New Orleans Architecture Tours

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Favorite Building Friday – Merchants Mutual Insurance Building

This week we head to Canal Street, the great dividing line between the French Quarter and the Central Business District to learn more about the Merchants Mutual Insurance Building, located between St. Charles and Camp Streets.

This three and a half story building was designed by William Freret, who was a native New Orleanian and designed many residential buildings in the wealthy Garden District, such as the New Orleans Women’s Guild House and a collection of speculation houses known as “Freret’s Folly”.

Illustration from Jewell’s Crescent City (1873).

The brick building’s façade is made almost completely out of cast iron, with all three levels containing different styles of columns. The ground floor originally had what appears to be fluted Corinthian columns. Above, in the second story, there are columns that appear to be shaped like thick spirals, and decorating the third story we have another set of Corinthian capped columns which are unique in that they are carved with horizontal decorations. In keeping with the Italianate style of the period, the windows are arched. Bull’s eye windows pierce the top story, and are decorated with cast iron railings. At the top of the building, the parapet contains the symbols of the insurance company such as an anchor, cotton bales, a fire hose, boat sails, and the roof of a house. Incredibly, it would appear these details are still up there.

Construction of this building began in 1859, and mention of its progress is noted in the Daily Picayune in the June 25th Issue. The first main point that is raised in the article is that the cast iron for the façade is made locally, at the Bennet and Lurges’ foundry. The article goes on to state that “we need not go elsewhere to get iron work of the most elaborate description and finish made.” And of course at this time they were right, New Orleans had quite a few foundries that were turning out top notch ironworks.

It is apparent that the unusual design of the façade was the talk of the town as the Picayune continues, with caution to be patient before speaking out about the building:

The “mixed style” of the building has been a subject for criticism, and we have heard remarks made, especially concerning the second story, which are made in the shape of a plain round column, with a rope twisted around it, giving the profile and undulating instead of straight appearance. It is difficult to judge of a building before it is completed; when the whole work is put up, the tout ensemble is more striking and we can form a correct opinion. We cannot see the reason which should bind an architect to follow strictly the rules of such or such an order of architecture, because it is established since times immemorial, more than that which would compel us to wear coats of a certain cut or hats of a certain shape, because our ancestors wore thus. What would have become of the thousands of improvements of every description, which have been bequeathed to us by modern invention, if such a reasoning had been adopted and why should the rule, inapplicable to any other art, be adapted to Architecture alone? We are a new people and there is scarcely an instrument invented in Europe, that we have not improved, or better, in most instances we have had to create so as to supply our wants. And why should we not create a new order of architecture. Admitting that churches, public edifices, should be constructed according to the time-honored rules of the art, they cannot well be applied to the construction of stores, covering streets after streets. The five orders of architecture were not invented or adopted at the same time; even the first in date was an innovation and an improvement; they were successfully adopted because they pleased the eye; and such is the rule by which our American architects may safely be guided. Let fault finders sneer, and build according to your judgment and fancy; if you have taste, if you have genius, the public will find it out in spite of all sarcastic theorists. It is not by copying that great masters have become famous, invent and you will create a new school.

One is glad that the architect did not hear the public grumbling and modify his plans to something safer, more ordinary. Or perhaps their resolve was cemented by support from the newspaper article.  In any event, it is these “undulating” spiraling columns that attracted me to this building in the first place. It is truly magnificent in its uniqueness.

 

Photo taken by author.

Sources consulted:

  • Christovich, Mary Louise., Samuel Wilson, Bernard Lemann, and Betsy Swanson. New Orleans Architecture, Volume II: the American Sector (Faubourg St. Mary) ; Howard Avenue to Iberville Street, Mississippi River to Claiborne Avenue. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1998.
  • “The City.” Daily Picayune (New Orleans), September 25, 1859. Accessed August 30, 2017. http://nolalibrary.org/.

 

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