Micaela Almonester was born November 6, 1795, the daughter of Don Andreas Almonester, a wealthy Spanish Notary best known for charitably donating money to many projects in the city – rebuilding the Cabildo and St Louis Cathedral after the 1788 fire, funding Charity Hospital, and opening a leper’s hospital. Micaela was only 3 years old when her father died, making her one of the richest people in the city at the time.
Micaela was educated by the Ursuline Nuns until the age of 15 when she was married to her cousin Xavier Célestin Delfau de Pontalba in a union arranged by her mother. After the wedding, which was performed in the St. Louis Cathedral, Micaela and her new husband went to France to live with his family. Early on it became evident that her father in law, Joseph Pontalba had only been interested in his new daughter in law on account of how much money she had, and he made many attempts to get her to sign over her fortune to his family. The last attempt concluded with him shooting her in the chest, with the hope that her death would transfer the money to his family. As she was being shot at, Micaela held up her hand to protect herself and some of her fingers were shot off. With four bullets in her chest and her hand permanently disfigured, Micaela left the room to get help, finding the maid close by. She collapsed in the maid’s arms. Joseph Pontalba committed suicide that evening.
Micaela recovered, but lived the rest of her life with the bullets lodged in her chest. She returned to New Orleans in 1848 to find her property in the French Quarter in terrible condition so she demolished the buildings on the site and contracted the construction of two 16 unit row houses flanking Jackson Square. The bricks were imported from Philadelphia, and the granite is from Vermont and the cast iron galleries were created in New York. The buildings have a decidedly Greek Revival plan to them, but with graceful, slender columns.
The cast iron grill-work is rumored to have been designed by her son and includes her initials A and P in the center of the design. This design is repeated on all levels including the windows and decorative openings in the pediments. According to the National Park Service, “the cast-iron galleries and ornament are reputed to be the first of a New Orleans tradition.” Without this great example of cast iron to emulate, the French Quarter would look very different indeed.
James Gallier has been long credited as being the main architect of these buildings but it has recently been acknowledged that Henry Howard also had a large role in the design. The largest role of course was that of Micaela Almonester who was very involved in the planning and execution of these now famous landmarks. These buildings directly led to the rebirth of the city center in the Old Square as renovations of the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral, and Presbytère soon followed. Jackson Square’s conversion from a muddy military drill space to the beautiful garden visitors see today was also inspired by her efforts to beautify the area.
In 1851, Micaela left New Orleans to return to France, to take care of her husband, who was in poor health. She died in 1874, at the age of 79. No other woman in New Orleans history has made such a lasting mark in the city. Happy Birthday Micaela!