin firm. Don’t worry about Gallier, he struck out on his own and there were plenty of buildings for him to create!

This was the perfect moment to be an architect in New Orleans as the city was expanding rapidly, and the population was exploding. Between 1830 and 1840, the population of the city jumped from 46,082 to 102,193. Areas upriver from Canal Street were being developed as the home for English speaking Americans and Irish immigrants. In these new neighborhoods Gallier created some of his more famous projects mostly in the Greek Revival and Gothic Revival styles.

St. Patricks Church -
St. Patricks Church –

St. Patrick’s Church at 724 Camp Street was the first English speaking Catholic Church in the city. While the parish had started in 1833 in a small wooden church, within five years they needed a new larger church. The original plans for this expanded church were designed by the Dakin brothers’ firm, and while their designs for this Gothic structure were beautiful, they were not feasible to build a church of this height on our sinking soil. When instability was noticed in the walls of the building, Gallier was appointed to stabilize and complete the church. He made modifications to the Dakin plan including an overall simplification of the structure. Indeed, the church is almost plain in comparison to other churches in the area. The first mass held in the church was 1840.

In 1845, James Gallier was contracted to build the 2nd Municipal City Hall. This mammoth edifice was designed in the Greek Revival style meat to show the dominance of the American settlers who had taken over the Louisiana territory in 1803. (To read more about this situation, please see my blog post about Gallier Hall here.) This building became the New Orleans City Hall in 1853 and served as such for a little over a century. It is now used for celebrations from private events like weddings or public events like watching Mardi Gras Parades.

Gallier Hall -
Gallier Hall –

While James Gallier is known for is large projects, he also worked on a few smaller residences. One of my favorites, the Briggs Staub house (1849), is located at the corner of Prytania and Third Street, and it is special because it is one of the few Gothic revival residences in the area. This home has all the classic Gothic Revival flourishes: pointed arch windows, quatrefoil carvings and cock’s comb roof decorations.

Briggs Staub House
Briggs Staub House

James Gallier retired in 1850, leaving his business to his son, fellow architect James Gallier Jr. Upon retiring, James Sr. spent a good deal of time traveling with his second wife, Catherine Robinson. Many of Gallier’s impressions of traveling abroad are recounted in his autobiography, published in 1864. On their way home from New York in October 1866, their ship the Evening Star sank in a hurricane off the coast of Georgia, killing most of the passengers, including the Galliers. James Jr. designed a memorial marker for them in St. Louis #3 Cemetery.

Almost a decade after his death, Gallier’s name was still in the headlines, as his heirs were in court fighting over his property. As he had married Catherine Robinson later in life, she already had children of her own from a previous marriage (known as the Robinsons) who thought they were entitled to his property against their step-siblings the Galliers. This case was brought before the court in November of 1875. Details of the case are as follows: James Gallier Sr. had written his will to give his estate to his wife. Because they both died in the same incident, she could not inherit the property, so the property would automatically go to James Gallier Jr., James Gallier’s next of kin. This action was brought to court by the Robinson children, who felt they were entitled to the property.

This is where it gets tricky – the court had to try to figure out who died first in the shipwreck.  If James Gallier died before his wife then the property would go to her and therefore her successors, but if Catharine died first then the property would stay with James Gallier and go to his next of kin – James Gallier Jr. As the plaintiffs in the case, the Robinsons had to prove that their mother had lived longer than their stepfather.

One of the main points considered was the health and age of the deceased. James Gallier was not only 24 years older than his wife at the time, but he had also been in poor health. It was assumed that with no other information that it was safe to presume that James had died first. But this wasn’t actual proof that he had died first. Many witnesses were called who were at the scene of the Evening Star’s sinking. Two witnesses claimed to have seen Mrs. Gallier without her husband after the boat sunk, but were unable to rescue her.

Before they made their decision, the Judge told the jury, “Your duty is simply to determine the question of survivorship. If Mrs. Gallier is shown to your satisfaction to have survived her husband, you will return a verdict for the plaintiffs; if you are not so convinced, you will return a verdict for the defendants” (ROBINSON v. GALLIER et al.) They decided for James Gallier Jr, the defendant.

Sources Consulted:

  • Cable, Mary. Lost New Orleans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
  • Christovich, Mary Louise., Roulhac Toledano, Betsy Swanson, Pat Holden, Samuel Wilson, and Bernard Lemann. New Orleans Architecture, Volume II: The American Sector (Faubourg St. Mary) ; Howard Avenue to Iberville Street, Mississippi River to Claiborne Avenue. Gretna, LA: Pelican Pub., 1972.
  • Van Zante, Gary. “James Gallier Sr..” In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published October 1, 2012.
  • “St. Patrick’s Church.” St Patricks Church RSS. Accessed July 22, 2016.


Court information: